Seaham lifeboats & station history

Seaham Harbour's lifeboat station history officially started in 1870 with the building of a boathouse and launch ramp to the north of the NorthDock, after one hundred and forty five years it still stand, although renovated in 2012 and serves as the home of one of Seaham's historic lifeboats, the George Elmy.

The RNLI's Seaham station gave valuable service to the mariners plying the Durham coast  for 109 years from 1870 until 1979 when the service was withdrawn and the station closed.

Information given below on the history of Seaham lifeboats station is extracted in whole or in part from the booklet 
Seaham Lifeboats 1856 to 1979  which was written and produced by Jeff Morris, Honorary Secretary of the Lifeboat Enthusiasts Society and is reproduced here with his permission; the booklet has also been revised and updated by the East Durham Heritage Group .

 The idea for the booklet came from Bob Williams, of Blackhall Colliery, County Durham, who was for about 12 years, one of the shore-helpers at the Seaham Lifeboat Station and is now a helper at the Hartlepool Station. Jeff Morris acknowledges the considerable help he received from Bob with the preparation of this booklet and I is deeply grateful to him.


                   The Sister Carter of Harrogate lifeboat , her crew and Seaham Harbour lifeboat house circa 1870

The private lifeboats: 1855 to 1870

The first boat to be built specifically for use as a lifeboat, the aptly named “Original”, had been built by Henry Greathead in 1789 and launched at South Shields. During the next few years, a number of privately or locally funded lifeboats were provided at various locations around the coast.

On March 4th 1824, Sir William Hillary founded the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, his aim being to organise a national lifeboat service. But this took many years to achieve and in the meantime, a number of other privately funded lifeboats were built.

At the beginning of 1855, the Marchioness of Londonderry agreed to provide a lifeboat for Seaham Harbour, and the RNLI, at a meeting of the Institution’s Committee of Management on February 1st 1855, agreed to give a grant of £10 and also provide a set of life-belts for this lifeboat and also for another, to be built out of funds raised by the seamen of Seaham themselves.

No details have been found as to the size or builder of the lifeboat provided by the Marchioness of Londonderry, but it is thought that the boat arrived at the port towards the end of 1855. The lifeboat provided out of funds raised by the local fishermen, was built by Mr. Hawkesworth, of Torquay and, although the size of the boat is not recorded, it is known that she was a self-righting boat named “Friend Of All Nations” and was said to be similar to one that Mr. Hawkesworth had built for the seamen of Sunderland, that boat being 40 feet long. Unfortunately, no records have been found of either of these lifeboats at Seaham being launched on service, although it is almost certain that they were. The “Friend Of All Nations” was kept is a boathouse at the south end of the Terrace Beach, this house later becoming a tea-shop. It was demolished when the North Pier was extended in 1905.

The Sister Carter of Harrogate 1870 to 1887, 7 launches, 38 lives saved

The Sisters Carter of Harrogate on show in Harrogate before deployment to Seaham 1870

Nothing more is known about the fate of these two private lifeboats, although one report states that the “Friend of All Nations”proved to be too difficult to launch across the beach’. But with more and more fishing cobles using Seaham Harbour, an approach was made to the RNLI, in February 1870, by some local residents, with a view to opening an RNLI Lifeboat Station at Seaham Harbour. On March 9th of that year, the RNLI’s Assistant Inspector of Lifeboats, Capt. David Robinson, R.N., visited Seaham to discuss the proposals, a Public Meeting being held in the town. On submitting his report to the RNLI, he recommended that a lifeboat station be formed at Seaham Harbour and this was approved by the Committee of Management at their meeting on April 4th 1870. An order was placed with boat builders Woolfe & Son, for a 33ft. X 8’ 6”, 10 oared self-righting lifeboat and it was decided to appropriate this to a gift of £420 which had been received from four sisters, the Misses Carter, who had raised the money in just 3 months, by selling their needle-work and other things, from their home in Harrogate.

The Marchioness of Londonderry had died in 1865 and the estates had passed to the 5th. Marquis, Earl Vane. He generously provided a site under the east side of Lighthouse Cliff on which the lifeboat-house was built.  The brick building, which is still standing today, costing £189 2s 11d and was paid for by the Earl,. By the end of August 1870, the new lifeboat, which had cost £287 12s 6d to build, was ready, but before going to Seaham, she was taken to Harrogate and exhibited there, at the Chalybeate Grounds, on August 26th and 27th.

The new lifeboat arrived at Seaham Harbour on September 1st 1870 and, on her special launching-carriage, which had cost an extra £100 15s 0d, was taken in procession from the Railway Station to the beach, being accompanied by the Earl and Countess Vane and the Misses Carter and their brother, together with members of the newly formed Seaham Lifeboat Station Committee, the Chairman of which was the Rev. A. Bethune, with Mr. William Warham as Honorary Secretary. At the conclusion of the Inauguration Ceremony, which was attended by a crowd of several thousand people, the Rev. Bethune offered prayers for the future success of the lifeboat and her crew. The Countess Vane then formally christened the boat “Sisters Carter of Harrogate” by smashing a bottle of wine over the bows, the boat then being launched. John Marshall, the Senior Pilot at Seaham, was appointed Coxswain of the new lifeboat.

The ‘Sisters Carter of Harrogate” was launched for the first time on service on March 2nd 1874; during the night, a dense fog had blanketed the coast and when it began to lift at about 8-30 a.m., the brig “Gitana” of Memel, was seen to have run aground on rocks about 2½ miles north of Seaham Harbour. The lifeboat was quickly launched and rescued the crew of 10 men from the brig, which had been bound for West Hartlepool, the rescued men being landed at 10-00 a.m.

Later that year, on November 29th, the schooner “Lady Ann”, of Wells, was wrecked when she was smashed against the North Pier of Seaham Harbour by extremely heavy seas. The lifeboat-men were summoned, but, instead of launching the lifeboat, as the schooner was right up against the Pier, they took ropes from the lifeboat and, with the help of the Coastguard and despite huge seas which were sweeping clean over the Pier, succeeded in hauling 3 of the schooner’s crew to safety. It was then seen that the Master of the schooner had become entangled in the fallen rigging and so, at great personal risk, John Marshall Jnr., who was Second Coxswain of the lifeboat, scrambled aboard the wreck, to try and save the Master. As he slowly inched his way closer to the trapped man, a huge sea swept clean over the wreck and carried both men overboard. John Marshall was pulled to safety by his colleagues, but the Master of the ‘Lady Ann’ was drowned. For his outstanding gallantry that day, John Marshall Jnr. was awarded the Silver Medal by the RNLI

The Skynner 1887 to 1911, 7 launches, 87 lives saved 

The Skynner and crew

The Bradford 1909 to 1911, 1 launch,

                                         The Bradford and crew, Seaham


The Elliot Galer 1911 to 1936, 26 launches, 59 lives saved

The Elliot Galer with crew and visitors

The Elizabeth Wills Allen 1936 to 1950, 18 launches, 17 lives saved

The Elizabeth Wills Allen and crew, Seaham Harbour, decked overall

The George Elmy 1950 to 1962, 26 launches, 20 lives saved

The George Elmy en route to Seaham, January 1950

The Howard D 1962 to 1963, no launches

The Howard D with crew and visitors within Seaham Harbour

The Clarrisa Langdon 1963 to 1963, 1 launch, 

The Clarissa Langdon before transfer to Seaham 

The Will and Fanny Kirby 1963 to 1979, 46 launches, 66 lives saved

The Will and Fanny Kirby being launched from the lifeboat house, Seaham