DEATH BY ACCIDENT
“Death by Accident” ruled the Great Yarmouth Coroner’s Jury after the inquest into the death of William Dawkins, one of the 12 victims of the 16 man crew lost from the Gorleston lifeboat, “Rescuer,” on
Saturday 14th January 1866.
Most details of the disaster that had left nine widows and 30 children largely unprovided for, were substantially agreed upon…
FACT…At 11.55am the “Rescuer” put out to offer assistance to vessel “X” deemed to be in difficulty in Yarmouth Roads.
The other Gorleston boat, “Friend Of All Nations” (FOAL) followed her.
There was a sou’sou’westerly gale blowing and the tide was on its third ebb.
As the Rescuer approached the harbour bar she was “about 100 fathoms” (200 metres) ahead of FOAN and on her port (left hand) side.
Suddenly the Rescuer’s rudder that drew 4 feet hit the sandbar and at the same moment she was hit by a blast of wind and wave amidships that turned her over.
James Clarke, coxswain of FOAN went to give immediate assistance but was only able to save four of the Rescuer’s crew. The boat along with the body of William Dawkins was later washed up on Yarmouth beach opposite the Wellington Pier.
Most factors leading to the accident were agreed by everyone at the time and germaine to my investigation.
Today when we think lifeboats, we think RNLI but in the Gorleston of 1866, it did not exist. Both the Rescuer and FOAN were each owned by a company of boatmen themselves. Their primary function was maritime salvage, for which they were paid by insurance companies, but would obviously save endangered people as well.
Each of the vessels was sound. Rescuer had been built locally 10 years before and if not of the self-righting principle had been out in many worse gales.
Her coxswain, Robert Spillings, and his crew were declared to be highly competent and experienced, free of criticism for the disaster that was blamed on the gale and the ebb tide reducing depth of current over the bar.
It was also clear that the men had not been wearing their cork life-jackets, only everyday clothes…Guernsey smocks and heavy sea boots.
At the time there were two signals that a sea-going vessel could fly in the case of distress. In extremity it would be the Merchant Navy’s ensign, the “Red Duster” flown upside down with the Union flag at the bottom.
In less serious circumstances it would be a “waif” (from old Norse, “veif,” a flag or waving thing, sometimes spelled weft, weif or wheft).
At William’s inquest, any number of witnesses like Edward Westwood, survivor of the Rescuer who claimed to have seen “the Union downwards on the main topmast rigging” of vessel “X; another jurer claimed to have seen the inverted union flag; another said he could produce “a hundred witnesses” who had seen it; another suggested that the disaster had been seen from vessel “X” that then hauled down the ensign and raised the waif instead, (as if to shed any hint of blame?)
On the other hand, the Coroner introduced a cautionary note. “I was informed by other persons that they had not seen a Union down.”
Then came coxswain of FOAN, James Clarke. He was adamant that vessel X had showed a waif tied up and that he had not seen “a union downwards.”
This was supported by Juror Mr. Warren junior, who along with his father was also a survivor of the Rescuer. He stated that he had been at home and when told vessel “X” was only flying a waif he did not intend to go out and only went because the other boat did. He too was adamant that the only signal he saw was a waif tied up.
Lastly it was a matter of record that when a boat finally did get to vessel “X”, all the master wanted was oil for his lamps, an anchor and a chain.
The Coroner had the last word. He observed “that for men to attempt to cross the bar and risk their lives when they considered the lives of others to be in danger, was a brave and heroic act; but if it was only a waif that was exhibited, it was very rash and wrong to run such a risk.”
Several of the Jury affirmed that they themselves saw the signal, and that it was a union flag downwards. They expressed themselves fully satisfied to the cause of the accident to WilliamDawkins , and returned a verdict of “Accidental Death.”
At this point I must come clean and confess personal involvement . My maternal grandfather was Alfred Dawkins, born 1868 in Gorleston. William Dawkins, had he lived, would have been his uncle. Nearly 150 years later, there are questions I would like to put and supplementthose of the Coroner on behalf of my family.
1. The central issue was over the distress signal flown by vessel “X”. Was it a waif or an inverted ensign? Coxswain James Clarke of FOAN clearly thought it was the former and despite getting away first, sailed close to the breakwater taking the longer line round its curve and under its protection fom the gale force sou‘sou‘westerly. Robert Spillings believed the latter and took the shorter, straight line over the middle of the bar that was his undoing. Did he do this to beat FOAN and get first to what he believed would be a large salvage payment?
2.Were not the crew of Rescuer at fault for not wearing their cork life-saving jackets? At that time and much later, boatmen, like trawler men, claimed that the jackets hampered movement and so increased rather than diminished danger. (I have played Rugby so know how stupid men can be en group once the testosterone has kicked in, and responsibility diluted!)
3. To what extent was the master of vessel “X” culpable for flying the wrong distress signal? If he did, then could it not have been argued that he had lured out the Rescuer on what mounted to a nuisance call and left him open to prosecution?
4.Could it have been Rescuer’s belief in needing to save people that had caused them to take the course they did?
5.Why was vessel X never named in the local press? Could it have not been a bona fide merchant vessel but a smaller boat captained and crewed by amateurs, however unlikely at that time of year?
6.Why were its master and crew along with as many local witnesses as possible never questioned?
7.Having seen the fate of the Rescuer, could the master of vessel “X” have hauled down the ensign and replaced it with a waif, knowing they were in no danger and only required the oil, anchor and chain eventually delivered to him?
8.Would such an experienced mariner have ever raised the inverted ensign in the first place, knowing himself to be in no danger, only in need of supplies?
9. Regarding local witnesses, I wonder how many could actually have seen the distress signal with their naked eyes. Vessel “X” must have been near to half a mile off shore in the middle of a SSW January gale amidst heavy rain. The only people who could have been reasonably sure, were the telescope-equipped Rescuer and FOAN lookouts in their towers. It was their interpretations that determined the courses of action taken by the boats and the attitudes of spectators. Why were they not rigorously questioned?
10. Could there have been a local closing of ranks over the sighting/non sighting of the ensign to exonerate the cox’n and crew of the Rescuer from any blame of miscalculation? (Fishing communities like ours were a clannish lot).
11. Could the local press have been biased in omitting some details and in their choice of words? Would not strong criticism of the local
heroes that lifeboatmen become, seriously affect circulation and subsequent loss of advertising revenue?
However, this is not quite the end of the story. I have in my possession the original copy of the “Yarmouth Independent” from the time. My grandmother and I long puzzled over an address written on the top of the front page….to a John Dawkins in Layer-de la Haye in Essex. It had been posted, had the original stamp and was postmarked Wangford in Suffolk. Who was John Dawkins and how did the paper end up with the family here in Gorleston?
I discovered that the John Dawkins was in fact William Dawkins’s brother and my late grandfather’s father. As a bricklayer he was currently working away from home with another brother building a terrace of cottages in Layer de-la Haye. The sender? It was the three brothers’ widowed mother who had remarried and moved to Wangford in Suffolk with her new husband. John Dawkins had returned home to Gorleston, bringing the paper back with him. He passed it onto grandfather, nan passed it onto my mother who in turn gave it to me.
The research and my nan’s encouragement started my lifelong interest in the process as much as the product of History so in a very real sense William Dawkins has been with me for most of my life.
In asking the above questions I have not sought answers as they are beyond my present reach and I would not wish to blacken the reputations of brave mariners by advancing fanciful theories not based on evidence. I owe that to great-great uncle William Dawkins. Should you have any ideas, questions or most importantly further evidence of your own, please do contact me. I would appreciate your input.