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Forgotten heroes: the lifeboat men of Brancaster

17 May 2017

There’s an old wooden RNLI service board hanging in St Mary’s Church, Brancaster. It lists the rescues made by the Brancaster lifeboat, a surviving relic of a time when the village boasted a lifeboat and brave crew to match. Thirty-two times the boat was launched, 34 lives were saved. Alan Tutt finds out more

 The rain lashes hard against the kitchen window; upstairs the tiles ripple with the force of a stiff nor’ easterly. A storm rages full on and I imagine just what it would have been like 100 or so years ago to hear that a ship is in trouble, off the Norfolk coast, that the lifeboat must be launched. It would need a team of horses to get it to the shoreline, a fearless coxswain and crew to row the boat through the broiling surf to reach the sinking ship and its terrified sailors often clinging to the rigging.

The North Norfolk coast looks beautiful and benign on a hot summer’s day, but it can be a treacherous zone for ships. Shifting sands, hidden reefs and old wrecks; foul winds and shingle shoals; strong sucking undercurrents and dense fog – all are there to catch out the unwary mariner. And it is to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution that the imperilled turn in their hour of need.

Brancaster lifeboat station is one of the forgotten ones. It was founded in 1874, mainly due to the perseverance of two men: the Reverend Kerslake, vicar of Burnham Deepdale, and Mr Dewing, a local shipping merchant.

Two years earlier, two ships had been wrecked at Brancaster: the Alexandra of Caen a French schooner carrying wheat, grounded on Scolt Head Island and an Italian barque or three-masted sailing ship, marooned on the Bridgirdle sand bar.

Local fishermen from Brancaster Staithe, observing the nautical code of comradeship, reached the Italian sailors on the sands – they had already built a cross from driftwood, in thanks for their deliverance.

There were RNLI lifeboats at Hunstanton and Wells-next-the-Sea, but neither, of course, had engines; they were man-powered by oar or, if weather permitted, sail. But it was proving too far and too late for either to get as far as Brancaster, nestling between the two towns.

Alfred S Genth launching on exercise in 1898 with coxswain Robert Loose

So, after dutiful RNLI inspection a lifeboat was ordered for Brancaster; a standard self-righter, 33 feet long. She would be called the Joseph and Mary. With generous donations, there would be a boat launching carriage and lifeboat station. There was little difficulty getting volunteers to make up the 13-man crew: ten oarsmen, bowman, first and second coxswain. Thomas Lane, a Brancaster Staithe fisherman, became the first coxswain and throughout the station’s life all the crew were locals.

The Brancaster lifeboat made its debut launch on 23 July 1875 with a practice run. The village was rightly proud, bedecking its streets with flags, bunting and evergreens. A local farmer provided a team of eight horses to get it to the beach.

That year alone, the Joseph and Mary made three vital rescues: the Lucy of Antwerp, a Finnish brig, Cuba, and the Morma from Grimstadt in Norway. Many more followed, all painted onto that service board now on the church wall.
Four years later, the Joseph and Mary was renamed the Lily Bird, the result of a generous gift by one Samuel Bird, early sponsorship if you will. The rescues continued: the Norwegian Lydia, another barque, the Margaret of Christiana and the German brig Felix. From the latter, only the captain survived, lashed to the mainmast. The rest perished. One, a 16 year old is buried at Thornham. To put into perspective the risks of the volunteer lifeboat men, in 1880 the Wells lifeboat Eliza Adams capsized. Eleven of the 13 crew drowned, a massive blow to that community.

Alfred S Genth returning to the boathouse, circa 1905

Much of this information I have gleaned from reading Michael Softley’s The Brancaster Lifeboat Station 1874-1935 – now out of print – and chatting to the man himself.

Michael is a fount of knowledge. Indeed, his grandfather, William T Softley was Brancaster’s second coxswain from 1919 to 1935. It was this lifeboat man’s long service certificate, framed on a cottage wall, and seen by Michael, that set him off on his journey to uncover all he could about this largely forgotten piece of local history. Facts and folk memories, photographs, anecdote and reminiscence, all were grist to Michael’s mill.

Brancaster lifeboat Alfred S Genth on her naming day 11 January 1893 with coxswain Thomas Lane

It was Michael, via the good service of Joe Powell, we have to thank for the survival of the board in St Mary’s. Salvaged by tractor driver, Joe, from the dilapidated boathouse when it was finally pulled down in 1933, Michael later found it discarded and requested the big heavy wooden memorial be housed in the church.

Michael’s grandfather served under first coxswain, William ‘Billy’ Henry Loose, in charge of the boat for 27 years. Billy followed another Loose as cox, his father Robert Ellard, who served for ten years after Thomas Lane retired in 1898.

On Lane’s watch in 1892 Brancaster gained its second lifeboat, the Lily Bird being replaced by the Alfred S Genth. Over the years, the launches continued to tot up; for the Mogador of Liverpool, German schooner Rensche, the barge, Ruby of London, the Hull sailing trawler, Silver King, the ketch, John Lee, another ketch Eliza Patience, an Italian barque Maria di Porto Salvo, the Billyboy Brilliant of Goole. The list goes on.

When Robert Loose retired he too was awarded a long service certificate. It was said in his entire near 30 years lifeboat service he never missed a launch, practice or service.
On Billy Loose’s watch Brancaster gained its third and final lifeboat, the Winlaton in 1916. Later there was a Clayton tractor to haul it into position. Three years on, during a practice launch, she rescued the sinking Wells whelk boat, Anoi, another Loose, Harry, helping the fishing boat into Brancaster Staithe.

Lifeboat rescue is in the blood. In 1929, Coxwain Loose, essentially off-duty in his own fishing boat, Amity, saved two men from their sinking vessel after it had struck a submerged wreck, believed to be the Carrington. Amity almost made it to Dunkirk in 1940 for the evacuation, getting as far as Ramsgate, before being deemed too cumbersome.

Winlaton on the beach at Brancaster about 1928. In the lifeboat is second coxswain William T Softley with his youngest son William. Tractor driver J Powell

Time marches on, and in 1935 the RNLI commissioned a motor-driven lifeboat for Wells. At a stroke it made the Brancaster lifeboat and crew redundant, a death knell for the boat and a poignant day for Brancaster. Sixty-one years of lifeboat life were over.

Long service certificates were awarded to coxswain, Billy Loose, his brother bowman, Little Bob, crew, Horace Billing, William Howell, Alfred Large and second cox, William Softley. Winlaton was sold for £50.

The grandsons, great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons of several of these brave men still fish out of Brancaster. Long may it continue.

With thanks to Michael Softley for allowing us to use these images