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Sunday, 21 November 2010

Missionaries of the Sea: Frightful Life-boat Catastrophe at Whitby, 1861

I came across this article in the London Journal from March 1861, a rather dramatic, passionate and ultimately tragic and proud article about lifeboats and the volunteers that man them.

The article presents a question that I believe is still valid today, in the wake of recent strikes.

The article:

The most frightful storms have lately visited the shores of these islands, indeed, any more dreadful or destructive since that of 1839 – when a hurricane swept over sea and land with awful devastation – we do not at present remember. The horrors of the recent ones made the very blood turn cold; for, omitting all considerations of wealth buried for ever in the bosom of the sea, and consequent monetary embarrassments, the sad and great loss of life has caused weeping and wailing in homesteads spread over the whole land.
And when we reflect on the fact, that annually above two thousand lives are lost on our shores, we must leave it to the imaginations of our readers how terrible must be the increase when storms after storms come howling in rapid succession, as if rejoicing at having burst their ice-bands in the north.
It may help us to a conception of the reality of these visitations – apparently periodical – that the present rate of loss of life by shipwreck in half a century, voracious Neptune devours a hundred thousand British subjects.

No wonder, then, that all maritime peoples fear storms, but the greater wonder should be that they should not have long ago combined for the adoption of means of alleviating their severity, of providing against their recurrence by precautionary and preservative means.
In these days speed is almost a mania in every department of business. We must rattle over the land, sweep and skim over the waves, talk to each other by lightning. As to navigation, it is become quite fashion to race over oceans, and from port to port; and, as our ships are not now built half so strong as formerly, science and humanity have stepped forward to suggest various measures for the safety and protection of life and property.

Modern navigation owes everything to science, and humanity has nobly assisted in its development. Lighthouses became earthly stars to guide the mariner in his course, then harbours of refuge and breakwaters were formed to afford him a welcome shelter; lastly, lifeboats were constructed to rescue him from death howling in the wild waste of waters around him.
The best form in which these boats can be built has not yet been determined. Boats that have done good service for years and new ones have succumbed to the combined fury of wild wind and wave. This was the case during one of the late gales.

Off the Yorkshire coast the gale was terrific. The Whitby district was the scene of serious calamities. The gale being from the north-east, there was no chance for any craft to avoid the iron-bound coast, and no harbour of refuge being in existence, the loss of life and property has been most appalling. Seven ships were driven on shore at Whitby, and three of them almost immediately broke up.
The new lifeboat was launched and succeeded in saving all the crews. When proceeding on their fifth errand of mercy, a violent sea caught the lifeboat, which was capsized, and twelve of her brave crew perished within twenty yards of the shore, where thousands were assembled, unable to render the slightest succour.
It should be stated that the lifeboat was not one of those belonging to the National Lifeboat Association.

Comment on this awful catastrophe would be painfully superfluous. It speaks for itself in mightier language than can flow from the pen. Those twelve brave men were truly missionaries of the sea; and when it is considered that their services were voluntary, and, if they had survived, would have been ill-rewarded, their bravery was the more conspicuous, we might add – sublime.
The subsidiary portion of the distressing part of the affair is that the twelve heroes have left wives and families to suffer and lament over them. But here, as in the case of the establishment of lifeboats, the voluntary principle comes again into play, and the English hearts have opened their purses with Christian alacrity.

By the time this article is published, more than a thousand pounds will have been subscribed for the relief of the widows and orphans of the Whitby calamity. This is highly characteristic of our great and benevolent nation; but it may seriously be asked, whether it is expedient to leave such grave matters to the voluntary principle, which is purely emotional. Would the voluntary principle maintain the Royal Navy or the Army? Is the saving of life a duty below the dignity of the Legislature? We have much to learn in such matters. Our self-complacency about them is only disturbed when sad and powerful appeals are made to our sympathies.
                                                      - The London Journal, Week Ending March 16, 1861

149 years later, the lifeboat service in Britain, now called the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, is still voluntary.

To see the RNLI website, where you can make a donation to the cause, click here:

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