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A look back to the first Staithes lifeboat as RNLI turns 200 years old

Lifeboats News Release

In 1874 it was decided that a lifeboat station in the village of Staithes would be beneficial, particularly to safeguard the Staithes fishing fleet. Locals offered immediate support to the institution.


Staithes’ first lifeboat, the Hannah Somerset as it appeared in the November 1875 edition of the Lifeboat Magazine

On 17 May 1875, a number of Staithes men made the journey to Loftus. The lifeboat was to be delivered by rail with the North Eastern Railway conveying the boat free of charge. Having been placed on a launching carriage the boat was dragged to Loftus Marketplace, posed opposite the Golden Lion Hotel, and a short ceremony took place. This included the passing around of a hat for donations as reported in the Stockton Herald of 22 May 1875, which was generously responded to, before six strong horses were attached to the boat carriage and the cavalcade made for Staithes.

On Tuesday 1 June 1875 the inauguration of the lifeboat station took place, where a large crowd stood vigil as the lifeboat was brought from the lifeboat house, for the ceremony, and then launched and trialled by its crew. Joseph Ben (Joe Ben) Verrill was appointed Coxswain of the lifeboat, by the crew. The boat was a 32ft. x 8ft. 10 oared self-righting lifeboat built by Woolfe and Sons, with the expense being met by a legacy left to the Institution by Mrs. Hannah Yates of Sheffield. Named Hannah Somerset the lifeboat served at Staithes from 1875 – 1887, launching nine times and saving 15 lives. Then, as now, men and women from Staithes and the surrounding villages were a part of the story of the lifeboat, volunteering their time to save lives at sea.

On Wednesday 15 March 1876 came the lifeboat’s first service launch, her crew coming to the aid of the Newcastle steamer Bebside. Whilst on voyage from Newcastle to London, with a cargo of coal, a north westerly gale with a heavy sea running resulted in the ship being driven aground and ultimately wrecked near Cowbar Steel. A local fisherman had put off in his coble (a vernacular open boat, endemic to the coast between Berwick on Tweed and the Humber) at his own peril and rescued three crew from the steamer. The lifeboat launched and Coxswain Joe Ben Verrill took the lifeboat alongside the steamer and with great skill the remaining 15 crew embarked and were taken to safety. By 18 March, the ship had mostly broken up, the Northern Echo of Monday 20 March 1876 details that the iron of the outside shell, the engine and fittings were all that remained, furthermore that the items which had washed ashore were being auctioned on the afternoon of 18 March. Coal from the steam ships cargo is said to have been most welcome, with inhabitants of the village collecting the coal from the shore.

On 10 April 1876, as reported by the Whitby Gazette, the cobles of Staithes had set out fishing. A ‘tremendous heavy sea’ was the precursor to the village being enveloped in a storm, and it was decided as the sea rose to launch the lifeboat. Joe Ben Verrill, Simeon Robinson, and Richard Seymour were amongst the crew to launch. Robinson was a fisherman, and an accomplished rower – having competed in coble races against fishermen in Redcar, Seymour is said to have been a ‘veteran salt’ who when necessity required, despite having retired and laid on his oars for several years, ‘showed his companions that he was still able to ply them.’ The lifeboat met with two cobles and their crews, and they were assisted safely back to the village. The final boat needing assistance was the Charles M. Palmer, which belonged to Edward Verrill and Co.

With a sea running ‘mountains high’ a crowd assembled on the shore; fearing that the lifeboat would not make it back to shore, let alone the fishing boat. The villagers watching with intense anxiety saw the lifeboat get to the windward side of the casualty vessel and acting as a breakwater to the vessel the lifeboat escorted them to shore. The report at the time states that all parties on the shore and in the lifeboat spoke highly of her abilities, with both men and women of the village lending a willing hand in launching and landing the lifeboat.

Hannah Somerset’s other launches included the rescue of crew from the steamer Madeline of West Hartlepool which had ran aground near Boulby on 24 November 1880, subsequently the ship was recovered by four tugs five days later and returned to Hartlepool. Whilst now Staithes and Runswick RNLI lifeboat crews still receive call outs to the shores of Boulby cliffs the dynamic of rescues here have transitioned. With the most likely call out being to tidal cut offs, where people have walked north from the village and been caught out by a rapidly encroaching tide. However, there is still a risk to vessels of running aground on the coast around Staithes and Runswick. Luke Hutchinson, now helm at Staithes and Runswick RNLI lifeboat, remembers an earlier rescue; ‘the call came in at about 3pm, a 60-meter steel yacht had run aground at Humersea with three people on board. I went ashore and assisted the coastguard to extract the casualties via land. With a tow line established Staithes and Runswick lifeboat, with the assistance of Whitby lifeboat, towed the vessel off the shore as the tide pushed in and it had refloated.’

The boat's other services were mainly in safeguarding the fishing fleet of Staithes and assisting their return to the village. The final service launch of the Hannah Somerset was to be in 1881.

It was in 1883 on Monday 6 August that six lifeboats came to Whitby to join in what the Yorkshire Gazette of 11 August 1883 heralded as ‘the most interesting event’. As part of the Regatta, an annual event, Staithes lifeboat entered the National Lifeboat Race, with prizes for first, second and third place. The race was about two and a half miles (from Whitby pier end to Upgang and back) and was won by the Staithes volunteer crew in the Hannah Somerset. The Yorkshire Gazette describes the unfolding race; ‘the boats made a good start, and the crews pulled gamely and well… one boat seemed to have very little advantage over the other, though Staithes boat was the first to round the post off Upgang, and she retained her advantage to the end.’ Furthermore, the prowess of the Staithes crew is noted in the same publication; ‘the Staithes crew pulled with indomitable energy to the finish, thus keeping their prestige and renown, achieved long ago against all comers, of being the champion pullers of the German ocean.’ The Staithes boat won by a few yards amongst great excitement from the crowds. In 1885, in Joe Ben Verrill's last year as Coxswain the boat and crew came second in the same race.

Joe Ben Verrill retired as Coxswain in 1886, succeeded by Charles Horne, and in 1887 a new lifeboat was sent to Staithes, ending Hannah Somerset's 12 years service at Staithes.
No details on the subsequent service of the Hannah Somerset can be found and it can be assumed that like other contemporary lifeboats it was either sold out of service or broken up locally.

Today, as it was in 1875, Staithes and Runswick RNLI lifeboat is supported by generous donations to the charity, the current lifeboat based in the village of Staithes was funded by a legacy donated to the RNLI along with three more Atlantic 85 lifeboats. But it is not only large donations which allow the volunteer crew of Staithes and Runswick RNLI to continue to save lives at sea – it is small donations like those made by the people of Loftus in the first days of the lifeboat which allowed for the training and equipment to launch to the rescue.

Notes to Editor
Staithes and Runswick RNLI lifeboat has been in operation since 1978 with Atlantic B-Class inshore lifeboats (ILB’s). The present ILB at the station B-897 Sheila and Dennis Tongue III has been on station since 2016.

In 2024, the RNLI will be celebrating 200 years - and counting, commemorating this remarkable past, celebrating our lifesaving achievements today, and inspiring a future where we can save every one. More information on RNLI 200 can be found at

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For further information, please contact:
James Stoker, RNLI volunteer Lifeboat Press Officer at: [email protected] or Clare Hopps, Regional Communications Manager on 07824 518641 or, [email protected] or contact the RNLI Press Office on 01202 336789.

Joe Ben Verrill, from an Octave Lacour engraving of Nelly Erichsen’s drawing, from A North-Country Fishing Town, published in The English Illustrated Magazine (1886)

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