Cullercoats RNLI remember tragic lifeboat capsize 81 years ago.

Lifeboats News Release

On Saturday 22nd April 1939, RNLB Richard Silver Oliver launched on a routine exercise with 8 crew as well as the Station’s Honorary Secretary and his sixteen year old step son, a naval cadet, on board.

RVLB Richard Silver Oliver on the slipway outside Cullercoats Lifeboat Station

RNLI/Anna Heslop

RNLB Richard Silver Oliver

Shortly before 15:00, an exceptionally large wave hit the lifeboat, capsizing it instantly just 300m from the shore at Sharpness Point. 6 of the 10 men on board were drowned.

A moderate North Easterly gale was blowing, and at 14:00, the boat slipped from the launch trailer and Coxswain George Brunton and his crew headed northwards towards St Mary’s Island on a routine exercise. Brunton then headed south, with a drogue, until just off Sharpness Point when disaster struck.

Miriam Goulden, a local historian was 14 years old and recounts a day that that changed village life in Cullercoats forever.

“My dad helped to launch the boat that day. Although quick down to the station, he couldn’t go afloat as he had injured his foot in the war. He and my cousin watched the boat as it headed north towards St Mary’s before it turned and headed south towards Tynemouth. Standing on the headland, they continued to watch as the boat continued on its way. It was a really rough sea, and a huge wave caught the boat and capsized it. He and my cousin raced down to King Edwards bay, within site of where the disaster was unfolding. As he passed me, he shouted ‘Don’t you come down to the beach’, of course I didn’t listen and followed him down. Two of men had swam back to shore, having been thrown clear, whilst two more managed to hold on to the upturned hull until it washed up close to the beach. Others were laying dead on the beach. A local policeman, PC Carse, and a colleague of his had repeatedly gone into the cold sea, returning a man back each time to the beach, laying his body on the sand before returning again to bring another man ashore. PC Carse went in at least 4 times, trying to bring the men back alive, by the end he was a broken man, exhausted from his efforts. He and his colleague later received medals for bravery from the Tynemouth Medals Trust. My dad’s best friend, Redford-Armstrong, was one of the men who didn’t return that day. Crowds watched as the lifeboat was hauled ashore – the village fell into mourning, affecting the entire area for years to come. Men of the lifeboat service were considered to be heroes in our village. The world lost six fathers, sons and heroes that day.”

The lost lifeboatmen were Coxswain George Brunton, Second Coxswain John Redford Armstrong, Motor Mechanic Leonard Abel, Assistant Mechanic John Heddon Scott, together with Station Honorary Secretary Lt. Commander Lionel Blakeney-Booth and his 16 year old stepson, Kenneth Biggar, who was a naval cadet.

Alex Bateman, Lifeboat Press Officer added “A new group of men soon came forward to take the places of the crew who were lost that day, upholding the proud tradition of the Lifeboat in Cullercoats, one that remains to this day. Although the RNLB Richard Silver Oliver was repaired, the crew at Cullercoats refused to use her again, insisting that a self righting vessel be placed on service at the station. Although we will not be laying a wreath on the site of the disaster this year, the lost crew are in our thoughts whenever we go afloat.”

The disaster is commemorated in a stained glass widow at Cullercoats Methodist Church, depicting the launch of RNL Richard Silver Oliver on that fateful day.

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The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.

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