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The Story of a Lifeboat Hero


Alexandra Rocca

The history of the Lifeboat Service contains many stories of the brave deeds performed by the dedicated men who volunteer to risk their lives in order to save others. This is the story of one such man whose courage and unselfish devotion to duty have earned him a place in that history.

Chapter 1 - The Early Years

The story of Robert Smith begins more than 130 years ago. Born the son of a fisherman on the 12th July, 1849, he lived at Garden Square, Cullercoats, just a short distance from the sea that was to play such an important part in his life as he grew up.

As a child he attended an old Quaker school, where the main subject was spelling, and where the fee was one penny per week.

He liked to help his father, and when he was still quite young, it was not unusual for Robert to be seen walking up the coast to Hartley where he would collect limpets for baiting his father's nets. He was, in fact, only twelve years old when he joined the crew of a fishing boat.

However, it was the wreck of the S.S. Stanley on the Black Midden Rocks at Tynemouth in November, 1864 which decided Robert Smith's future. With other fishermen he could only watch helplessly as efforts were made to save drowning men from the wreck. He could not put their cries for help from his mind and became determined to join the Lifeboat Service as soon as he was able to pull an oar.

Chapter 2 - Some Famous Rescues

During the fifty years Robert Smith was with the Tynemouth Lifeboat, he was second coxswain for one year, and a coxswain for ten from 1910 until he retired in 1920 at the age of 71. He was coxswain of the first motor lifeboat, the "Henry Vernon" which was a rowing boat fitted with an engine. It was with this boat that Coxswain Smith commanded the epic rescue from the hospital ship "Rohilla" off Whitby in 1914. This was, however, only one of the gallant rescues achieved by Robert Smith and his crew.

In January, 1913, a call was made for the Tynemouth Lifeboat to go to the aid of the S.S. Dunelm which had gone aground near Blyth in a very strong gale. The sea was so rough that many of the crew felt it would be impossible to travel the ten miles to Blyth, and chose not to go. Coxswain Smith, however, felt that it was his duty to go, and against the advice of many onlookers, he set out with a crew of only five. He gripped the wheel of the "Henry Vernon" and prepared to meet the mountainous seas. After an hour's struggle the Lifeboat managed to get alongside the "Dunelm" and rescue all of the crew from the rigging to which they had been clinging for safety. On the return journey, a huge wave struck the Lifeboat and the force of it threw Coxswain Smith to the deck knocking him unconscious and causing the fracture of several ribs. Fortunately, the second coxswain took over, and they were able to return safely to the Tyne. A local newspaper at the time made the comment "this feat achieved by the Tynemouth Lifeboat crew deserves to rank as one of the most daring and most remarkable recorded in the history of the Lifeboat Service on the Tyne."

On the 19th November, 1916, another amazing rescue took place when the Norwegian steamer *Bessheim" was thrown onto rocks in the Tyne. Coxswain Smith was successful in guiding his boat to the fastly sinking ship, and in the three journeys it took, saved a total of 118 passengers and crew. The King of Norway presented him with a silver cup as a recognition of his gallantry on this occasion.

The following morning the "Henry Vernon" was called out again when the S.S. Muristan ran ashore in Blyth Bay and began breaking up. Whilst the ship was pounded by enormous waves, Coxswain Smith and his crew succeeded in rescuing 16 survivors and bring them back safely into Blyth harbour.

Perhaps the most notable rescue of all, however, was that which took place on the 30th October, 1914, when the "Rohilla" was wrecked off the coast of Whitby.

The "Rohilla" was a hospital ship on its way south to Dunkirk, and in addition to the crew, there were nurses and doctors on board. Because of the war, lights had been put out, and navigation was very difficult. A fierce storm was raging that night, and the "Rohilla" was driven onto a reef at Saltwick Nab. The local lifeboats were called out, but were unable to reach the wreck because of the terrible seas, and the "Rohilla" began breaking up, with the loss of many lives. It soon became obvious that the only chance of rescue for those that were left, was a motor lifeboat. The nearest was the "Henry Vernon" almost fifty miles away at Tynemouth. And so it was that Coxswain Smith and his crew set out on what was to become one of the most heroic stories in lifeboat history.

The journey to Whitby took about eight hours, with the crew struggling continuously to keep the lifeboat on course against the heavy seas. They eventually reached Whitby, and after a few hours rest, Coxswain Smith and his men started out on their rescue attempt.

The story of what followed is perhaps best told in the words of a newspaper reporter at the scene: "The light was just rising over the sea a half-past six when I saw the boat creep out of the harbour again and breast the breakers like a seabird as she headed straight out into calmer waters. Hastening with others to the top of the cliffs south of the town, I rejoined the crowd of watchers there, who gazed with eager intensity as the Lifeboat, looking fearfully small and frail, rode easily on the waves and throbbed her way towards the wreck. Nearer and nearer she got; and then, when within two hundred yards of the "Rohilla" she turned seawards.

Was she unable to face the current running at four knots an hour and the curling seas, still fierce and strong, though of diminished size? 'She'll never get there’ declared one of the watchers. But a burly fisherman remarked, 'Just wait, she knows what she's about.' Presently, when she had passed a few fathoms beyond and away from the wreck, she stopped dead, and discharged over the boiling sea, gallons and gallons of oil. It seemed that the ocean must laugh at these puny drops, yet the effect was remarkable; within a few seconds, as the oil spread over the surface of the water and was carried by the current towards the wreck, the waves appeared suddenly to be flattened down as by a miracle... In the meantime the lifeboat turned about, raced at full speed outside the line of breakers, past the stern of the wreck, and then turned directly towards the shore. The most dangerous moment came when she was inside the surf and broadside on to the waves; but, guided with splendid skill and courage, she moved forward steadily and a cheer of relief went out from the shore when she reached the lee of the wreck, immediately beneath the crowded bridge. The feelings of those on board as they saw salvation at hand can only be imagined.

But there was not a moment to be lost, for already the effects of the oil were beginning to pass off, and the waves were noticeably higher. Quicker than thought a rope was let down to the lifeboat and immediately figures could be discerned scrambling down into the boat... In less than a quarter of an hour more than fifty men had been taken into the boat. It was then, while the rest were preparing to leave the wreck, that two enormous waves were seen rolling up from the sea at tremendous speed. One after the other they swept over the bridge and across each end of the remnants of the deck on to the Lifeboat at the other side, enveloping it fore and aft. Each time the tough little craft disappeared for a moment beneath the spray, reappeared, tottered and righted herself gamely. Indeed, not a man was lost, not a splinter broken. Closer still she hugged the vessel's side till every man aboard - fifty of them in all - had been hauled into the rescuing boat.

The last man to leave his lost ship was the captain, and as he slipped into the Lifeboat the crew of the latter gave a rousing cheer that was echoed again and again by the people ashore.

But the peril was not yet over; as the Lifeboat shot past the wreck on her return journey she was struck broadside on by a great wave that threatened to throw her on her beam ends; but once more she withstood the shock, and swept gaily out to sea in a wide semi-circle that brought her safely to the harbour mouth.

News of the rescue had spread like wildfire, and hundreds of townspeople, many only half-dressed, rushed to the quayside on the western pier with blankets and tea. Cheer after cheer rent the air from the people on the quayside, and these were answered by the boat's crew and by many of the survivors. When the boat drew up alongside the quay, men ran down the steps to assist, and the pathetic procession up the steps moved men as well as women to tears.

And so the rescue of fifty men was achieved, and also that of an unexpected survivor - a small black kitten, which a seaman had cared for all through his own ordeal on the storm lashed wreck.

For Coxswain Smith and his crew, however, the mission was not complete until they returned to the Tyne. By the time they reached the River, they were all very exhausted, especially Robert Smith whose hands were almost numb from gripping the wheel, but he was determined to complete his command of this rescue, by getting his crew safely home. As they arrived at the entrance to the harbour, they were greeted by the syrens of merchant and warships in the river. Many thousands of local people had also gathered to welcome them. After the Mayor of Tynemouth had shaken each member of the crew by the hand, they were carried off shoulder high by the crowd.

Back at their home in Garden Square, Cullercoats, Coxswain Smith's wife Jane received the news of their return. For two nights she had not slept, and was very relieved that "her Bob" had come back safely.

Afterwards Robert Smith was often to remark on how he had feared every mountainous wave which hit them during the rescue, and that it was only with God's help that they had come through without harm.

Throughout the years Robert Smith received many calls for assistance which were never refused, and his answer was always "Ready, aye ready."

He truly deserved to be called the most famous coxswain on the North-east coast.

Chapter 3 - Away from the Lifeboat

Apart from his Lifeboat work, Robert Smith was also Harbour Master at Cullercoats for twenty years, and on at least eight occasions, saved people from drowning with his own small boat.

He could often be seen at the Watch House, gazing out across the bay, and if ever there was a risk of danger to anyone, the shrill sound of his whistle would alert them immediately.

Small boys would come to him for help if they were unfortunate enough to get fish hooks in their fingers while fishing. These same boys would also gather around him to hear tales of the sea and of his many rescues.

It was not unusual either, for people to call at his home to meet him and to listen to his stories. A frequent remark to them would be "You can't play with the sea" and this is a saying which proved itself many times throughout the Coxswain's life.

"Scraper" Smith as he was familiarly called, was a teetotaller and non-smoker. He belonged to the Methodist Church, and was a member of the choir for over fifty years. During that time he missed only three Christmas carol services. Two of his most treasured possessions were a Bible and Hymn Book presented to him by the Mayor of Tynemouth after the gallant rescues from the "Rohilla". A favourite hymn which he would often be heard singing was "The Old Rugged Cross".

He had a large family of six boys and three girls, of whom two girls and a boy did not survive past childhood.

His other work included being a member of the Tyne Salmon Conservancy Board for forty years, and the Tyne Fishery Board for nineteen years.

Chapter 4 - Recognitions of Bravery

When Coxswain Smith retired in 1920 he was still in good health, although he was sometimes troubled with a cough, caused years previously as a result of struggling against fumes to rescue a man who had set his house on fire whilst smoking in bed.

The honours he had received at the time of his retirement were numerous and included the following medals:-

  • Gold Medal - "For Heroic Conduct"
  • Gold Medal - "For Duty Nobly Done"
  • Silver Medal - "For Bravery"
  • The Tynemouth Trust Medal (Silver)
  • The Tynemouth Medal (Gold) - "For Conspicuous Lifeboat Service"
  • R.N.L.I. Gold Medal - "For Conspicuous Gallantry"
  • R.N.L.I. Silver Medal with Second Service Clasp.
  • Board of Trade Rocket Apparatus Long Service Medal.

However, it was in June, 1924 that Robert Smith was to receive perhaps the highest recognition of his gallantry. Accompanied by his daughter Hilda, with whom he had lived since the death of his wife five years before, he travelled to Buckingham Palace where, with other lifeboatmen, he was received by His Majesty King George V, and was decorated with the Empire Gallantry Medal.

This was a very momentous occasion for all concerned, and his daughter who was watching the scene at the reception, often recalled how the Prince of Wales in his eagerness to greet Coxswain Smith, leapt over a table in order to shake him by the hand.

There was, however, a note of sadness to the day for Coxswain Smith. He was by now almost blind due to the years of sea spray in his eyes, and he had great difficulty in seeing anything. He had hoped to recognise the King by his distinctive naval uniform, but as he was dressed less formally, Coxswain Smith was unable to identify him. Although the King spoke to him for quite a while, he unfortunately did not realise to whom he was speaking. It was not until he asked a fellow "lifeboatman when they would be meeting His Majesty and was told, "You've just been talking to him Scraper" that he realised what had happened - the moment he had looked forward to for so long, had gone. This was undoubtedly one of the greatest disappointments in Robert Smith's life.

On his return to Cullercoats, he was quite astounded by the reception he received. Hundreds of villagers were at the railway station to greet him, and they cheered him continuously on his walk home to Garden Square. Once there, they gathered outside his home to sing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" and with tears brimming in his now almost unseeing eyes, their famous lifeboat Coxswain waved to them from an upstairs window.

Chapter 5 - A Loss to his Village

On the 30th October, 1927, at the age of 78, Robert Smith died. This, by an almost uncanny coincidence, was exactly thirteen years to the day from his heroic "Rohilla" rescue.

For the last few weeks of his life he was totally blind, unable to look upon the sea or his beloved little red, white and blue boat. But he had still been able to hear the pounding waves of a rough sea on the shore, or their gentle murmur on a calm day.

Robert Smith had been well loved by the people of Cullercoats, and his death was a great loss to them all. No longer would they see his familiar figure in blue jersey and peaked cap walking briskly by.

On the day of his funeral, the route from his home at Garden Square to the Primitive Methodist Church where he had worshipped was lined with people, and the flags at the Watch House and the schools were flown at half-mast as tokens of respect. At the Church, a memorial service was held in the presence of a large congregation which included fisherwives in their picturesque costumes. Lifeboat and fishermen were present in large numbers together with civic representatives of the district. The procession, led by members of the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, then proceeded to St. Paul's Churchyard at Whitley Bay for the funeral, and was followed by a large number of mourners. It was said to have been one of largest funeral processions ever seen at Cullercoats.

Chapter 6 - Reminders of the Past

So much of Cullercoats has been demolished in recent years that there is little left to remind one of the picturesque fishing village it was in the years gone by. Robert Smith, however, is still remembered by some of the older residents, and a painting of him still hangs in the old Watch House overlooking the bay that he loved so much. Along the coast at Tynemouth, the Life Brigade House contains a number of photographs as well as other reminders of his brave deeds.

At Whitby, where as a descendant of Robert Smith, I was fortunate to attend the memorial service held on the 60th Anniversary of the loss of the "Rohilla" it was most interesting to see the Lifeboat Museum with its many reminders of the past, and in particular the "Rohilla" display. It was perhaps an odd coincidence that on this occasion also, the Lifeboat was unable to turn out because the rough seas to place a wreath at the scene of the wreck. Sadly today, there are none of Robert Smith's descendants in the Lifeboat Service. His youngest grandson, Robert, would no doubt have followed in his footsteps, but unfortunately he was killed at sea whilst serving with the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. Robert Smith had been a very modest man with a dislike for publicity, and although he has been mentioned in numerous books about the Lifeboats, his name is perhaps unknown to many. As long as there are lifeboats around our coasts, however, the name of Coxswain Smith will be heId in high regard by the men who sail in them. It is hoped that the story which has been told here will perhaps serve not.; only as a memorial to a very brave man, but will also make his name more widely known than it is at present.

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Copyright © Alexandra Rocca 1977