The Lifeboat Calamity at Wells
One hundred and forty years ago today, my great-great-grandfather was drowned at sea.
John Elsdon, from Wells in Norfolk, was a fisherman, like many in Wells, and also served on the crew of the Wells lifeboat. In late October 1880 gales were lashing the east coast of England, and on November 1 The Times reported a disaster in Wells (p. 10):
“It is feared that by the capsizing of the lifeboat at Wells on Friday [October 29] 11 of the crew have been drowned. It appears that the boat went out to the assistance of the brig Ocean Queen, of Sunderland, but could not get alongside owing to the falling tide, and was returning when she was struck by a heavy sea, which capsized her, The crew consisted of Robert William Elsdon, harbour master and captain; John Elsdon, coxswain; Samuel Smith, Charles Smith, William Field, George Jay, William Green, Thomas Kew, Charles Hinds, John Stacey, Frank Abel, William Wordingham, and William Bell, all seamen. Of these only Thomas Kew and William Bell have been saved. One of the survivors states that the crew had on their cork jackets. Some clung to the boat, or were entangled in the gear, while others, separated from her, struck out for shore half-a-mile distant. The lifeboat did not right herself until she had been driven a considerable distance, and had her mast carried away. Bell was afterwards found in the boat; Kew swam ashore, and was picked up half dead by the coastguard. One or two bodies were picked up on Friday night and several others were recovered on Saturday. All the 11 drowned men were married, and leave families–Jay as many as eight children. The crew of the Ocean Queen walked ashore at low water.”
Robert William Elsdon was in fact the coxswain of the lifeboat, “Eliza Adams”, while John was his younger brother (and my ancestor). On November 4 The Times (p. 11) published a letter by the local MP which among other things adds the detail that the Wells lifeboat had already executed a rescue on the night of October 29 (of seven souls from the brig “Sharon’s Rose”) before it headed out again to the aid of “Ocean Queen”. In between trips out, the crew had largely been replaced, but the more experienced men, including Robert William Elsdon, 62, and John, 60, were involved in both efforts. Propelling a lifeboat in stormy seas was mainly done by rowing, and I cannot imagine how exhausted they were by the time they set out for the second time:
“Sir,–I venture to make appeal on behalf of the ten widows and 27 orphans of the gallant lifeboatmen who perished from the Wells lifeboat on Friday last. The facts of this distressing case have already been made generally known, and my present object is simply to ask your co-operation in helping me to bring the claims of the bereaved families under the notice of the British public. The lifeboat work has assumed a national character, and, therefore, naturally appeals to every one for sympathy and aid in such distressful circumstances. The district in which this calamity occurred is a poor one, and the county, being an agricultural one, has, like similar counties, suffered much from agricultural depression. I feel sure that the National Lifeboat Institution, to whom the lifeboat belonged, will, as usual, deal most liberally and generously with the fund for the relief of the widows and orphans, but the institution can hardly be expected to meet altogether the requirements of this distressing case. I therefore appeal with confidence to the co-operation of The Times in helping me to bring into prominent notice the strong and urgent claims of the widows and orphans of those noble men who sacrificed their own lives while attempting to save the lives of others. I may mention that the Wells lifeboat had only an hour or so previously been successful in saving a shipwrecked crew, and it was only on a second trip that this dreadful calamity happened, when she was attempting to save the crew of a Sunderland vessel. I beg to add that I shall be happy myself to receive contributions on behalf of the fund, or they may be paid to Messrs. Gurneys and Co., Bank, Wells, Norfolk, or to their London agents, Messrs. Barclay and Co., Lombard-street, E.C. I am yours faithfully, EDWARD BIRKBECK, M.P. for North Norfolk. Horstead-hall, Norwich, Nov. 3″
On November 20 (The Times p.8) subscriptions to the relief fund in the intervening fortnight are recorded. £1,000 from the National Lifeboat Association has been roughly doubled by subventions from such as HRH The Prince of Wales (£20), the Earl of Leicester (£100) and “Kelling Church Collection, per Rev. R. J. Roberts” (£1 3s 9d). Further contributions are invited, but I have no idea if the resulting sum was equal to the need. Robert William Elsdon’s widow Emily describes herself in the 1881 census, taken on April 3, as a “Lifeboat Annuitant”.
My great-grandfather (also called Robert William Elsdon), the son of John Elsdon, was in his mid-thirties by the time of his father’s death, and I think already a dock worker in the London Docks. My grandmother grew up in Poplar, and is listed in the 1901 census, at the age of 13, as a “Factory Lad”. John Elsdon’s widow Harriet, my great-great-grandmother, lived to the age of 91, dying in Wells in 1916, though I don’t know how well my grandmother knew hers. A photo survives of Harriet Elsdon with a daughter (I’m not as yet sure which: Harriet had six in total, I think), son-in-law and two granddaughters, the clothes of the latter suggesting a date in the early 1900s, when Harriet, born in 1824, was approaching eighty:
In 1906, at the initiative of Thomas Kew, one of the survivors, a memorial (image at the top) was unveiled near the Lifeboat House in Wells, with Harriet undoubtedly in attendance: there’s a photo of Kew in front of it here.
Forty years ago my mother and I visited Wells to see the memorial that she had heard about, and arrived, quite by chance, within a couple of days of the centenary.
You can donate to the RNLI here.