The Loss of the Lovely Nelly (1861)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
In 1861 the Lovely Nelly sailing brig came aground off Whitley Bay. The villagers of Cullercoats hauled their lifeboat 3 miles in order to mount a rescue. They saved all but one of the crew. This event has gone done in history with the painting of 'The Women' by John Charlton. This is a fictional account of that day based in fact.

Submitted: September 10, 2016

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Submitted: September 10, 2016

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The Loss of the Lovely Nelly (1861) 

By John Hetherington 

 

The following story is based on real events. The places, dates and names are all accurate. The Lovely Nellie did get into difficulties off the North East coast of England on the 1st of January 1861 and her crew was rescued by the Cullercoats lifeboat with the single loss of the cabin boy. But event went down in folklore because it was laid down that only the women of the village manually hauled the lifeboat 3 miles before it could be launched. Curiously that misreported aspect really did happen but it was many years later. I have added fictional characterisations however and some other minor details to help the story along.? 

  

 

The sleepy village lay on the North East coast of England. It's position, only about 2 miles north of the mouth of the river Tyne made the village rural but not so rural that it was beyond the influence of the busy river, the port of North Shields and further inland, Newcastle.   

 

Remote it was not, exposed however, it was. Exposed to the wildness of the North Sea, the German Ocean as it was then. ?The village lay atop high cliffs above an eastwards facing bay. The bay was about half a mile wide from Browns point in the North to Smugglers point in the south, and was almost entirely filled with jagged, dangerous rocks hidden at high tide. The only access was a small channel led to a safe harbour in the southern half of the bay. The harbour, comprising of a gently sloping beach of soft, golden sand, was protected its northern side by the recent addition of a stone breakwater. It was along the narrow channel that the numerous small fishing boats or Cobles made their way into danger every morning, and back to safety every evening all year round. Sometimes the boats never came back, and other times they never even made it to sea. It had been only 13 years before that 7 men of the village had lost their life's in site of the shore, their Coble having been capsized as they rowed out into a heavy sea. All of the village had poured onto the strand and several had put to sea, but no one was able to get close enough to save the stricken men as they clung to the boat's hull. As each of the men in turn succumbed to their fate, relatives and friends alike had called out to the last of them and desperately they forsook the hull and tried to swim the short distance ashore. Women and children had watched helpless as their loved ones perished in front of their very eyes. ?Some of the bodies came ashore the same day, and others in the following days but the last two were never released from clutches of the deep. They had all left wives and family, three of the men left 14 children fatherless between them. Of course the tragedy brought in donations from all over the country but that couldn't never ease the impact of the loses. Even the Duke of Northumberland was moved to action with the result that the village was soon the proud possessor of a new lifeboat, totally buoyant and even self-righting. She was the first Percy?and even now her successor lay silently in the lifeboat house with its red doors that dominated the small beach. However, the work was still hard for the Cullercoats folk and the dangers and loses continued. It was a hard life for a hardy people. ?But at this precise moment none of this mattered, for it was well after midnight on the morning of January the 1st, 1861 and the village slept.  

 

The handful of streets of the village were silent and dark. The cobles were pulled high on the beach or better still had been dragged the previous day, by horse, up the steep bank and along to the boat field ?on the cliff tops to the south. Even if you had stirred from bed and braved the cold night air to walk onto the bank top, you would have seen nothing. The low clouds, heavy with snow, raced across the hidden sky, and there was no moon to trouble them. In the distance a light might have been seen coming from the light house on the cliff tops at Tynemouth, but even that was hidden tonight by the squalls of sleet and snow that swept across the sea and over the land, racing in from the Northeast and moving quickly inland in the direction of Newcastle. Even the sea was invisible. Huge rolling lines of surf as high as a man and often higher colliding at first with Browns point, immersing the bare headland in spray, and continuing across the bay to crash into the tall cliffs beneath Back Row, before surging over the breakwater, up the beach, at last racing on to Smugglers point, booming through the caves there. High above the sea, perched on the edge of the perilous cliffs, the village began with the houses of Back Row. Moving inland and out of Back Row was Front Street, only named as such because at its the south end it emerged onto the sea front and the path plunged steely down to the beach. Back Row wasn't at the back of the village and Front Street wasn't at the front. It might have been better named Main Street as such it was with the 3 pubs being situated here in close proximity to each other, as well as other shops and businesses together with many houses.?  

 

Just emerging from Back Row onto Front street, you would see a quaint line of small one storey, single roomed cottages. These were locally called the fishermen's cottages, even though almost ever building in the village housed a fisherman somewhere within its bounds. They had been only recently built and were therefore, even though tiny and without running water or sanitation, considered the best Cullercoats had to offer. Behind these and forming the second side of a triangular yard were Browns Buildings. These were of much the same design but slightly older and in total as many as 30 families had their lives bound to the yard between them. And in one of these very small houses lived Thomas Mills.?  

 

Thomas, or Tommy as he was known to all, slept peacefully in his bed in the only room that made up his tiny home. There was a window in both east and west sides of the house together with a door in both, front door to the east and into Browns yard, back door to the west and into the lane. The room also had a fire in the north wall which doubled as a stove, and a few chairs around a wooden table. But the room was by no means empty. There was the usual clutter of any fisherman. Boots, waterproof coats, and a wealth of other clutter that should have been left outside but wasn't. If anything was outside that shouldn't be, it was the Tin bath, hanging on a nail in the wall swaying in the wind that even found its way down the narrow back lane.  

 

Tommy slept on oblivious to the weather outside. He had had a good evening in the Ship Hotel, as usual, and after bumping his way in a very roundabout way into the wrong yard at the first attempt, he had finally found his own back door, and fallen quickly to sleep after half managing to remove his outer clothes. Of course Tommy was not alone in the bed, but unlike most of the other neighbouring families he wasn't jammed into the bed with his wife and countless children of varying ages. There was only one other body in this bed and that was the body of the only person he truly cared for, his daughter Elizabeth. Bessie, as she was known, was 15 now, and as such she was very much one of Cullercoats notorious fishlass's. She looked after the house, cleaned and mended Tommy's clothes, and cooked. On top of that she dug on the beaches for bait, helped mend the nets and launch the boats. And if that wasn't enough, she would take the catch to sell, with the other lasses, sometimes as far as Newcastle if the market was slow in any of the villages and towns up the Tyne. Tommy had only 2 jobs, 3 if you counted supporting the landlord of the Ship with his custom. ?Tommy's was a fisherman and though this seemed less work than Bessie had, it could claim precedence in that it was significantly more dangerous. Tommy also had another job which was even more dangerous than fishing in the North Sea, he was a member of the crew of the Cullercoats lifeboat Percy.?

  

He was almost 40 now, but 20 years ago Tommy had been of an even more adventurous disposition. He was then as he was now, master of one of the fastest racing cobles on the Northumberland coast, Marguerite. He was famed all along the coast, throughout the fishing village and hamlets. This was what had brought Jane to his side. She had been 6 or 7 years older than he was but once together they had been inseparable. Although she had lived only two doors away from his parents in Back Row, he had taken little notice of her being only a boy when she was a working woman, but her intense passion for this wild young man had brought them together when he was 21 and she was 28, and they had married in the January of 1845. Bessie had come quickly arriving in the December, which proved they hadn't put 'the cart before the horse' as it was. Tommy had been a stickler for sticking to the proprieties. 3 years later baby Jane had been born, but she had been taken in the autumn of her third year only a few months after his wife had taken ill and succumbed to an unknown fever. Tommy still blamed himself for their deaths even though there was nothing he could have done. He had cheated death on the water so often yet he had no power over life and death on land. He still thought of baby Jane and still imagined her as a small child if she'd still been alive, even though she would have been 12 or 13 and almost certainly working.?  

 

There had been no snow so far that winter, but sky had threatened every day for some weeks now, and at last the tide had turned and the flurries had been coming all night. The dawn came late so far north and in the dead of winter so the sun didn't show itself until almost 8 o'clock, and when it did it was only a quick glimpse before being swallowed up by another bout of storm clouds. The ebb tide was a few hours old by this time but no fishermen had taken the opportunity of slipping out, all remaining firmly in port, not chancing the terrible weather. ?Perhaps it was fortunate that all remained ashore because the members of the lifeboat crew would all be at hand should there be a need. ?  

 

Tommy had no intention of going to sea today either. Outwardly he would have it believed that this was a carefully weighed up decision based on many factors such as the weather, the swells and the set of the tide, but really it was just that he had a terrible headache from drinking too much the night before. Not that drunkenness was anything out of the ordinary in the village. Many men couldn't stand up at the end of an evening and more than once men had had their wives sent for or been pushed home in the barrow owned by the landlord and kept for that purpose. On several occasions things had ended up in fights and an appearance at the magistrates court, especially on Christmas night which marked the end of the regatta. The regatta saw the visit of neighbouring villages like Newbiggin and the Coble races. Large amounts of money changed hands in either prizes or betting, and by the end of the day tempers were often frayed and passions often ran high. Last night had been New Years Eve but had been quite by the comparison with other nights mostly due to the weather. Tommy arose late, took his breakfast without much conversation and headed out of the house at about 9 o'clock to check on his boat and nets. ?Bessie left before him after seeing to his breakfast and was probably somewhere chatting with the girls waiting for the tide to ebb sufficiently to be able to dig for bait. She had not wanted to stay in case he raised the sensitive subject of her liaison with Thomas Brunton. Her father could be touchy and he didn't like the boy hanging around with her. She was too young and had to be more prudent. She wasn't sure where he'd picked up the word prudent, maybe in church. But she knew she was a woman and more over she knew how to look after herself. She wouldn't get into any trouble, not like that girl down the row, what was her name?  

 

Tommy pulled the front door closed behind him, locks not being of much consequences in Cullercoats, and walked through the narrow cut that led out of Browns Yard and into Front street. Tommy was tall at over 6'2" and you might say handsome. Although his skin had a dark weathered look, it was by no means unpleasant to look at. Add to that his broad, muscular shoulders obvious beneath his old tweed jacket and his strong long stride, he looked purposeful walking toward the bank top to begin his work. He nodded to several people that he passed, and as he approached the cliffs overlooking the small harbour he approached a group of men deep in conversation. ?  

"Morning lads" he said in a loud clear voice as he reached the gathering. The men of the village always gathered here in small groups as it afforded the highest point for viewing the vista. Often telescopes could be seen much in evidence there and today was no exception. Today the vista was extremely agitated and even without a telescope one could see that a very heavy sea was running. "Anyone going out today" he said to no one in particular knowing perfectly well only those without sense would even attempt it. ?  

 

The men of this gathering were notable villagers and were therefore allowed prime position on the edge of the cliff top. Even with many years of experience none but a few would venture too close. These cliff were sandstone and liable to crumble at a nothing let alone against a storm and waves like this. In later years a Watch House would build on this spot which can still be seen today. Tommy felt the spray on his face even 50 feet up. As each wave reached the breakwater it plunged directly over the top to a depth of several feet, while the drop on the inside of the stone structure caused a disruption to the wave into which it spend much of its energy. This meant that the boats still on the beach, including the lifeboat in its small shed with red doors, were completely safe. Tommy wasn't the only one who thought day was a complete loss. Barty Taylor, a short, stocky man stood next to him, let out a long list of curses, and then suggested he was going to the Inn but he made no show of moving or speaking again however. John Taylor seemed in a better frame of mind and began to talk to Tommy. John was older than Tommy and was second coxswain of the lifeboat 'The Percy'. If Mr. Redford was out at sea, then John became Mr. Taylor and would lead the crew. ?It still seemed perfectly normal to Tommy that a man of nearly 50 could pull on a sweep (oar) with the force of a much younger man. Even Mr Redford at 55 could take a pull as needed, but there again, people in the village of Cullercoats often attained ages of more than a hundred, so 50 was only the start of middle age. People used to say that there was something in the air at Cullercoats that helped folk to live long, but the other thing in the air today was the ever present smell of fish. 

 

"She's been struggling to make the river for some time now". The words came from John as if Tommy had been with him for some time and they were continuing an earlier conversation. "Who has?" Tommy replied stupidly. "That tha brig" said John. Tommy followed John's arm which was now outstretched and pointing to the south east. At first Tommy could see nothing but at length he discerned a sail some way off the river mouth. The sails were only visible for part of the vessel because of the huge swell that was now apparent. Even more apparent was the fact that the wind had swung round and try as she may, there was no way that the brig, for brig she was with two masts and square rigged, would ever make the river mouth. Tommy was immediately on his alert.?  

 

"Give me a glass" he said quickly, and in an instant one was thrust into his hand. He put the telescope to his eye and peered with all of his will into the murky distance. He could see the brig clear when the heavy sea allowed. He had a good eye, perhaps one of the best in the village, and the others around him knew it. They also trusted his word in these and all other sea related matters as gospel even though they were all born to the sea. Tommy had fished and sailed, and raced, in all weathers and all types of small boat available, and he was respected. He could see the brig had only the minimal amount of canvas set. Her main course was fully reefed and she had the barest topsail set on her twin masts. The only other canvas set was her headsail, but Tommy could also make out she was flying a distress flag at the main. With the wind set and the current from the river pulling northwards, the brig could make good and potentially beat out sea while the tide still ebbed so time was of the essence. If she delayed there was every chance that the tide would turn and of her coming ashore at either Bates Island or worse anywhere further north. Beyond Bates Island there was nothing but rocks and high cliffs until Blyth sands. She would be lost for sure. Tommy lowered the glass and turned back to the group of men who had all managed to gather behind him, and they we're all looking up anxiously into his face. He tried to assume an air of calmness and passed the telescope back to Joe Robinson.?  

 

"She looks heavy in the water and she's flying the distress flag, but the crew at the mooth (Tynemouth) will have seen her too. We'll just keep an eye on her, and if she doesn't manage to beat off by noon we'll get the lifeboat ready." He paused for another look at the brig and then went on. "It'll be a bugger of a pull to get to her in this sea." he said thoughtfully. "Billy, can you run and see if you can find Mr. Redford". Billy Dodds was the youngest and fittest men in the lifeboat crew, and could soon run round and raise the coxswain. If needs be, they would fire the gun to get the lifeboats crew together, but for now word of mouth was enough. ?  

 

In no time all all it seemed half the village had gathered on the Bank Top. Clearly apart from those already at their business on the front, Billy had not only told Mr Redford but everyone else in the village. As Billy returned breathless, Barty Taylor quipped "God Billy, did you put an advert in the Journal" much to everyone's amusement.  

 

After brief wait, Mr Redford came up in his full seagoing gear. ?He was a good pilot, and a good coxswain, he could get a crew to pull hard on their sweeps and come right up under a stricken Boats lee side, but ask for guidance in a crisis on land and he had no idea. His only advice was immediately to launch the Percy. But before he could give that order, Tommy cut across him. "There nee point in taking her oot" he said in a confident voice. "She's aal-ready too far up. We'll never catch her. She'll be a-grooned long afore we get to her". His accent and dialect made his words slur but every man present could easily understand him.? 

 

"Tom, Tom", a woman's voice suddenly came though the gathered crowd, and pushing her way through came his daughter Bessie. She was the only one that called him Tom, not Dad, or father, or even Tommy. She was wearing the traditional Cullercoats fishwife's blue skirt, a huge piece of flannel pleated many times and wrapped around her waist with a white apron on top. On her upper body she wore a flowered blouse covered by a thick knitted shawl she had made herself wrapped around her neck several times. She wore no hat or bonnet. This was becoming a trend with the younger girls, but the older fishwives preferred to wear both a linen cap with their shawl over the top. It was considered very unseemly show ones hair. All of the men wore hats too. ?"There's a crew coming up from the mooth" Bessie said pointing back the way she'd came. The crew from the mooth meant Tynemouth's lifeboat crew. As her words died, the crowd parted and several men could be seen lumbering towards them dragging a miscellaneous collection of ropes and tubes. Now with Bessie at his side, Tommy walked forward to greet the new arrivals. The Tynemouth rocket crew had clearly dragged their equipment all the way from their base and were following the brig with the optimistic hope of launching their breeches buoy if and when the brig came aground.  

 

There was a sudden snow flurry which briefly caused an end to any conversation, and when it passed as quickly as it had arisen, someone suggested the two crews retired to 'The Queens Head' for a debate. Following a brief discussion between the crews and a couple of pints of ale, it was agreed that there was no point in putting the lifeboat out, and that they would be better served with the Tynemouth plan, as it was dubbed. As they left the pub however, they were confronted by a cheerful but numerous gathering of people that seemed to comprise the entire village if not more, some having arrived from Tynemouth across the long sands which were now completely exposed. Being the first out of the pub, Tommy found himself addressing the crowd with the plan. "We ganna head oot alang the path to Whitley and hope that the brig is able to cla off. If she disent, and she comes ashore, well use the tynemooth lads rocket gear to get the crew awa". The crowd muttered its consent and the unlikely gathering headed north off out of the village, across the burn, and passed Browns Bay.?  

 

There were now several telescopes in the gathering and these were handed around constantly. The men of the lifeboat crews also kept a watch. Increasingly it became apparent that the brig wasn't able to claw off and was struggling to maintain its northward direction. It's leeway was moving it closer into shore. By the time that the crowd had reached Whitley sands, having walked around 2 miles to get to this point, it seemed that whatever was happening on the brig, her fate had been decided. She had turned significantly toward them and it was clear that she was trying to run for the beach. She was still a long way off though, and it would be touch and go if she made it to the sand or the rocks that trended out from the Brier Dene just short of the dreaded Bates Island.  

 

Curiously the gathering had taken on a party atmosphere. Perhaps this was something to do with it being January the 1st, or perhaps it was just the spirit of camaraderie. As they passed the path up to Whitley several more people joined the throng and as it had become straggled, people could be seen all along the cliff tops back to Cullercoats. They could clearly see the brig now, hull-up. They could even make out people on-board with the naked eye. A mixture of horror and gleeful expectation filled the air, even as several snow flurries tried to dampen their spirits.  

 

Tommy, his daughter, and a group of about twenty men let the procession. They had at last reach the Brier Dene where a small brook emanated onto the beach. He knew this stop well as he often fished for Salmon off the Dene, often illegally. This marked the last point of sand onto which the brig could have ran safely ashore. As they watched with great expectation, they were filled with the ever increasing certainty that the brig would not make the landfall it desired. It was touch and go right up to the moment when, about a half mile off shore, she struck. The tide had been racing up the beach for some time now, and the rocks that would have been uncovered early and therefore of little risk or consequence, were now submerged and deadly. A significant silence passed among the men, and then a solitary voice spoke out. It was the leader of the Tynemouth crew, and he said what they all thinking. "Poor souls. God help them.".?  

 

"But the rocket gear, the rocket gear". It's was Bessie, the only woman to have remained with the lead group. "We can send out the breeches buoy". Tommy, who was standing just behind her, reached out and rested his had on her shoulder. "It canna be lass. They're too far oot to get a line te them". Silence descended again. "But the lifeboat. See. She's not ganin doon.", she persisted, "we can gan and get the Porcy". She pronounced Percy as Porcy as they all did. "We canna beat up against this tide lass" responded Barty, "itd tek aal neet".  

 

Bessie wouldn't be put down. She had never been beaten and she wouldn't be now. She fought with herself, struggling to find an answer in head. There must be a way, there must be. She stared at the brig again. She could see the doomed men on the deck as clear as anything. What could be done, what? In desperation she tried another tack. It came to her in a split second. "We could bring the lifeboat here, ower land....".  

 

There was a torrent of comments to Bessie's suggestion.?  

"It'd be impossible. It's ower 40 foot lang, and most weight a ton."  

"10 ton"  

"An it's snowing again"  

"There's nee road"  

"Divent be daft lass"  

"Aal these folk are in the way"  

Some others weren't so polite neither and Bessie turned her back slowly on the men. She was hurt. ?Hurt and angry. Didn't they want to save these men? Could they just stand here and watch them die?  

 

But after the ensuing pause, Tommy spoke up in her defence. "No wait... The lass has got a point".?  

 

"We could pull the boat here". "We've got Davy's horses that pull the boat up the bank, and the people could help push it. Look at them aal. There's hundreds on em."?  

They surveyed the crowd that was tagging behind them and that streamed out, thinning along in direction they had come. All along the cliff path people were walking towards them or just standing watching. There were probably old folk still trying to get the bank out of Cullercoats miles back. Mostly the fittest villagers were with them, but this was supplemented by many more from Whitley and the outlying farms and buildings.  

 

"Come on, let's get back for her" "Run if you can." called Tommy over his shoulder as he and Bessie took up the pace and the others followed in their wake. "Billy, Geordie, get aal the crew together and find Mr Redford again. Jackie, Frank, Willy, tell the folks what we're deeing. Ask them to help. Lasses and woman too, everyone. Get some o' them to wait on the path for when we come back, fresh legs like.".  

 

And so off they all went. Some running, some walking. Passing people still coming up. Back down the path into the wind and snow. The cold was forgotten, the wind was forgotten. Only the task in hand mattered. They would never let a single man perish if they could. Tomorrow it might be them, today it was someone else.  

 

Tommy wasn't first into Cullercoats, that honour was given to the youngest and the fittest of the crew, but it was close. Of course it wasn't a straight run by any means. There was constant stopping along the way and countless explanations to the people on the path who were still heading the other way to view the wreck. As he did arrive though, he was pursued by many, many other people. It was comical to see such a variety of dresses and jackets and hats following him along the cliff tops. In fact as Tommy headed down the slope to the beach, he could see the lifeboat was already out and the team of horses, 6 big cart horses, being harnessed into their traces. The boat itself sat on a carriage with two huge wheels set amidships and two more smaller wheels at the front to take the weight of the heavier stern. The larger wheels had rims over a foot wide, which were needed for beach work, but they would manage muddy tracks just as easily provided the land itself was fairly level. Once the horses were harnessed in, two longer ropes were led out in front of them onto which people were already gathering. These would be used to help pull the whole while other folk gathered around the sides and the back of the boat. Davy Hamblin, who owned the horses stood alone at the head in front of his team, and once it was agreed that all was ready, he started to guide the team in a large circle from its starting point facing seaward outside the lifeboat house, curving right to face inland at the base of the slope.  

 

With around 50 people pulling on the traces, 6 cart horses and a large number of others bringing up the rear, the boat moved majestically up the slope and through the village. Passing the yard on the left where he and Bessie lived, Tommy thought longingly about his warm, comfy home, but they continued up Front Street and down to the first major obstacle, the burn at the north of the village. There were 3 burns to cross before they got close to Brier Dene. Each one had a bridge of sorts plus numerous fording points, but each in turn brought its own difficulties. The bridges, if there at all, were too thin and useless for such a large and length undertaking. So each brook needed to be forded and as the carriage began its way down the inclines, each set of wheels got stuck in turn. The front wheels were pulled out easily by the sheer force of the pulling party, however the larger wheels kept getting bogged down. The whole carriage would pick up speed as it descended, causing them to thump into the small streams and nestling down in the mud. Then the horses and pullers alike had to strain to drag them from their suction. On more than one occasion the stern of the boat got caught on the down slope as the rest came up the upward slope, and at one point the huge wheels actually left the ground, and much extra pushing and pulling was needed to free it. The villagers did themselves proud, though, many gave up, they were quickly replaced by others from the large crowd that wandered alongside or who were waiting where they had been passed previously. The snow got heavier and more frequent, and the wind got stronger, and as the afternoon light started to dim, the boat finally arrived at the hollow of Duchess Dene by Whitley Lodge, which is the last launching place before Brier Dene. Then the crowd dissipated somewhat. Many just lay down and took their ease, while others headed out along the strand to get a better view. Here also the lifeboat crew assembled. Tommy had helped with the pulling and pushing, but after an all too brief stint he had just walked alongside and offered encouragement. Not that he was shy, he wasn't but he needed to keep his strength up for when it came his time to pull on his oar. In the time it had taken to get the lifeboat to its launch, the situation of the brig had got a whole lot worse. She was still there on the rocks, and the men could still be seen on-board. If anything she had ridden higher on the rocks and come slightly closer in, but so the tide had risen too. Every wave now broke over her and her foremast had gone by the board. She was now a tumble of spars and rigging. As the lifeboat was readied for sea and ran down to the water, the crew stood aside and took a bite to eat provided by the throng.?  

 

As soon as the Percy was in the water she was buffeted by the waves breaking over her prow. The crew climbed quickly into her before she got too far out and the 15 men took their stations. Tommy was second oar on the port side. Mr Redford, John Taylor and Billy Stocks were in the stern while Jackie Chisholm took his place forward. 10 men took their places at the oars while the remaining 2 settled out of the way under the fore cover. They would act as reserve rowers and linesmen. Men and women alike were around the rear of the boat, pushing her into the surf, heedless of their own danger, soaked to the skin. Soon the sweeps were biting into the water and she surged forward and into the tempest. The rowers pulled as if it were their own soles they were trying to save. Every wave pushed them back towards the beach, every stroke pulled them further towards the stricken vessel.  

 

After extraordinary exertion and what seemed to be an eternity of time the Percy approached the brig from under its stern. If she could have sank she would have, but the rocky outcrop beneath her still held her. With each breaker she lifted perceptibly and laid over more and more. As the lifeboat arrived the brig took a massive wave amidships and she surged forward to close gap between them. Side on to the waves now she listed terribly. The men on-board were clinging to the rigging which was well out over the sea but as the waves hit her, they swung up into the air and back down with what must have been a sickening lurch. ?The Percy was brought expertly under her starboard lee side and they were made fast together, both moving in unison with the madness of the waves. It was like the sea, in its desperation, knew that the rescuers had come to take Poseidon's prize, and was making a last great effort to win the race for their soles. The spray from the waves poured over its deck and into the Percy. The huge impact of the waves crashed through the very fabric of the lifeboat. The duke, when laying down the requirements for the lifeboat had made sure it would be self-righting, he had made sure it would be totally buoyant, but with every assault the crew felt nearer to their God than they ever had done. And as they made fast to the brig, the men who had thought themselves doomed only minutes before came tumbling across. 6 of them although one was terribly gashed across his face by a loose line. With the impact of another wave the lines parted and the boats separated. The last of the 6 men jumped for his life but missed his hold, plunging into the sea between the boats right at Tommy's side. As the man disappeared beneath the water, without a thought, Tommy lunged for him, he too plunging deep into the sea. A mate caught his waist and hung on, and others caught the second man and with a will they pulled them both back in board. As they emerged of the water it was found that Tomm'ys aim had been true and the limp body of the man was still held firmly in his clenched fist, rescued from certain death.  

 

Now as the boats parted for good, the men had a moment to reflect before they could put their sweeps back into the water and pull for shore. And then, among the deafening tumult of the sea, came a cry from within the lifeboat, a single word ..... "Wait".  

 

It was Billy Stocks. He stood with his hand outstretched, his finger pointing back to the brig. Every man on the Percy turned in unison to look back across the ever widening gap, to the shattered brig.?In her lee shrouds they could see a boy, pitiful and wretched, clinging to a spar. Suddenly the brig took a dreadful lurch and was laid over by the surf, her masts now touching the sea. They could clearly see the boy's face. He had a serious head wound and blood poured from it. A wave drenched him and momentarily the blood was gone, only for it to return in time for the cycle to be repeated. As one, on an unheard word of command, the rescuers put themselves to their oars and rowed, the boat turning quickly on its rudder as they beat back towards the hulk. She was sinking rapidly and now they could just make out the boys heart wrenching cries. But the rigging was now between them and the brig. They couldn't go in any closer. They called to the boy to let go and strike out towards them but he wouldn't, he couldn't his being so great. He just shook his terrified head and sobbed. Tommy felt his heart break in that moment. Tears came to his eyes and as he looked around at the other men, he saw pale faces and tears. Then as one they pulled together. With no regard now for themselves, then pulled into the mass of rigging on the water. If she sank she might take them all of their account but they paid no heed to the danger. Sadly the surge of waves over the brig was too great, and they pushed the lifeboat away. The men pulled again and again, but to no avail. Each wave took them apart, smashing into the brig, breaking her apart, tearing at her fabric and dashing her to pieces. The boy was seen briefly, his hands clasped in prayer perhaps, and then he and the Lovely Nelly were gone.?  

 

There was a brief passage when time itself was out of joint. Stillness pervaded and there was a silence in every man while each stared at where the brig had been, where the boy had been. And in that time they felt the icy hand of death. Each man had to find something deep within himself and decide whether to remain in limbo or to summon up that strength needed to re-join the living. And they found their strength, they wanted to live. And so time began again, slowly at first, dragging itself back up to its normal speed, and the noise and movement gradually picked up to its previous levels if not worse. The Percy suddenly started to pitch hard in mountainous seas, much worse than when the brig had protected them  and they had found reality again 

 

And the lifeboat pulled back to the shore.  

 

The boy was called Thomas Thompson and he had been a cabin boy on the Lovely Nelly out of Seaham. He was 12 years old. About the same age as little Jane would have been if she had lived. And Tommy cried for him and the men around him cried.?

  

Back on shore the mood was mixed. It wasn't until they arrived back that the loss was fully understood. Some were pleased at seeing the wreck, others were pleased at the saving of the crew of the Nelly. Others were bored and wandered off home after a day of excitement. As darkness now gathered round the lifeboat crew, so did their loved ones and friends from the village. ?There were hugs and handshakes, there were tears of sadness and tears of joy. Men had been saved and the Percy's?crew was safe, but nothing could shake away that last look on the face of the lost boy.?The crew of the Brig seemed beyond salvation. They had been struggling against wind and tide and their own demons for hours if not days, and they were all carried from the boat and passed up the steep cliff paths to be billeted in the Whitley Lodge until the carts came to take them to North Shields where there was an infirmary and from where they could set sail once again to their homes and families. The lifeboat was dragged up and made secure but Tommy and the other men of the crew took little notice. They slowly trudged off back along the dark cliff path towards Cullercoats and the walk back took more than twice the time it had taken earlier for this was the fourth time they made the journey that day. Bessie clung to her father as they walked and exhausted they arrived at their little house late in the evening. The winters night gathered tightly around them and the snow lay deep around their ankles. In the lights of the village, the men bid their goodnights to one another, and they drifted into their homes. A few went and drowned their sorrows in the pub, a few went home alone, but most were in the bosom of their families. Tommy and Bessie sat in silence in the tiny house.  

 

And the crash of the sea still could be heard, and the small village, hugging the cliff tops, lay silently in darkness for yet another night.  

 

The end. 

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