The Margate Surfboat Disaster of 1897

Featured in the November 2009 handbook.

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Any historic town which has earned its living from the sea has a sad tale to tell of lives lost by its boatmen fighting the elements, and Margate is no exception. At the Nayland Rock is a fine bronze statue of a Lifeboat man in full gear shading his eyes as he gazes at the spot where 9 brave boat men perished when the surfboat ‘FRIEND TO ALL NATIONS’ capsized early one wild, dark winter’s morning whilst putting out on an errand of mercy to a vessel in distress. It is necessary here to point out the Surfboat had nothing to do with the R.N.L.I, but a craft of relatively shallow draught and light build (similar in design to those still in use by the Australian Lifeguards), specially constructed for use over sandbanks, of which there are many out in the Estuary. Owned and maintained on a share system by a co-operative of the town’s Boatmen, the main part of the income was through salvage work of which there was much in the days of sail, but saving life was always the first and foremost priority when duty called.

In the evening of the 28th of November, 1897, a South-Westerly gale blew up, and overnight the wind flew to Nor-Nor-West and increased in strength to Storm Force, with some gusts being recorded of Hurricane Force. As a result of this a tempest struck our shore as huge seas whipped up by those winds crashed directly against our waterfront, causing much damage and the destruction of the marine palace on the 29th. this storm was to continue blowing with varying ferocity but always with that destructive Northern slat for several days, and it was in the early hours of the 2nd of December that tragedy struck.

At around 5:15 a.m., the ‘FRIEND TO ALL NATIONS’ was launched from the Harbour slipway into the inky blackness of that wild night, her mission to assist the London full-rigged ship ‘PERSIAN EMPIRE’, which had been damaged in collision with the West Hartlepool steamship ‘CARLISLE CITY’ the previous evening. As the Surfboat with her crew of 13 men reached the toe of the Nayland Rock to begin their long slog of tacking out into the Estuary in the teeth of the wind, one wave that was described by a survivor as ‘ a monster, a long, curling roller’ struck the boat, filling the sail and knocking her onto her beam ends before capsizing her completely to drift her in to the shore below Beach Houses through the seething cauldron over the rocks.

Oblivious to this drama in the darkness, the National Lifeboat ‘QUIVER launched some 15 minutes later and proceeded on her way to complete a successful service to ‘PERSIAN EMPIRE;. But here at Margate daybreak disclosed a sad scene as the bodies were recovered from the foreshore and it was realised that only 4 men had survived from the 13 who had set out into that storm.

The 9 dead men were the Coxswain, William Cook senior, his son also William, another son Robert Cook, George Ladd, Henry Brockman, John Dike, William Gill, Edward Crunden and Charles Troughton, not himself a boatmen but the Superintendent of the Margate Ambulance Corps who regularly went out in the boat to provide medical assistance when needed. The 4 survivors were Robert Ladd, Henry John Brockman, John James ‘Jacko’ Gilbert and Joseph ‘Joey’ Epps, a veteran Boatmen whose life was saved by him being trapped in an air pocket under the upturned boat.

The grief felt in Margate at the loss of so many loved ones, and just before Christmas too, was total and the whole town, dressed in black , plunged into mourning for their heroes. A national subscription to relieve the plight of the 5 widows and the orphans of the bereaved families was immediately started, and on the 8th of December, in a bitingly cold wind, the funeral procession left The Parade, which was a solid mass of people, to wind it’s way to St. Johns Church, where a service was read over the coffins before they were taken to the Cemetery. The whole length of the route was lined 3 or 4 people deep, and it was estimated that in the procession itself were as many as 3,000 folk. I shall return to this story in further issues.

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