8. Jun, 2017



During my first year at Great Yarmouth Grammar School, my class was given the homework of describing the life of a “hero” from choice.
I could not decide who to choose so I asked my father. Without hesitation he replied, “Sydney Harris!”
5.30 am
Cox’n Sydney Harris was out of his bed and dressed. As he went out one door of his Pier Walk house, his wife went out of the other, away to rouse his crew.
Within half an hour, the men of the number One Gorleston lifeboat, “Mark Lane” were being towed out over the harbour bar.
A violent nor-easterly gale. The crew were already numbed by icy wind and sleeting rain.
The Cockle Shoal. A steamer on the sands, stern down. The cox’n took stock. Steering gone, bridge destroyed, fires out, probably holed, there was still hope for the crew of the SS,Clunie if…
Hi instantly shaped to veer down on her lee-side. Four hands had made themselves fast in the rigging. Harris shouted his command above the now raging North Sea. Strong arms snatched the men to safety.
Then came an almighty lurch. The apparently grounded steamer suddenly began to run before the teeth of the storm, right along the sandbank,
With the “Mark Lane’s” cable running out, Harris was forced to change his plan. With the wind shrieking about him, he gave the order to haul back and weigh anchor.
Coming about, the burly cox’n and his rain-blinded crew started the chase after the rolling, unmanageable “Clunie.” Cork-jacketed men bent to the oars.
Again alongside, a new danger immediately threatened. Stays holding the “Clunie’s” deck cargo, gave way. With the casks now crashing about him and pounded by the ever-worsening seas, Harris worked his way round to the listing steamer’s bows. With a mighty effort, he managed to get one end of the line to her and the other end to the waiting tug.
Making the “Mark Lane” in turn fast to the “Clunie,” a strange convoy was then able to pitch its way through the rolling sea-valleys into Gorleston to be met by the cheers of hundreds waiting on the quayside.
One of the most decorated men in the history of the Lifeboat Service had succeeded again.

Standing well over six feet, weighing sixteen stone and with shoulders as wide as Norfolk, Sydney,”Sparks” Harris would have been an imposing figure in any company. Born in Gorleston in 1857, the son of a deep sea mariner and named after the Australian port in which his father was docked at the time of his birth, he inherited generations of seamanship.
First joining the Lifeboat Service in 1874, he becam cox’n in 1884-the position he was to hold until his eventual retirement in 1921.
Married to a Gorleston girl, they had six sons and six daughters. I once interviewed the youngest of these, Mrs. E. Saunders of Cliff Hill, then in her eighties and still retaining vivid memories of her father.
“He loved children and was very gentle with us. He was a man of little education, but great natural dignity and intelligence. To him, going to sea was “like walking out.”
In accounting for her father’s powers of leadership, Mrs. Saunders pointed out that never did he take a boat out without the full agreement of his crew and never did they refuse.
She then summed up the cox’n’s life by quoting his personal motto, “Let not the Deep swallow me up.”

Saving the “ Clunie” might well have been all in a day’s work to Sparks but it did bring him the second clasp to the Silver Service Medal first won on a freezing night in 1905. In terrible conditions he had saved the brig “Celerity” after she had run aground off Lowestoft.
Nine months later, the Wick lugger, “Fruitfull” also grounded, this time off Gorleston beach. All attempts at floating a line ashore having failed, Sydney took what seemed to be the only course left open to him. Seizing one end of a lifeline, he plunged into the roaring surf and using his great physical strength, swam the 40 metres out to the vessel. This gallant action saved eight lives and brought Sydney his first clasp.
The last and record-breaking fifth was to come in 1916 when in conditions he was later to describe as being the worst in even his experience, he saved all but one of the crew of the Jersey schooner, “Dart,” the one unlucky man having frozen to death before the Gorleston boat could arrive.
Of these and scores of other no less remarkable feats, the greatest was that of 26th August, 1912.

The “SS Egyptian” with a crew of 33 was twelve hours out of Antwerp bound for Newcastle. In the early hours of the morning she was blown off course and onto the Cross Ridge by a storm that was later to develop into a freak hurricane.
Warned by distress flares, the “Mark Lane” left Gorleston under tow from the tug, “George Jewson.” By the time that they were off Scroby Sands and within sight of the “Egyptian,” Sydney and his crew found themselves in the middle of a blasting nor-nor-easterly gale.
Only too well aware of the dangers, Sydney promptly countermandered the orders of the “Egyptian’s” master to lower his boats. With the keel of the “Mark Lane” already scraping the bottom, Harris preferred to take off as many of the crew as he could himself. He picked up eleven, including Captain Cherry’s wife and and son. With the extra weight and the water already shallowing, he had to reluctantly abandon the rest, even then having to run over the dangerous shoals to get back to harbour.
Eager to complete the rescue, Harris put out again as soon as possible-2.30 that same afternoon. In the teeth of a wind now measuring hurricane force, visibility was so bad that he couldn’t even see the grounded steamer.
Two hours later he tried again but his time was beaten back by the torrential rain.
Throughout the following night, the “Egyptian” continued to send off distress signals.
Finally, 24 hours after she had originally struck, Sydney Harris prepared for what was to be his last attempt. Again towed to within sight of the “Egyptian,” he saw why she had been so difficult to find - the storm had been so violent that it had actually shifted her to a position some distance from her original sighting.
Harris prepared to wear down on her on his anchor but with thirty foot waves breaking about him, could get no closer than forty feet from the steamer.
This was enough. A line was floated to her on a bladder. In turn it was attached to a steel hawser, down which the rest of the “Egyptian’s” crew were able to slide to safety.
Last off his ship, Captain Cherry was later to praise his rescuer’s sustained skill and courage, adding that the Gorleston man deserved a special award quite apart from the Silver Service clasp soon to be his for the fourth time.
It was to come two years later.

Invited by the American government to nominate one outstanding recipient of the Congressional Cross of Honour, from its many deserving members, the Lifeboat Authorities had no difficulty in selecting just one man- Sydney Harris, for his outstanding work on that August day.
Presenting the medal in Yarmouth Town Hall and having to stretch to reach the big man’s chest, the Mayor spoke of his “zeal and dogged persistence.” Lt. Hall on behalf of the Authorities read the citation, adding that,
“The record of Sydney Harris and his crew is unique, even in the annals of the Lifeboat Institution.”

Winner in terms of courage, the equivalent of five Victoria Crosses, cited many times in reports, it is unlikely that he would have chosen any of them for an epitaph. He would surely have preferred something else.
Sometime after his death in 1928, a local man was heard to say,
“Sydney Harris? He would have taken the “Mark Lane” to hell and back….come to think of it, he often did!”

So how was my homework received? All the other lads were accorded nodding approval for their choices of subjects…mainly generals who I later discovered, did for more of their own men than the enemy, dubious politicians, sportsmen, scientists etc. Then it was my turn. The master sniffed and asked me if Sydney Harris was really a hero in comparison with everyone else’s choices?
Aged just eleven, I could not articulate what I now believe to be true. I am the first to recognise the extreme courage shown by the armed forces throughout time. But does this make them heroes? For me a true hero is not somebody who for whatever reason takes the lives of others but who rather extends those lives and/or enriches them.
Such was Sydney Harris.