It was one of Britain’s greatest sea disasters, claiming the lives of six Bridlington lifeboatmen, and dozens of sailors. February 10th marks the 146th anniversary of the Great Gale disaster, and two days later, the nearest Sunday to the fateful date, there will be a service at the monument in the grounds of The Priory.
Back to February 10th 1871, a violent storm had been raging for hours, when the Brig named The Delta, heading for Whitby, was driven by wild seas towards the south shore area near to the Spa. The decision was made to launch the town’s two lifeboats – despite the atrocious sea conditions. Earlier, throughout the small hours of that fateful day, dozens of ships had been driven aground or were wrecked in the raging waters off Bridlington, which was affectionately known as the ‘Bay of Refuge’ amongst sailors.
The national lifeboat Harbinger, despite the wild sea conditions, managed to get alongside the Delta, and saved five of the crew. The boat was propelled by oars, and many of the crew suffered from exhaustion, mild hypothermia and bleeding hands from the incessant rowing.
From the safety of the beach, but within viewing distance of the rescue, a large crowd of inquisitive onlookers had gathered after word had quickly spread around the town about the unfolding drama.
Whoops and cheers were heard from the ever growing crowd as the Harbinger lifeboat was manhandled back to shore and the five rescued Delta crewmen carried to dry land and medical assistance.
A second launch was made by the Harbinger, attempting to repatriate the remaining crew on board the rapidly deteriorating Delta. Reports from some witnesses who were viewing from the relative safety of the Harbour saw the Lifeboat reach the Delta. A man was seen ‘holding on to the rigging for dear life’. The coxswain tried to get alongside the stricken vessel as a huge breaker hit both boats and capsized the Harbinger. Six dedicated and brave Lifeboat crew were lost overboard .
It is known that 23 colliers (coal ships) and merchant vessels were driven ashore or wrecked in Bridlington Bay during the wild storm. There is no record of the exact numbers of those who lost their lives on that fateful day. It is understood that around 70 men were estimated to have died. Bodies continued to be washed up for weeks afterwards, and the whole area of shoreline from Flamborough South Landing to Hornsea was littered with debris from the wrecked ships.
Forty three bodies of those who lost their lives on that darkest day in Bridlington’s maritime history were recovered and were buried together in the churchyard at the Priory.
As a result of the Great Gale disaster, where overloaded ships caused the unnecessary loss of many lives, Samuel Plimsoll lobbied Parliament for statutory regulation of the safety and seaworthiness of merchant shipping. The Plimsoll Line is still used on all shipping to this day.
The present monument, which was paid for by public subscription, was erected over the mass grave in perpetual memory of the lifeboatmen and seafarers who were lost in the North Sea.
The Great Gale Memorial service will take place at the Bridlington Priory Church on the 12th February at 10.30 am. After the church service the present and past crews of Bridlington Lifeboat, supporters and members of the public are invited to gather to pay their respects at the Great Gale Memorial situated at the north corner in the churchyard. Grant Walkington a representative from Bridlington Lifeboat will have the honour to laying wreath.