The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) was founded in 1824 by Sir William Hillary with the aim of creating a national lifeboat service. In addition to establishing lifeboat stations, the RNLI also awarded medals for acts of outstanding bravery in saving life at sea, whether from a lifeboat, another boat or from the shore.
Such an award was made in 1827, when its Silver Medal was given to Mr Alexander Donkin of Cullercoats, who pulled the master of the sloop ‘James’ from the sea. A rescue had initially been attempted by a local boat manned by nine men but they were driven back from the wreck by the violent seas.
In 1848, a coble manned by seven local men was taking a pilot to a ship bound for South Shields when it capsized, with the loss of all aboard. This disaster inspired the Duke of Northumberland, who owned much of the land around Cullercoats, to provide funds so that the RNLI could establish a lifeboat station there. His Grace responded to an even greater lifeboat disaster on the River Tyne, when 20 of the 24 man crew of the South Shields lifeboat ‘Providence’ were lost in 1849.
As a result, a new vessel was designed which would right itself if capsized and the resultant lifeboat and its launching carriage were delivered to Cullercoats in 1852. It was named ‘Percy’. This vessel was powered by 10 oars and was stored in a stone-built boathouse, 36 feet long by 15 feet wide, built at the Duke’s expense. She was soon in use and saw regular service escorting the local fleet of cobles when they were in danger from bad weather, as well as performing rescues on larger ships which came to grief on the local coast.
By 1859, this boat was replaced with a slightly larger boat, once again paid for by the Duke and again named ‘Percy’. It was used in a famous rescue in 1861 when, due to bad weather which prevented her being launched at Cullercoats, she was dragged several miles along the coast to Brierdene to rescue the crew of the brig ‘Lovely Nelly’. The lifeboat was dragged by six horses and many of the men and women of the village; a heroic deed commemorated in the painting ‘The Women’, kept at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle.
In 1866, ‘Percy’ was replaced with a lifeboat donated by Mr Peter Reid of London. The new lifeboat, ‘Palmerston’, was built to a 10 oar design and served at Cullercoats until 1884, saving 65 lives during her career there.
The present boathouse was built in 1896 and paid for by the Co-operative Wholesale Society. Occasional modifications have been made over the years to accommodate the changing needs of the station. Whilst retaining many historical features, the station now incorporates state-of-the-art facilities to bring it into the 21st century – enabling it to provide a safe haven for the lifeboat and its crews.
This year marks the 160th anniversary of Cullercoats Lifeboat, and on Sunday 9th September the station will hold a family open day to which all members of the public are invited. Refreshments and gifts will be available, with all profits donated towards the continuing work of this essential local organisation.
by Charlie Steel © 2012
Local historian and writer Charlie Steel has lived in Monkseaton for most of his life.
His published books include; ‘Monkseaton Village Vol. 1’, ‘Monkseaton & Hillheads’ and ‘Inns and Taverns of North Shields’ all of which are available from most local booksellers.