Tragedy led to first St Abbs lifeboat

editorial image

there was great excitement in St Abbs this time 100 years ago as they eagerly awaited the arrival of the village’s first lifeboat, the ‘Helen Smitton’ and local photographer John Wood was on hand to record the occasion.

A report in ‘The Berwickshire News’, dated April 25, 1911 read: “The new St Abbs motor lifeboat is due to arrive toady.

“Lieut. Robes RN, district inspector of lifeboats is in charge; and the crew includes Mr John Wilson, coxswain; Mr Robt. Aitchison, motor mechanic, Mr Thomas Wilson, (bowman); and Mr Hugh Rae, left Harwich with the boat on Tuesday, the stopping places being Girlestone, Scarbro, Tynemouth and Berwick.

“On its arrival at St Abbs, it is expected that the boat will be taken out with its full crew for a trial trip.

“The christening of the boat is not to be performed until August, and as is usually the case, the name is already settled in terms of a bequest.

“At all the ports stretching from North Berwick to Berwick, new lifeboats have been provided during the last few years, all of which are of the most modern and up-to-date construction. Not only so, but the officials have recently acknowledged the necessity for the institution of additional new stations.

“One of these was opened at Skateraw about three of four years ago, and is probably one of the most up-to-date and perfectly equipped in Scotland.

“It is a far cry from Skateraw to Eyemouth, but up to the present time any service work along the coast had to be undertaken by either of those stations, particularly the former.

“The need for an intermediate station was brought home to the parent institution by the shipping disaster of four year ago, when the ‘Alfred Erlandsen’ floundered on the reef of rocks close to St Abbs on a dark and stormy night.

“The crew were left in the terrible position of facing death for some hours, and unfortunately all were lost.

“Hence it was that after this shipping disaster a public meeting of the villagers was held, in conference with several officers of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and as the result of the appeal to the institution for a station and lifeboat for St Abbs, the committee of management in London at their next meeting assented to the application.

“After testing various boats they approved of the Watson type and also to the boat being by motor power.

“This is the first motor lifeboat that has been placed on the east coast and there is no question about it, no station more needs a vessel so propelled than St Abbs as its entrance-way is one of the worst on the whole of the coast, and it would have been quite impossible otherwise on many occasions to have “pulled” the boat out to sea in the face of the kind of weather experienced there, when the wind sets up.

“The new boat is propelled by motor power, but can also be managed by oar and sail. She is not a self-righter but belongs to the ‘Watson’ type.

“Details of the boat: Official No. 603; built in 1910 by Thomas Ironworks, Rowedge; cost £3563; size 38ft in length by 10ft beam; engine one 4 cylinder, 24hp Wolseley; fuel 50 gallons capacity consumed at 4¼ gallons per hour; screw 21 inch Villinger reversible propellor; speed 7.5 knotts. Coxswains of ‘Helen Smitton’ - John Wilson, from 1911 to 1931 and James Nisbet, 1931 to 1936.

“The customary carriage is dispensed with, and the boat remains when not in service at the top of the slip, on a tipping skid.

“The boat will be stowed upon a raised platform at the head of the slipway, the deck of which is from four to six feet above the pier surface. The storehouse where part of the equipment for the boat and crew will be housed has been erected on a site on the road to Northfield just above the harbour.

“Thus readily adapted to work off Berwickshire, the new St Abbs lifeboat will certainly prove a most valuable addition to the life-saving equipment of the coast, and it may be taken for granted that nothing will be wanting on the part of management and crew to make her record worthy and honourable whenever danger calls.”

During her time of service the ‘Helen Smitton’ was launched 27 times and saved 37 lives. Fourteen effective launches: March 19, 1912 to assist three local fishing boats, stood by; March 20, 1912, to assist the ketch ‘Colonel Moir’ of Banff, stood by; November 15, 1915, saved two St Abbs fishing boats ‘Rose’ and ‘Corancopia’ and eight crew; April 20, 1917, launched to assist SS ‘Ring holm’ of Bergen, saved one; May 4, 1917 - SS ‘Odense’ of Copenhagen, saved two; May 9, 1917, SS ‘Kitty’ of Grimsby, saved 10; December 8, 1922, motor fishing yawl ‘Violet’ of St Abbs in tow of yawl ‘Welfare’, stood by; February 26, 1923, motor fishing yawl ‘Guide’ of St Abbs, escorted; September 26, 1932, fishing boat of St Abbs, stood by; August 20, 1934 motor fishing boats ‘Victory’ and ‘Billow’s Crown’ of St Abbs, escorted; December 5, 1934, SS ‘Dunscore’ of Glasgow, saved six; March 17, 1935, steam trawler ‘Tyrwhitt’ of South Shields, assisted to save vessel and 10 crew; December 24, 1935, fishing boats ‘Victory’, ‘Violet’ and ‘Laurel’ of St Abbs, stood by; February 21, 1936, fishing boat ‘Myrtle’ of St Abbs, escorted.