RNLI 200: Recalling a stormy evening for Staithes and Runswick which led to death of crew member - while cork lifejackets saved others

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
In the latest of a series of articles Staithes and Runswick RNLI has written to mark the institution’s 200th anniversary, a stormy evening lifeboat launch is recalled which led to the branch’s first crew tragedy.

A fateful launch of the RNLI lifeboat at Staithes on November 27, 1888 resulted in the loss of one crew member, a disaster that could have been worse were it not for the provision of cork lifejackets.

A fierce south-easterly gale whipped up mountainous seas on the coast.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

With most of the Staithes lifeboatmen at sea (including the Coxswain and Second Coxswain), indeed the Staithes men’s cobles finding it extremely difficult to return to the village.

Illustration of a similar lifeboat to the Winnefride Mary Hopps ‘shipping a sea’ taken from an 1888 lifeboat journal.Illustration of a similar lifeboat to the Winnefride Mary Hopps ‘shipping a sea’ taken from an 1888 lifeboat journal.
Illustration of a similar lifeboat to the Winnefride Mary Hopps ‘shipping a sea’ taken from an 1888 lifeboat journal.

Retired Coxswain Joe Ben Verrill pulled together a crew from the remaining villagers, and the Winefride Mary Hopps launched at 2.30pm for its first service launch.

Nearly 40 cobles were assisted home to Staithes with the normal lifeboat crew replacing the scratch crew assembled, despite some of them having already battled the elements in their own boats.

At around 5pm it was discovered that a coble was missing.

The lifeboat was relaunched with the crew of Coxswain Charles Horne, Second Coxswain Robert Ward, Thomas Cole, Ralph Cole, William Verrill, Joseph Verrill, James Theaker, Thomas Theaker, Matthew (Mattie) Theaker, William Brown Harrison, John Crooks, and Richard Porritt.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
From the May 1888 lifeboat journal. A description of the cork lifejacket used by the RNLI in the late 1800s.Picture: RNLIFrom the May 1888 lifeboat journal. A description of the cork lifejacket used by the RNLI in the late 1800s.Picture: RNLI
From the May 1888 lifeboat journal. A description of the cork lifejacket used by the RNLI in the late 1800s.Picture: RNLI

It would have been pitch-black at this point and in the unabating storm the lifeboat made difficult progress from Staithes.

Driven back three times, the lifeboat finally fought its way through the breaking waves.

The coble's crew of three were rescued, and the lifeboat began making its way back to Staithes.

A correspondent for the Leeds Mercury reached Staithes on the evening of November 28, 1888, he visited Coxswain Charles Horne at his home, still suffering from shock and from his time in the cold North Sea.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In his own words: "We put off in the lifeboat to a fishing coble called the James and John, which was in distress about 600 yards to sea from the beach.”

The crew of the coble, Thomas Cole, Isaac Unthank and William Verrill, didn’t risk an attempt to put to shore and were taken off the coble by the lifeboat crew.

The lifeboat crew put the coble to anchor and then rowed for shore.

He continued: "As we were coming in we were struck by a heavy sea on the stern which turned the lifeboat end over end.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Horne was the first man to be pitched out of the lifeboat as he was at the stern. In the water he noted just how dark it was, he could see no stars.

The boat had righted itself; he saw four men in the boat, and others swimming around her. Exhausted, he swam to shore, being assisted by two men on ‘North Steele’. Horne told the reporter owes the preservation of his life to his cork lifejacket.

The correspondent notes that Horne saw this service as nothing more than what falls into the normal line of duty.

Horne, Mattie Theaker and John Crooks made for shore, Crooks didn’t make it and his body was recovered the following morning. At Crooks’ inquest, held at the White Horse Inn on Church Street in Staithes, it was concluded that whilst his cork lifejacket had saved him from drowning, in the adverse weather conditions he was dashed against the rocks and passed away. Crooks became the first of Staithes’ RNLI crew to die in active service.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Those remaining on, and those having made their way back onboard the Winefride Mary Hopps, had little control of the lifeboat.

They dropped anchor near Runswick Bay and eventually were sighted by the Ethel a steamer from Stockton on Tees.

Finding the lifeboat, the Ethel’s Captain, Henry Wittington found the men to be ‘in a most exhausted state’. The lifeboat was put under tow and Captain Wittington turned the boats head back toward Middlesbrough.

James Stoker, Lifeboat Press Officer, said: “In 1888, retired lifeboatmen and villagers rallied to crew and launch the lifeboat.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"Though this doesn’t align with current modern practices, it still shows the solidarity of seafarers.”

In the immediate term after the tragic shout in November 1888, telegraphs were sent to Staithes, where villagers feared the men lost. The lifeboatmen, and the three fishermen, left Middlesbrough Railway Station for Staithes at about 9.30am, a correspondent from the Loftus Advertiser joined the train with the lifeboat crew from Loftus to Staithes, he notes that he ‘actually wrung the water out of the trousers and jerseys’ of his carriage companions.

Their arrival back in the village was an occasion that the village had seldom seen.

The celebration however was marked with sadness, the Leeds Mercury’s correspondent’s attention was drawn by an elderly fisherman he’d encountered in the Verrill household, to a window with curtains drawn and the light of a flickering candle burning radiating.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Within the body of John Crooks, a man who’d ‘yielded up his life in the endeavour to save another’ lay at rest.

In a contrast to the Whitby Lifeboat Disaster of February 9, 1861, where Henry Freeman was the only survivor due to him wearing a cork lifejacket in this tragedy, though resulting in the loss of one crew member, the rest of the Staithes crew were saved by and large by their cork lifejackets and eventually by the crew of another vessel.

David Scott, Area Lifesaving Manager for the RNLI said: “While this 1888 tragedy for the village of Staithes was the first death on active service for the station, the advent of the cork lifejacket meant that this event had the opposite outcome to the Whitby lifeboat tragedy, where all but one of the crew survived.

“Because of the generous donations to the RNLI by our supporters, we are able to equip our crews with the very best protective equipment and lifejackets, meaning our volunteer crews can continue to save lives at sea."