Famous Cullercoats rescue prompts generous donation 160 years on

Lifeboats News Release

It’s New Year’s Day – the year is 1861, and the following account appears in the Daily Chronicle:

Laing Art Gallery

‘The Women’ by John Charlton (1849 – 1917)
'Shipwreck and Fearful Scene on Whitley Sands'

The year went out, as it came in amid a hurricane of wind and sleet and snow – a gale from the East South East, bringing with it one of the most fearful seas ever experienced on the Northumberland Coast and the New Year has commenced amidst the most painful excitement and distress amongst our searfaring population.

Yesterday morning at daylight, the tempest was raging with great fury and between 9:00am and 10:00am the Coastguards on the lookout at Spanish Battery, Tynemouth, described a laden vessel in distress running to the north and driving to the leeward and certain to come ashore. Mr Byrne, the Chief Boatman, immediately mustered his crew and got out ‘Manby’s Apparatus for Saving Life’ and he and the other men at the station with assistance from the village proceeded with it along the coast, following the movements of the vessel.

Between 10:00am and 11:00am, the crew of the vessel appeared to become completely exhausted, and put the vessels head to the shore and ran her up on to Whitley Sands, close to Briardene Burn. The vessel, unfortunately, took the ground about three quarters of a mile from the shore, completely beyond the range of the rescue rockets. Once the crew had taken to the rigging, the Coastguards and Lifeboatmen ran to Cullercoats for the ‘Percy’ Lifeboat belonging to the National Lifeboat Institution.

The arrangements are most complete in the Lifeboat house, yet by the culpable conduct of some of the fishermen a precious half hour was wasted through the approach to the Lifeboat House being blocked with Cobles. It might have occasioned the loss of all the ships crew and the crew of the Lifeboat Percy, and indeed was the cause of a poor boy being drowned.

As soon as the lifeboat was got out of the house, six horses were placed in the carriage and amid the hurrahs of the men and cries of the women and children, it was galloped along the coast. The ‘Percy’ was launched from Briardene Burn, with Redford the Coxswain taking command. The crew of the Lifeboat (all Cullercoats fishermen) behaved extremely well and showed remarkable nerve and courage under very trying circumstances.


When they got the fine Lifeboat alongside the ship, they found the sea was making a complete break over the vessel. They grappled the vessel however, and were able to make fast to the Brig. The crew then came from the rigging, but so fearful was the storm that three of them were washed overboard in doing so. The fishermen manoevered the boat with great skill and two gallant fellows, standing forward, caught all three poor men and hauled them into the boat. Two others were taken from the deck to the boat. But a poor boy still remained on board, clinging to the rigging, and his cries for help were most heartrending.

The lifeboats crew made several attempts to save him and kept their boat alongside the Brig, at the imminent peril of their lives in doing so. For the people on the shore could hear the timbers of the ship being torn asunder by the ferocious waters.

The struggle went on for some time, until at last a stout voice shouted ‘cut the rope!’ the hatchet gleamed in the air and came down upon it. It parted asunder. The Percy was swept under the ships stern and was saved, for the main mast immediately came over the side and with it a mass of rigging thundered down into the sea where the lifeboat has been but a moment before. But for the manner that the rope was cut, the mast would have fallen upon the lifeboat and smashed it to fragments, and drowned every sole of the crew.

The ship parted in two, fell over and drowned the poor boy in sight of the crew who could render him no assistance. They then pulled ashore. The lifeboat ground upon some rocks but a number of people ran into the water and pulled her towards the beach, where the survivors of the ships crew were borne upon the shoulders of spectators. As the lifeboat came to the beach, her gallant crew were loudly and observedly cheered. The Cullercoats men deserve great credit for their praiseworthy and successful exertions to rescue the men. The ship is a total wreck.


This New Years Day marks the 160th Anniversary of the rescue of the crew of the Lovely Nelly, with the loss of one life, 13 year old cabin boy Thomas Brown Thompson.

William Henry Kirby, the great great grandson of the Lovely Nelly’s ‘Ship's Mate’ has researched the vessel and the dramatic rescue of its crew in detail, and donated his research to the station in dedication of the brave crew of the lifeboat Percy, and the survivors of the Lovely Nelly. In memory of his Great Great Grandfather, Mr Kirby has made donation to RNLI Cullercoats of £1861 to help us to continue the fine history of saving lives at sea from Cullercoats Lifeboat Station.


Mr Kirby said ‘I do a lot of research which I have shared with the Cullercoats crew. I am hopeful that the donation of £1861 which corresponds to the year my Great Great Grandfather was saved from the foundering Lovely Nelly will encourage further donations to help you continue to save lives’.

Lifeboat Operations Manager, Frank Taylor, who had three relatives including the second coxswain, John Taylor on the ‘Percy’ back in 1861, said ‘Huge thanks must go to William who has spent many hours researching the rescue of the crew of the Lovely Nelly. His work will be a testament to the bravery of the crew and will be cherished by the current crew and volunteers at the lifeboat station.’


Numerous paintings of the daring rescue have been produced over the years. ‘The Women’ by John Charlton (1849 – 1917) depicts the efforts of the women of Cullercoats hauling the lifeboat along the coast to its launch site (the women being considered as replacement of the horses in support of the Womens' Sufferage Movement of the time). A second painting by John Scott (1802 – 1885), ‘Rescue of the Lovely Nelly by the lifeboat Percy’ hung for many years in the Watch House in Cullercoats, before being stolen in 1993. It has never been returned, or discovered. All at Cullercoats RNLI would love for this to be returned, to serve as a memory to the dedication of the brave men and women who have served the community of Cullercoats since 1848.


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