Lifeboats – Lyme Regis & Cornish Pilot Gigs

Sea rowing has been very much part of the seafaring history of Lyme Regis since the earliest of times. Fishermen, pilots, merchantmen, smugglers, lifeboatmen all rowed and sailed till the coming of the engine. In breathing life into sea rowing, Lyme Regis Gig Club is returning a missing thread, linking today to the town’s maritime past.

Lyme Regis has an often overlooked role in the development of lifeboats for it was here that Sir Richard Spencer, after the great storm of 1824, carried out early experiments in early 1825 for a buoyant and self-righting lifeboat, for which he used an adapted pilot boat, with copper buoyancy tanks fitted. The organisation that we now know as the RNLI (since 1854) was pleased tith Spencer’s experiments and in 1826 brought the saving of life at sea under it’s auspices.

Sir Richard Spencer (1779-1839) was a sea captain of the Royal Navy who served in a number of battles, particularly against the French. He bought a house in Lyme Regis in 1817, which was situated on the Exeter road, overlooking the Cobb and his work on lifeboats was no doubt stimulated by fears for the safety of shipping on Lyme Bay’s treacherous coast. Later in life he settled in Albany, Western Australia and was appointed Government Resident in 1833.

Only two years after the foundation of the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck in 1824, Lyme Regis was fully recognised as a town that needed a lifeboat.

This need was highlighted in the November of 1824 when, during a tremendous storm, the lives of the crew of the barque ‘Unity’ were saved by local men at Black Ven east of the town. The actions of three of the rescuers, Captain C Bennet, William Porter and John Freeman gained recognition in the awarding of a gold medal and two silver medals respectively. These were some of the first RNLI medals to be awarded.

From 1826 to 1852 the station was served by two locally converted vessels, but no records exist to their names. It was on boxing day 1852 that stimulated the need for a purpose built lifeboat when four of the five lifeboatmen perished when their vessel capsized in wild seas on service to the barque ‘Heroine‘ carrying emigrants bound for Australia. The Heroine was a vessel of 250 tons built in 1848 and bound from London to Port Philip, approximately 80 passengers and crew reached safely before she broke up.

The following years saw two ‘Peake Plan’ lifeboats at the town and in 1866 the first named lifeboat, the ‘William Woodcock‘ was placed on station. The 33ft ‘William Woodcock’ carried out seven services and was replaced in 1891 by the ‘Susan Ashley‘ and then by the ‘Masterman Hardy‘ in 1915. In all, the five named sailing and rowing lifeboats carried out 32 call-outs before the station was closed in 1932, as motorised lifeboats from Exmouth and Weymouth were believed to be able to cover the area.

To the west, Cornish Pilot Gigs were often used also as lifeboats because they were fast and easy to launch and could row straight out into a headwind. With a strong crew a gig can stay stable in rough sea conditions but they could capsize if the weather deteriorated or they were caught in a sudden squall. There are hundreds of records of death by drowning in gigs on rescue missions to or from shipwrecks – these brave men often leaving behind widows and children.

Although the risks were great, these gallant crews were often generously rewarded by those they helped. In 1861 Gigs from Bryher on the Isles of Scilly that helped rescue crew and passengers from an American ship were awarded £100 in gold US dollars. £36 was used to commission building the gig Golden Eagle named after the bird of prey on the back of the coins.