Fraserburgh, 1919: A capsized crew in a courageous community
You’re on shore, expecting to watch your local lifeboat crew rescue a ship in trouble. Imagine witnessing that lifeboat capsize, throwing 10 men into the wild and icy sea.
That was the horrific scene witnessed by many locals 100 years ago, on 28 April 1919, in Fraserburgh Bay.
The Fraserburgh lifeboat crew of 13 had launched their motor lifeboat Lady Rothes, following a call for help from the Admiralty drifter Eminent. In a gale, the ship’s engine had broken down. They signalled for help at 9am, drifting towards shore at the south end of Fraserburgh Bay.
One current volunteer at Fraserburgh, Lifeboat Press Officer Billy Watson, researched the disaster and believes that the crew knew the risks as they prepared to launch the lifeboat:
‘Someone had called out “It’s nae a day for oilskins today, lads!” – the inference being that if the boat capsized the oilskins would drag the wearer under if they capsized.’ Coxswain Andrew Noble and Acting Second Coxswain Andrew Farquhar were the only ones who chose to wear oilskins.
All the lifeboat crew put on their lifejackets and launched.
Courage of the Fraserburgh crew
The current Coxswain/Mechanic Vic Sutherland imagines how Coxswain Noble felt, taking his crew into a gale with the wind blowing from the north-north-east: ‘You’re still very apprehensive, even in a modern lifeboat, with that wind direction into heavy sea. With Noble being the local harbour master as well, he’d have known better than anybody what they were up against. Daunting.
‘The crew had a lot of faith in the lifeboat. It was self-righting and had proven its mettle in previous rescues. The volunteers were ready to take to the oars if the engines couldn’t power through the swell.’
The ‘DEPLORABLE accident’
The crowds watched as the lifeboat crossed the exposed Fraserburgh Bay. Vic says: ‘It was a boiling pot of swell, with noise of the wind and the waves crashing.’
Before the lifeboat reached the Eminent, disaster struck.
‘The lifeboat took one lump of water on the port bow,’ recounts Vic. ‘It knocked her onto her beam end and the second wave caused her to capsize.’
Three of the crew members managed to cling onto the lifeboat, but ten were thrown overboard.
Vic says: ‘For those ashore to see the lifeboat capsize and the crew going overboard – that’s a hell of a situation for them to have witnessed.'
The Lifeboat magazine of that era described it as a ‘DEPLORABLE accident’. Nobody was at fault, stresses Vic: ‘It’s the sheer nature of the environment that we’ve got here in Fraserburgh. The 42ft-long Lady Rothes was just overcome by the swell, the sheer weight of the water and the size of the waves.’
Cast up on the beach
The lifeboat righted herself immediately. Four of the crew managed to clamber back onboard, out of the icy water. Two of the others clung onto the lifelines on the hull of the lifeboat.
That left four of the lifeboat crew strewn across the water. The lifeboat and the men were swept helplessly towards the beach.
The desperate crowd on the shore pulled the men clear of the surf. Andrew Noble and Andrew Farquhar were alive when they were cast up on the beach, but despite medical attention, they died almost immediately.
Vic says many people are shocked to learn that the men died after being pulled out alive. He says: ‘I can only surmise that it was due to exposure, exhaustion, cold water shock, inhalation of water or secondary drowning.’ We’ll never know whether their oilskins made a difference in the water.
The rest of the crew survived.
That’s a hell of a situation for those ashore to have witnessed.'
The original rescue continues
Meanwhile, the Eminent and crew were still in distress. Eminent ran aground. Those ashore managed to attach a line to the boat and all nine of the Eminent’s crew were saved.
Reports are sketchy about how it happened as the newspapers focused on the lifeboat tragedy. It might have been the local lifesaving brigade. There was also one report of heroism by a man called Stocks, a boxing champion, who jumped into the raging sea with a line and swam to the Eminent. You can see some lifesaving kit from that era on display at the Fraserburgh Heritage Centre.
The loss of two brave men
Both Andrew Noble and Andrew Farquhar left widows and children, who the RNLI was able to help them financially.
It was a huge loss for the station and community. Andrew Noble was an RNLI medal-winning coxswain who had served since 1887. Andrew Farquhar volunteered on the crew and worked as a pilot at Fraserburgh Harbour.
What happened to the Lady Rothes?
The lifeboat had been at Fraserburgh since 1915. It was named after the Countess of Rothes who survived the Titanic disaster, and funded by her father.
The lifeboat had minimal damage from the disaster and was back on service in a matter of weeks. It’s an indication of the faith that the crew had in their lifeboat, that the same volunteers came forward.
Vic understands the bond between crew and lifeboat: ‘God forbid, if anything was to happen to our boat and it was damaged, you’d always want your own boat back. You trust it. It becomes second nature – the tone of the engines, the feel of the boat, the vibrations. It’s a big part of you that you’re losing out on.’
The Fraserburgh crew continued to save lives on the Lady Rothes until she was retired from service in 1937.
Honour and keep alive the memory
Billy Watson says it’s important to the crew now to remember Andrew Noble and Andrew Farquhar: ‘We salute their commitment, and mourn their loss.’ One current crew member, Kenneth Ritchie, has a direct link to the 1919 tragedy. His great grandfather, Alexander Ritchie, served with Coxswain Andrew Noble.
As part of the centenary events on 28 April 2019, descendants from all around the world plus the lifeboat community will gather at the Fraserburgh Lifeboat Memorial statue.
The memorial reminds us of the risks that our crews take and honours the 13 men who died in three separate Fraserburgh lifeboat disasters in 1919, 1953 and 1970.
The memorial plinth reads:
‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his fellow man.’
The weather is as powerful today as it was in yesteryear and the lifeboat crew are as brave. What’s changed is the lifeboats they go out on and the kit they wear.
The motor lifeboat Lady Rothes was state-of-the-art in her day, but the engine was only 40hp. Fraserburgh’s Trent class lifeboat today has two engines of 850hp each and the lifeboat volunteers now stay dry and warm in the new crew kit.
With your support, we can continue to improve safety for our lifeboat volunteers and provide them with the best lifeboats and kit. Please give generously to help us save lives at sea.