East Yorkshire News

Bridlington’s Great Gale – the tragedy that drew a line in shipping history

Bridlington is preparing to mark the 151st anniversary of the Great Gale on Thursday February 10 – a date etched in maritime history for two closely connected reasons.

The tragedy occurred on February 10, 1871, when a storm hit the East Yorkshire coast. Many ships were using an area known as the ‘Bay of Refuge’ to shelter from the bad weather when the wind changed direction, causing at least 23 ships to run aground or be wrecked against the harbour walls. It’s thought as many as 70 lives were lost.

At the time Bridlington had two separate lifeboats, the RNLI’s Robert Whitworth and a locally owned vessel named the Harbinger. Both boats were launched multiple times, with both crews succeeding in saving several lives. Tragically, the Harbinger was attempting to save the crew of the brig Delta when a wave capsized the lifeboat and six of the nine local men aboard were drowned.

The disaster led MP and social reformer Samuel Plimsoll to petition parliament to introduce a new law to prevent ships being dangerously overladen, by introducing the painting of a ­­­­load line on the hull. ‘Plimsoll Lines’, as they became known, are still used in international shipping to this day.

By coincidence, February 10 is also Samuel Plimsoll’s birthday. Plimsoll’s biographer, author Nicolette Jones, runs an annual fundraiser to mark Plimsoll Day, encouraging people to wear plimsolls or trainers for the day, #TweetYourFeet on social media and donate to the RNLI: ‘The truth is my interest in Samuel Plimsoll was triggered not, as you might suspect, by, say, a PhD in maritime history, but by the fact that I lived in Plimsoll Road! Curiosity about the name of my street burgeoned when I discovered what a huge story it was: of machinations in the corridors of power, shipwrecks, a national outcry, villainy and virtue. Plimsoll became my hero.

‘I instigated Plimsolls for Plimsoll Day because Plimsoll himself channelled tribute money raised for him into lifeboats instead, because there was a lifeboat named after him (operating 1876-1905), because he was born the year the RNLI was founded (1824), and because lifeboats were so much in the spirit of his life-saving campaign.’

The service to mark the 1871 tragedy will be held at Bridlington Priory at 10.30am on Sunday February 13, when volunteers from RNLI Bridlington will lay a wreath at the Great Gale Memorial. 

The Reverend Matthew Pollard next to the Great Gale Memorial

The Reverend Matthew Pollard, Rector of Bridlington Priorywill conduct the service: ‘This is an event which is engraved on the collective memory of Bridlington. Part of the identity of Bridlington is indeed that it is the town that remembers the Great Gale. It is important that we are faithful to our duty to keep telling the story, to honour the memory of all who died on that night. I’m delighted that we are once again able to do that in person this year.’

‘Every life that has been saved, across the world, because ships have not been overloaded beyond the Plimsoll line, is a tribute to the lives of those who were washed ashore and buried at this place 151 years ago.’

Steve Emmerson, Bridlington RNLI Coxswain, added: ‘Lifeboat Stations are built on the achievements of those who have gone before: it is essential that we remember them and reflect on their contribution to Saving Lives at Sea. Never more so than on this day.

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