Much has been written about the heroics and exploits of the Lifeboat’s Crews, and about the good work of Patrons and Volunteers and about the hero’s. However, little is known about the ‘Facilitators’ of those heroic events: the horses used in the launching and recovery of the Lifeboats and the Horsemasters; the ‘Hostlers’; the men responsible for sourcing, harnessing and trecking the horses.
A conversation with Bruce Allen, the man committed to raising awareness of the Blackpool Lifeboat the ‘Samuel Fletcher of Manchester’ (1896-1930), brought my attention to the paucity of information about the Lifeboat Horse-masters. I was intrigued enough to investigate further.
The most common method of launching the Lifeboat, right up to the 1930’s was by Horses, hauling the weighty boats and their trailers across sand and mud to their launch point, often in appalling weather and rough seas. Many horses were lost, swept away by ferocious tides and currents or caught in deep mud. Many of the techniques of haulage by Horse were learned from the experience of pulling heavy artillery though mud and water in World War 1. However, that experience did not take account of Horse procurement, or of working in deep, rough water.
Teams of up to 12 horses had to be found, gathered together, harnessed and led before the Lifeboat could be launched. The Lifeboat Stations had no Horses of their own. On the Fylde Coast, Haulage Contractors, Towlers in Lytham and Thomas Whitesides at St Annes provided the heavy horses under contract and at a fixed rate (2/6p per hour, at St Annes). At Blackpool, the Horses were provided by the Corporation from their own stock, from stables on the site of the Coliseum on Rigby Road. The ‘Merchant Shipping Act, 1854’ had enabled Lifeboat Stations to demand horses to be provided at an Hourly Rate negotiated between RNLI and horse suppliers
The picture is of the Hoylake Lifeboat in about 1920. (at: LINK)
Over the years, Lifeboats were hauled in to the sea by volunteers working alongside the Horses. At St Annes anecdotal evidence suggests up to 100 ‘Helpers’ were used to get the boat launched, along with a team of horses.. The Isle of Wight’s Brooke Village Lifeboat was launched with ‘the help of thirteen crew members, ten heavy horses and up to thirty helpers. Six horses were needed to launch the boat and ten to recover it when it was heavy with sea water.’ LINK
Records of the Redcar Lifeboat tell of an incident in 1921: ‘Mrs Margaret Emmans was knocked down by the carriage and killed; two other women were injured. They were all helping to launch the lifeboat as no horses were available to pull the carriage.’ LINK
Occasionally the Launch Point was several miles from the Lifeboat Station. The Wreck of the ‘Abana’ in December 1894 required the Lifeboat to be hauled the 7 miles to Bispham before it could be launched in the dark and in the teeth of a storm, and then wait on the foreshore, ready for the recovery. Bear in mind the north of Blackpool was much less developed in those early days, with tracks rather than roads.
One story recounts the Lynmouth Lifeboat, in January 1899, being pulled 13 miles overland. An account describes the action: ‘This meant using whatever horses and men could be obtained to haul the boat and its carriage (which together weighed about 10 tons) the distance of 13 miles, including climbing up the 1 in 4½ Countisbury Hill, reaching a height of 1,423 feet above sea level, and later taking it down the 1 in 4 Porlock Hill. 20 horses were brought from the local coach proprietor, and six men were sent ahead with shovels and pickaxes to widen the road. The combined efforts of the horses and 100 local men eventually brought the boat to the top of Countisbury Hill, where a wheel came off the carriage and had to be put back on. 4 Horses died, in harness that day. The story can be found HERE A superb picture of the ‘Overland Launch’ can be seen HERE
In the early 1900’s, Crews experienced difficulties obtaining sufficient heavy horses, not just to cover ‘Shouts’, but to service the regular training exercises; operating on mud and in deeper water, along with stories of Teams being washed away, there was a understandable unwillingness of owners to release their best horses. Making the work of the Horsemasters that much more difficult.
By the early 1920’s trials of ‘Motorised Tractors’ were taking place, as the shortage of horses threatened the Lifeboat Service. Not until 1930 did the RNLI provide ‘Launching Tractor’ for Blackpool, ending over 100 years of service by Blackpool Horses. There is little by way of record of who the Blackpool and Fylde Coast Horse-Masters were or what their precise duties entailed, but for some of us they must be counted amongst the key Lifeboat personnel of their time. It’s disappointing that records and research on this topic appear to be sparse. My earnest hope is that a future Under Graduate will choose to investigate the role of the ‘Lifeboat Hostlers’ in the not too distant future.
Sources and Further Information
Mayes, G.I. & Mayes J.E., (2000) On a Broad Reach: A history of the St Anne’s on the Sea Lifeboat Station 1881 – 1925, Bernard McCall, Bristol.
Forshaw, D., (1992), On those Infernal Ribble Banks: A Record of Lytham St Annes Lifeboats, sponsored by British Aerospace Defence Ltd.
Morris, J., (2002), Blackpool Lifeboats, RNLI
History Heroes RNLI Lifeboats, Nelson, Shipwrecks and more at: http://www.consumeractiongroup.co.uk/forum/showthread.php?404875-History-Heroes-RNLI-Lifeboats-Nelson-Shipwrecks-and-more
‘THE LIFE-BOAT’: The Journal of the National Life-Boat Institution. Vol. XI. From Feb 1880, to Nov 1882. Published in London by Charles Knight & Co. Accessed 01/08/2015 at: https://archive.org/stream/lifeboatorjourn00instgoog/lifeboatorjourn00instgoog_djvu.txt
Overland Launch at: http://www.visitlyntonandlynmouth.com/about/overland-launch With a picture at: http://www.artlees.com/paintings/128%20Overland%20Launch.htm
Brooke Village story at: http://www.brookvillagehistory.co.uk/index.php/brooke-lifeboat/history-of-brooke-lifeboat
Redcar Lifeboat Incident at: http://www.redcarlifeboat.org.uk/Pages/history/time_line.htm