A remarkable story of courage and human endeavour, the story of the Lynmouth lifeboat incident takes place in 1899. It is of course a true story (originally related in print in ‘An Illustrated History of Lynton and Lynmouth’ by John Travis) and is related here in tribute to the brave men involved.
The story takes place on the north Devon coast, starting on the 12th January 1899.
The three masted ship called the Forrest Hall was being pulled by tug along the Bristol Channel but the cable between the two boats had broken, threatening both the ship and the 18 people on board. The anchors weren’t holding very well and the ship steering equipment was damaged and unusable.
Because of the poor weather conditions the nearby Watchet lifeboat could not be launched, and conditions in Lynmouth were no better so their own lifeboat also could not be launched. Jack decided that the best option was to launch their lifeboat from nearby Porlock – the rather large obstacle being that the boat would first need to be transferred by road from Lynmouth to Porlock
The journey involved poor conditions, a climb up one very steep hill (Countisbury Hill) and then a descent down another (Porlock Hill), with a boat and associated equipment weighing about ten tonnes, and a journey distance of about 20 kilometres. Horses and men were the only available resources at that time for undertaking such a difficult journey, which was to take place during the night.
Twenty horses and 100 men, women and children hauled the boat up the hill while another small team went ahead, widening the road as necessary so the boat could pass.
The women and children could not continue, and some of the men believed to continue was impossible. The remaining 20 men undertook to continue across Exmoor. Incidents en-route included a wheel coming off the carriage, roads needing widening, and obstacles too narrow to pass needed the boat to be taken off its carriage and dragged across the moors.
Going down Porlock Hill was no easier, given the weather conditions and the weight and size of the boat. Among the many challenges, it was necessary to demolish a garden wal in order to continue.
The storm had damaged the sea wall and made the usual approach to the harbour impassable but the team persisted and took a different road although it involved felling a tree to continue. By morning, less than 12 hours after Jack had received his telegram, the boat and crew were in Porlock.
The boat was immediately launched by its exhausted crew and in terrible conditions, and reached the ship an hour later. The lifeboat crew managed to get a new cable passed between the ship and the tug, and to raise the ship’s anchors, and the ship was successfully dragged from its perilous position and eventually to Barry (across the channel in South Wales), still accompanied by the lifeboat.
By evening, 24 hours after the original telegram had been received, the ship was safely docked and it’s crew had been saved – thanks to the incredible efforts and achievement of the lifeboat crew in the terrible conditions. At last the lifeboat crew could recover from their exertions – they spent the night in Barry, too exhausted to return the same evening.
The lifeboat still had to return to Lynmouth of course, which it reached just before midday on the 14th January. The only casualties in the story were a few of the unfortunate horses, which had been exhausted to death by the effort.