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A long tradition of selfless valour

By The Cornishman  |  Posted: January 10, 2013

  • The Caroline Parsons was the first motor lifeboat for St Ives. Pictures courtesy of St Ives Archive

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LIFEBOAT GALLANTRY – RNLI Awards to St Ives Lifeboat Crews, by Edward Lever

Review by Frank Ruhrmund

IT WAS on a wild October morning in 1865 that the brig Providence was seen to be aground on the western end of Hayle Bar and the self-righting lifeboat Moses was launched from St Ives to go to her rescue. Despite capsizing twice in the awful conditions the lifeboat, under the command of coxswain Nicholas Levett, brought four of the brig's five French crew to safety.

As Edward Lever says in Lifeboat Gallantry, his account of the RNLI awards gained throughout the years by crews of the various St Ives lifeboats, at the time this rescue "was considered to be one of the most dangerous ever undertaken in the area". As a result the coxswain was awarded the RNLI's Silver Medal, the first gained by the St Ives lifeboat. Since then it has won no fewer than 18 silver and 20 bronze medals, and several times received the Institution's formal expression of gratitude inscribed on vellum.

As Edward Lever points out, every recipient of these tributes to their gallantry "would be the first to acknowledge that many others risked their lives in similar fashion for no tangible reward. They did so because they saw it as their duty as lifeboat men. All, recognised or not, have been heroes." Anyone who has lived by the sea, who is aware of how cruel it can be and has seen the weather conditions these men have bravely faced, will say "Amen" to that.

One of the most famous of all the St Ives lifeboats is perhaps the James Stevens No 10, which came to the town on January 1, 1900, and served there for 33 years, during which time it saved 227 lives.

Her successor, the Caroline Parsons, was the first St Ives motor lifeboat. After the SS Alba was wrecked in January 1938 she and her crew saved all but five of those aboard, but the lifeboat herself capsized and was thrown on to the rocks at Porthmeor Beach. Miraculously all the lifeboat crew survived their ordeal; coxswain Thomas Cocking senior was awarded the RNLI's Silver Medal and each of his men the Bronze Medal.

Her replacement was not so lucky. A little more than a year later, the lifeboat John and Sarah Eliza Stych was lost with all hands, bar one, when going to the aid of an unidentified vessel off Cape Cornwall. Five of the dead had been crewmen of the Caroline Parsons. All those lost, and sole survivor William Freeman, were awarded Bronze Medals. "It is said that William Freeman never went to sea again," writes Lever. "He lived on in the town often racked by feelings of guilt that he had survived whilst all the rest had drowned." Freeman's death on January 23, 1978, came 39 years to the day after St Ives' Great Lifeboat Disaster.

It is impossible to read the account of the events of that awful night, given by William Freeman to his local paper, without feeling humbled by and in awe of his courage, that of his fellow crew members, of all those "who have sought to preserve life as members of the St Ives Branch of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution", and, indeed, of all those throughout the country who "through their selfless dedication to saving life at sea, often in the most desperate of circumstances, have willingly placed themselves in the greatest of dangers". As the plaque honouring those lost on the John and Sarah Eliza Stych, mounted on the wall of the lifeboat house in St Ives, so rightly reminds us, "Greater love hath no man than this".

Generously illustrated, published by the St Ives Archive at £8, Edward Lever's informative tribute to the heroes, "recognised or not", who have put to sea in all weathers and are still doing so, wherever there is a RNLI station to help save lives, should be on the bookshelf of all who recognise and respect their courage and devotion.

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