1861: Whitby lifeboat disaster

During a huge storm on 9 February 1861, a Whitby lifeboat capsized, throwing the crew overboard. Only one member of the crew, Henry Freeman, survived.  
Portrait of Whitby Coxswain Henry Freeman, sole survivor of the Whitby lifeboat disaster of 1861 thanks to a cork lifejacket
Portrait of Whitby Coxswain Henry Freeman, sole survivor of the Whitby lifeboat disaster of 1861 thanks to a cork lifejacket

On 9 February 1861, a great storm wrecked more than 200 ships on the east coast. The Whitby lifeboat crew launched five times to rescue stricken vessels, but on their sixth launch, tragedy struck.

A freak wave hit the lifeboat, which capsized and all but one of the crew were lost. The sole survivor of this tragedy was Henry Freeman, who survived because he was wearing a new design of cork lifejacket.

Henry was awarded an RNLI Silver Medal for the courage and determination he displayed that day, and later become the Whitby RNLI Coxswain for more than 20 years, helping to save over 300 lives in that time.

9 February 1961

The people of Whitby awoke to a terrible gale on the morning of 9 February 1861. By 8.30am, the lifeboat crew had launched their first rescue, successfully saving the crew of the John and Ann.

Not long after they returned, they were called out again to assist a schooner, Gamma, who had run aground. After their second successful rescue, the crew celebrated with a glass of grog at the station.

At 11.30am, the Clara was seen heading for shore, close to the wreck of the Gamma. The lifeboat crew rowed out to rescue the crew, and the ship broke up shortly after they left the scene. The crew each had another drink back at the station, feeling tired and hungry from their exhausting morning.

Two more vessels were spotted coming ashore, Utility and Roe. Once more, the lifeboat crew rowed out to save both crews. Spectators began to gather onshore to cheer the lifeboat crew. They returned at midday and took their third glass of grog.

By 2pm, the violent gales were still at full force. Harbourmaster Mr Tose and Coxswain John Storr decided that if more vessels came in, they would not respond - the lifeboat would be of little use at a high tide. Shortly afterwards, the Flora and the Merchant were spotted in trouble. The Flora successfully glided into the harbour, but the Merchant ran ashore.

Although they’d agreed not to respond, the Whitby lifeboat crew couldn’t stand by and watch the Merchant sink. As they manoeuvred towards the stricken collier, a powerful wave caught the stern of the lifeboat, capsizing it and throwing the crew overboard.

A huge crowd watched helplessly from shore as the crew struggled in the fierce sea. Sadly, all but one of the crew drowned.

The sole survivor was Henry Freeman, who was on his first call out. His life was saved by the new design of cork lifejacket he wore, donated by the RNLI.

The cork lifejacket had been met with some resistance by the crew, who preferred their tried and trusted belts filled with ballast. Had they been wearing cork lifejackets, it’s likely they would have survived.

Henry Freeman

Whitby Coxswain Henry Freeman displaying his gallantry medal
Whitby Coxswain Henry Freeman displaying his gallantry medal

Henry Freeman was born 29 April 1835 in Bridlington, Yorkshire. He moved to Whitby in 1855 to become a fisherman and joined the local lifeboat crew.

After the 1861 Whitby tragedy, Henry was awarded an RNLI Silver Medal for his bravery.

On 28 October 1880, a huge storm similar to the one which caused the 1861 lifeboat disaster affected the north-east coast. Henry was involved in four rescues that day, for which the RNLI awarded him a silver clasp for his medal.

Henry became the Whitby RNLI Coxswain for over 20 years and helped to save over 300 lives in that time. He died in 1904, but his legacy lives on as one of Whitby’s most renowned lifeboat crew members.

Whitby’s lifesaving history, including Henry’s story, is preserved and celebrated at the RNLI Whitby Museum.