Great Britain

Whitby lifeboatman who beat the odds to survive

Today’s Object of the Week tells of the epic life and times of the extraordinary Henry Freeman.

THIS vibrant portrait, painted by Harry S Horne, shows Henry Freeman wearing the cork life jacket which almost certainly saved his life in 1861.

The portrait is part of the Henry Freeman display in Whitby Museum’s shipping wing, along with an example of the lifebelt.

Henry was born in Bridlington on April 29, 1835, the son of a brickmaker.

At 16 he was working as a farm labourer in Flamborough, later returning to Bridlington to take on his father’s trade.

Henry moved to Whitby in 1855, aged 20, and after working as a brickmaker and labourer he turned to the sea.

There is some evidence that he worked as a seaman on colliers sailing to London but by 1861 Henry was working as a fisherman.

On February 9, 1861, during a great storm, lifeboat men carried out five launches, rescuing the crews from five vessels.

Although he had not been one of the lifeboat crew before, Henry took part in all of the rescues that day.

On that fifth launch the lifeboat overturned and Henry was the sole survivor – probably because of the new type of life jacket he was wearing. He was awarded the RNLI’s silver medal .

The rest of the crew would have been wearing the old cork lifebelt which just went around their waist.

Perhaps the older members of the crew were reluctant to wear the new jacket, they may have been wary of it or because it was much bulkier they may have felt that it impaired their rowing ability.

Henry married Elizabeth Busfield, daughter of a jet ornament manufacturer, in October 1861.

Throughout the 1860s Freeman carried on working as a fisherman. In 1870 he was registered as being master of the Alexandra, a coble working as a herring boat, and in November 1870 he purchased his first boat, a line fishing coble called the ‘William and Margaret’.

After the 1861 disaster, Henry is not recorded as having been used as a crew member for the RNLI lifeboat until the opening of the Upgang Lifeboat station in 1865.

However, he was associated with an unofficial lifeboat, the ‘Fisherman’s Friend’ which did not take part in any major rescues.

After a rescue by the Upgang lifeboat on December 31, 1866, Henry is not listed as having taken part in more rescues, although he was still one of the reserve crew.

In 1875, on the retirement of the Whitby coxswain John Pickering, the lifeboat committee decided to remove responsibility for the Upgang station from the Whitby coxswain and appointed Henry as coxswain to the Upgang lifeboat.

In 1876. he was coxswain on the ‘Robert Whitworth’ lifeboat when the crew of a coble in difficulty were rescued. This was Henry’s only rescue as Upgang Coxswain.

In January 1877 the Whitby Coxswain, Samuel Lacy, was drowned with two other crew while attempting a rescue, and a few weeks later Henry was appointed to replace Lacy.

There was some opposition to his appointment. The secretary of the Whitby branch of the RNLI Committee, a Mr Smales, resigned over the decision while Thomas Hartley, one of the most experienced lifeboat men, refused to serve under him.

The committee refused to accept Mr Smales’ resignation and passed a motion “relieving him of all responsibility arising from the appointment of Henry Freeman”.

Despite this inauspicious start to his career as Whitby coxswain, over the next three years the crew under Henry’s command saved 60 lives.

On October 28, 1880, a severe gale similar to the one that caused the 1861 lifeboat disaster affected the North-East coast. Henry was involved in four rescues that day and was awarded a silver clasp for his 1861 RNLI silver medal.

In January 1881, Freeman was involved in the epic rescue of the crew of the ‘Visitor’ at Robin Hood’s Bay.

In severe weather the ‘Robert Whitworth’ was hauled by men and horses six miles overland through snowdrifts and then down the steep road into Robin Hood’s Bay.

After an hour’s struggle to reach the endangered men, the lifeboat was struck by a huge wave, breaking six of the oars.

Henry returned the lifeboat to the beach, took on fresh oars and a fresh crew, then launched the lifeboat again and rescued the Visitor’s crew.

Henry retired as Whitby coxswain in 1899 after 22 years service.

His wife Elizabeth had died in 1898. In 1901 Henry married Elizabeth’s widowed sister, Emma. He died on December 13, 1904 aged 68, leaving his widow Emma but no children.

* For more information on Whitby Museum, visit https://whitbymuseum.org.uk/

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