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The legacy of the Aldeburgh acorns: How one lifeboatman's superstition lives on

Legend has it that carrying acorns will bring you good luck and longevity, just like the age-old mighty oak tree from which they are borne. Nowhere has belief in this superstition been so strong than at Aldeburgh Lifeboat Station in Suffolk.

The legacy of the Aldeburgh acorns: How one lifeboatman's superstition lives on

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

For 117 years, it's been ingrained in the hearts and minds of the crew and local community. It has become embedded in the fabric of the station. And it has fuelled the station's lifeboats.

Because for one Aldeburgh lifeboatman, the legend came true.

7 December 1899: A day of loss and luck

Augustus Mann and his brother, Dan, were among the 18 crew members onboard Aldeburgh’s Norfolk and Suffolk class lifeboat, the Aldeburgh, when she launched into a raging gale and extremely heavy seas on 7 December 1899.

With its shoals and sandbanks, Aldeburgh's coastline was notoriously treacherous for shipping and on this day, a ship had run aground on Shipwash Sands.

Leading the crew that day was former Coxswain Charles Edward Ward. Coxswain James Cable - one of Aldeburgh’s most celebrated lifeboatmen - and Second Coxswain William Mann, Augustus’s uncle, both had flu and had been forbidden to join the crew by the doctor.

The lifeboat crew were doing a sterling job battling against the ferocious onshore wind, which was churning up the sea into a seething mass.

But the Aldeburgh’s broadside was taking a pounding by the relentless waves. And as she was crossing the inner shoal, she was savagely struck by two huge waves in quick succession, causing her to capsize and hurling the crew into the tumultuous waters.

‘The waves rolled us up like so many sacks’

Coxswain Charles Ward was one of the first washed ashore. Recounting the horrifying moment when the lifeboat capsized, he said:

‘A very heavy sea caught her from stem to stern. We were right under it. The boat was filled, and was forced over on the starboard side.

‘Then another very heavy sea struck us, and the boat went over steadily.

‘The boat could not right herself. I got clear of her, and when I could see round there seemed so many of us afloat that I thought all the men had got clear.

‘We were about 150 yards from shore and could all swim. I said to one man, “Don’t muddle yourself; we shall get ashore all right,” but as we got on the beach the waves rolled us up like so many sacks.’

A stark realisation

The backwash made it extremely difficult for the crew to reach the shore and, selflessly, Charles repeatedly went back into the heavy surf to drag his comrades to safety.

By this time, a crowd had gathered on the beach and were helping with the rescue effort.

The Aldeburgh did not sink. Instead she was driven bottom upwards onto the shore. Only then came the stark realisation that six of the crew were missing, feared trapped underneath the boat.

Frantically, work began to try and free the crew. But with the Aldeburgh weighing over 13 tonnes and measuring 14m in length, it was a gruelling task.

The team of volunteers tried to cut a hole in the lifeboat’s upturned hull, but this proved fruitless. Chopping into her stout timber was arduous, hampered by the sea constantly breaking over the boat as the tide rose. At times, people were dangerously up to their necks in water.

It was only when the tide began to go down at 3pm, 3½ hours after the lifeboat had capsized, that the volunteers were able to partially raise the lifeboat using heavy spars - the long poles used for launching the lifeboat - as levers and screw jacks.

At the same time, they dug out the shingle on one side of the lifeboat and finally reached the crew members. But it was too late.

Those lost that day were:

John Butcher aged 52

Charles Crisp aged 51

Thomas Morris aged 36

Walter George Ward aged 33

Herbert William Downing aged 23

James Miller Ward aged 21.

Allan Arthur Easter never recovered from his injuries and died on 24 March 1900 aged 28.

Fitting tributes

The tragedy stunned the entire Aldeburgh community and remains one of the worst in RNLI history.

The community rallied round to raise a relief fund to help the families of the crew left bereft. In tribute to the lives of their loved ones, a marble monument was placed in the churchyard of Aldeburgh Parish Church where the seven lifeboatmen were laid to rest.

And a magnificent copper memorial tablet was placed inside the church, serving as a permanent reminder of the Aldeburgh men who so selflessly gave their lives trying to save others.

For his bravery and dogged determination in rescuing two of his comrades, Charles Ward was awarded a Silver Medal by the RNLI in 1900 - his second Silver Medal for Gallantry.

A lucky escape

The 11 survivors were lucky to escape with their lives that day.

But none no more so than Augustus Mann, who believed his lucky escape was down to the three acorns he carried in his pocket for good luck.

Augustus’s brother Dan also survived the disaster.

Remembering the moment the Aldeburgh capsized, Augustus said:

‘I had hold of the mizzen-sheet when the big wave struck the boat, and was compelled to leave go.

‘As I went down, there was one rope round my neck and another round my waist and, when I got clear of them, I got foul of the outrigger. I had a desperate struggle to get ashore.’

Yet despite everything he went through, Augustus said he hadn’t lost confidence in the lifeboat one bit and, if she was repaired, would go in her again tomorrow.

He said he’d been out in the lifeboat many times in heavier weather, sentiments echoed by many of the surviving crew, which is testament to the faith our crews have in their boats and just how unpredictable the sea can be.

Augustus’s acorn legacy

Through the acorns he carried, Augustus Mann left a lasting legacy for Aldeburgh Lifeboat Station.

A legacy that has kept the history of Aldeburgh lifeboat and the memory of his fellow lifeboatmen alive, and that will do so for years to come.

For the very acorns that were in his pocket have been carried onboard Aldeburgh’s lifeboats ever since the disaster as a sign of good luck.

Preserved with varnish, the acorns were placed in a glass-fronted box made from early 17th century oak timber from Aldeburgh’s Moot Hall.

Today the acorns are mounted inside the wheelhouse of the station's all-weather Mersey class lifeboat, Freddie Cooper.

True to the superstition, whenever the station gets a relief boat, the acorns are removed from Freddie Cooper and placed in the relief boat. 

‘We know that they were lucky for Augustus Mann,’ says Aldeburgh Mechanic James ‘Chunky’ Cable. ‘And that’s why we carry them on the boat today.’

James, a descendant of Coxswain James Cable, is the 8th generation of Cable at Aldeburgh Lifeboat Station. He joined the lifeboat crew on his 17th birthday in 1998, following in the footsteps of his father Mark.

Mark, nicknamed Soggy, who is now a shore crew volunteer, says: ‘I don’t think anybody could go to sea without being superstitious.

‘If it’s a bit of a hairy job, the time that you might think about it is when we get ashore, when the job’s been done and you get your feet back on the hard ground again. That’s when it might flick through your head, “Maybe they were doing a job today.”’

A moment in time

Augustus also carried a pocket watch, which stopped at 11.31am - the time the lifeboat capsized. For that reason, he never got it fixed.

The pocket watch is now on display at the Aldeburgh Museum.

7 December 1999: A day of remembrance and thanks

One hundred years after the 1899 Aldeburgh lifeboat disaster, something very special happened.

Something that touched the hearts of all the Aldeburgh lifeboat volunteers and something they will never forget.

In an incredibly generous gesture, a supporter invited everyone at Aldeburgh RNLI, including lifeboat crew, shore crew and members of the Aldeburgh Lifeboat Guild, to a centenary dinner at Aldeburgh’s Lighthouse restaurant following the memorial services.

Every table was decorated with three symbolic acorns, specially made for the occasion.

And every single volunteer - all 50 of them - was presented with a stunning silver acorn charm in an emerald green presentation box.

The lucky charms were cast from a specially-made mould which was never used again, making them all the more special.

‘I still get choked up when I tell the story’

This act of kindness and generosity is remembered fondly by the volunteers at Aldeburgh and will always be a very precious moment for them.

So much so, they are torn between telling this part of the story and preserving the intimacy of it.

‘I still get choked up when I tell the story,’ says Aldeburgh Coxswain Steve ‘Tag’ Saint. ‘It’s very personal to us.

‘It’s important that we tell the story to keep our history alive, but at the same time we don’t want the acorns to become commercialised.’

That’s why to this day only the volunteers who were part of the station in 1999 have a lucky silver acorn charm.

Some wear them on a necklace. Some treasure them in a safe place.

Lifeboat Operations Manager Charlie ‘TC2’ Walker bestowed his on his wife who wears it on her charm bracelet.

And sometimes, station dog George has the honour of wearing one.

No matter how they keep them, one thing’s for sure. The lucky charms will always be an integral part of the legacy of the Aldeburgh acorns.

‘I have never taken my necklace off since the day I got it. Not for anything,’ says Steve. ‘It’s very special to me.’

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