Henry Freeman is a famous name in Whitby Lifeboat history. He was the sole survivor of the 1861 Lifeboat disaster. It all began on the morning of February 9th 1861. The people of Whitby woke up to a fierce gale which was equal in violence to anything seen for many years. There were many vessels on the coast and those who could judge saw a dark day ahead. Conditions were just right to bring a succession of vessels onto the Whitby shore(a east-north-east).
The first rescue came very early. Henry went off at 8-30 in the morning along with others (Robert Leadley, John Storr, George Martin, William Tyreman, William Dryden and John Dixon) in a small coble. They had spotted a vessel in distress. The crew of the 'John and Ann' of Sunderland were saved near Sandsend.
The rescue did not have time to settle when the Lifeboat was called out at 10am. All the men from the coble bar one stepped into the Lifeboat (William Dryden had never been in a Lifeboat before). The schooner Gamma of Newcastle was driven ashore about 300 to 400 yards from the Pier. The Lifeboat crew rowed out for the vessel and came back to a glass of grog.
But again the Lifeboatmen had little time to settle because at 11-30 a Prussian Barque was seen heading for the shore. The Clara of Memel came ashore a little to the north of the Gamma. They again took all the crew off. There was a short delay as there was a mix up about one of the Barques crew members. They were not sure about the whereabouts of one man who was already on the Lifeboat. But as soon as they realized that all had been saved they left the scene watching the vessel break up shortly afterwards.
Again the rescue party came back, placed the Lifeboat onto its carriage and took a glass of grog. Henry Freeman said at the inquest that they had not eaten since breakfast and were very tired by the mornings exertions. Yet two more vessels were spotted coming ashore. The brig 'Utility' was and the schooner 'Roe' were both coming ashore near the coastguard station. The Lifeboatmen again rowed out to save the crews "amid the hearty congratulations of the immense concourse of spectators".
This was at 12 noon. The crew again had another glass of grog. Yet the storms were relentless and at 2pm both the 'Flora' of London and the 'Merchant' were seen in trouble. Mr Tose, the Harbour Master and John Storr, the Lifeboat coxswain, had agreed that if more came then they would not respond. The Lifeboat would be of little use at high tide. The Lifeboatmen had had done as much as anyone could have expected that day already.
Mr Tose, the Harbour master, knew this and gave the two vessels "every encouragement to make for the harbour and this they did. The Flora came in beautifully but went into Colliers Hope". The Merchants main mast gave way and she came ashore near the Roe.
Yet when it came to it they simply could not watch as their fellow seamen were in danger. They set out again - and began to manouvre in order to avoid the Roe which was already ashore.
Then "A tremendous cross sea, passing on each side,caught the boat at the strern of the vessel,turning her completely over towards the pier, and threw all her gallant crew into the foaming billows. John Storr succeeded in getting upon the bottom of the boat, and others were floating about with their lifebelts on, struggling for their lives".
Although John Storr managed to climb onto the overturned boat he was exhausted and "was obliged to yield and perished".
One man could not watch from the shore and tied a rope to himself and stepped into the water to try to save those struggling. He was unable to reach anyone and he himself would have died if the rope had not been pulled in.
Eventually the stricken lifeboat was driven onto the shore. Men jumped onto it punching holes in it knowing men were underneath(Tyreman and Dobson). Eventually it was turned over attempts were made to resuscitate one of the men who showed signs of life.
Captain Butler fired a rocket in the direction of the men. But this did nothing to help then drowning men "some of whose wives and children were amongst the weeping shrieking multitude".
Meanwhile the stricken Merchant was not forgotten. The Rocket Apparatus was used and one by one each crew member was transported to the pier via the line. The Whitby Gazette commented that "to most of the spectators this was a novel and beautiful sight". Shortly after the rescue the vessel broke up.
The sole survivor was Henry Freeman. He alone wore a cork Lifejacket. All the en had these available but they choose to use a different lifejacket. Captain Butler of the Coastguard commented that the lifejackets on the other men hung too low on their bodies. If they had worn a similar lifejacket to Henry Freeman then they too would have been saved.
The Lifeboatmen were tired and hungry and had taken three glasses of grog. The Lifeboat went over so quick that nothing could have prevented it. If it had been a self writing boat then it may have recovered.
The men to die on the Lifeboat were:
- John Storr : The Coxswain who left a widow and 1 child(aged 16 years old).
- John Dixon : Who left a widow and 8 children.
- Robert Leadley : Who left a widow and 7 children.
- Robert Harland : Who left a widow and 6 children.
- William Walker : Who left a widow and 5 children.
- Isaac Dobson : Who left a widow and 6 children.
- John Philpot: Who left a widow and 5 children.
- William Storr: Who was bringing up 3 children since his wife died.
- William Tyreman: Who left a widow and 2 children.
- Matthew Leadley: Who left a widow and 2 children.
- George Martin: Who left a widow and a 1 month old baby.
- Christopher Collins: Who was single.
And still more boats needed rescuing : The people of Whitby had already had enough rescues to deal and they had lost their Lifeboat yet still the storm was driving vessels onto the shore. The Brig "Urina" from Sunderland came ashore. Its main mast went down and the rocket apparatus was used. A line was attached yet the men choose to stay on board and wait for the tide to go out. The boat was positioned with her head to the sea and so they felt safe enough to wait. They later came off safely.
Then at 8pm the Brig "Tribune" of Brixham came ashore. The rocket was tried but failed to reach her. The cries of the poor men could be distinctly heard on the pier and the sand. So the old Lifeboat was brought up. This was an immensely lengthy process as it was on the riverbank. They had to launch it into the river and row it across. Then they lifted it up by crane to the Scotch Head. It was then placed upon a carriage and taken to the beach.
This boat had not been in use since eight or nine men drowned on it nine years previously. Lifeboats which have a history of drowned crew members are never popular.
The Lifeboat was crewed by a mixture of master mariners, seamen and volunteers. They were:-
At 11pm the boat was launched and rescued the crew of the "Tribune". They had been onshore for sometime when they discovered that James Allen, of Cowes, had been left behind, being "insensible from cold".
On Sunday morning the Brig Memnon of Shields came ashore. She had cut away her anchors and come went ashore at 7am. The old Lifeboat was taken ouit again with virtually a new crew (except for Walker). The crew of the brig were rescued.
All the vessels had broken up except the "John and Jane", "Gamma" and "The Utility".
All that remained was to bury the dead. As the tide had fallen the bodies of William Walker, William Storr and George Martin were found and carried to their sorrowful widows. A large funeral attended Robert Leadley. When five of the drowned Lifeboat men were buried together a huge crowd watched. The Church was full and hundreds remained in the churchyard.
Tributes were paid to the men lost. John Storr was described as a "fine steady man, worthy of the confidence and respect which he had gained amongst his brother fishermen". The Whitby Gazette also paid tribute to the Leadleys who were "ever amongst the first to venture their lives to save others".
Meanwhile, the legend that surrounds Henry Freeman was born. A lifejacket similar to the one he wore which saved his life was proudly exhibited at the offices of the Whitby Gazette. He was to become a famous Lifeboatman. But just then he was merely a young man who had been brave enough or daft enough to jump into the Lifeboat to save his fellow seamen. He was just a young lad and the main crew members were lost were fine seamen.
Henry Freemans fame was partly spread by the photographer Frank Sutcliffe who was perhaps the greatest photographer of his time capturing the life and times of Whitby so long ago. Henry Freeman proudly wore his cork lifejacket and posed for the great photographer. Today his photo is easy to spot around Whitby. Henry Freeman was a brave man like many other Lifeboatmen. Many others came before him and were just as brave and perhaps more so. Yet their images have not survived the passage of time. There stories were not captured in newspapers. Their bravery simply forgotten.
- Whitby Gazette 1861