Another Whitby-related post (if you couldn’t tell, it’s one of my favourite places!), this time about a local man, Henry Freeman, and a famous rescue.
Henry Freeman was born in Bridlington in 1835, the son of a brickmaker. In his teens he worked as a farm labourer in Flamborough before moving to Whitby when he was 20. By 1861, Henry was working as a fisherman. During a huge storm on 9th February 1861, Henry joined the Whitby lifeboat crew as they carried out 5 launches to save the crews from stricken ships, despite having no previous experience. On the final launch, in heavy seas, the lifeboat overturned and Henry was the sole survivor.
[Attribution: Frank Meadow Sutcliffe and The Sutcliffe Gallery]
Undeterred by his brush with death, Henry continued to work as a fisherman throughout the 1860s as well as participating in the occasional lifeboat rescue. In 1877 he was appointed Coxswain of the Whitby lifeboat, the Robert Whitworth.
On 28th October October 1880 the Robert Whitworth launched 4 times to rescue the crews of ships caught in another severe storm off the North Yorkshire coast. Henry Freeman was awarded a silver clasp to add to the RNLI medal he had received for the 1861 rescues.
But Henry’s most famous rescue came in January 1881, when the brig Visitor was wrecked off Robin Hood’s Bay during a severe storm. Jermyn Cooper, vicar of Fylingdales, sent an urgent telegram to the Whitby Harbourmaster asking for assistance, but the lifeboat could not leave Whitby harbour because of the appalling weather conditions. Onlookers at Robin Hood’s Bay could only watch helplessly as Visitor slowly broke up and her crew took to its single, small boat.
With a launch from Whitby impossible, the decision was made to take the Robert Whitworth to Robin Hood’s Bay overland instead – dragged by horses six miles across country while hundreds of men, women, and children dug through snowdrifts with shovels and cleared walls and hedgerows to create a path for the lifeboat.
Their heroic efforts paid off: the Robert Whitworth was carried from Whitby to Robin Hood’s Bay in 3 hours, and successfully launched to save the crew of the Visitor.
Henry Freeman retired as coxswain in 1899, after 22 years service, and died in 1904. His memorial can be seen on the seaward wall of Whitby Lifeboat Station, where you can also see the current Whitby lifeboat, George and Mary Webb – very different from the open rowing boats used in Henry’s day!
The RNLI do an amazing job – the volunteers who risk their own lives to save others are the sort of people who really restore my faith in human nature.