Stirring memories from Irvine lifeboat crew members.

Two 'Irvine Herald' reports, occasioned by the death of Mr Alexander Sinclair, tell of the crew of the 'Busbie'.

Alexander Sinclair and, further down this page, William Lowrie

13.1.1939: Death of Mr Alexander Sinclair - member of a famous lifeboat crew

An epic of heroism at sea, which brought world-wide fame to the crew of the Irvine lifeboat 'Busbie' just forty-five years ago, is recalled by the death of Mr Alexander Sinclair, which occurred at his residence, 48 Harbour Street, Irvine, last Saturday [7th Jan.].

Mr Sinclair was the eldest son of the late Mr David Sinclair, who was coxswain of the lifeboat, when, on 29th December, 1894, during a storm which is still spoken of as the worst that the West of Scotland has experienced in living memory, it went to the rescue of the Norwegian barque, the 'Frey' of Tonberg, wrecked and in a truly pitiful condition, off the Lady Isle.

On the previous day the storm broke and by nightfall it had increased to hurricane force. Late at night the schooner 'Windsworth' was wrecked on the rocks at Troon and the vessel completely broken up. Her crew succeeded in gaining the safety of the shore by means of life-lines. A few hours later pilots on duty at Troon saw distress signals going up in the direction of the Lady Isle and by daylight it was seen that the 'Frey' was in a serious condition. By this time she had been practically dismasted and quite unable to weather the storm.

Troon lifeboat failed in an attempt to go out. Better placed to the windward of the scene of the disaster, the Irvine crew were summoned by telegram to go to the assistance of the stricken crew and vessel. David Sinclair and his crew at once launched their boat.

Considering that the lifeboat crew was composed almost entirely of members of the Sinclair family, this was a very hazardous undertaking, but they hesitated not one second. Of the crew of thirteen, eleven were Sinclairs or near relations. They were: Alexander Sinclair, who died last Saturday (bowman); two Duncan Sinclairs; three Peter Sinclairs; David Sinclair; and Mungo Bicker and John Bicker, nephews of "Old Davie". William Lowrie and Alexander Blair were the only two members of the crew not related to the Sinclair family.

After a display of almost unparalleled seamanship, the lifeboat succeeded despite the tremendous seas in reaching the 'Frey', the crew of which had by this time abandoned all hope of rescue. When the ship's crew of seventeen had been taken on board there were now thirty people in the frail lifeboat of only 33 feet in length and the return journey to the shore was commenced. The coxswain knew the boat was much overloaded but he ran to leeward for Troon South Beach. Hundreds of spectators watched the rescue from the vantage point of the Ballast Bank, and when the lifeboat was within 500 yards of the shore, sail was lowered and the crew manned the oars. Just then another tremendous wave struck the boat and turned her on her beam. When she righted again, only two or three persons were aboard her, and one of these was hanging round the mast while another had hold of the windward side of the gunwale. All were saved, however, but one man, the steward of the Norwegian boat, of whom no trace whatever could be found. At the time of this rescue David Sinclair was a man of 71 years of age, but of wonderful physique and courage, and in these attributes his family took after him.

That is the story of but one - perhaps the most famous - of the many rescues in which the Irvine lifeboat took part, and the deeds of the crew were known throughout the length and breadth of the land. In gratitude to the crew the Norwegian Government presented the members with medals specially struck to commemorate the occasion, the coxswain's being of gold and the others in silver.

Alexander Sinclair carried on the family lifeboat tradition by succeeding his father as coxswain, a post he held until the Irvine Lifeboat Station was disbanded in 1914. Like his father and brothers he was a fisherman, and between them the Sinclairs were looked upon as the leading fishermen in this part of the country, owning as many as half a dozen boats. He was the last surviving son of old David and lived to the ripe age of 82 years. He was a native of Irvine, as was also his father, although the family originally claimed West Highland descent. He lived all his life in the house in Harbour Street in which he was born and is survived by a widow, two sons and a daughter for whom the sympathy of the whole public of Irvine goes out in their bereavement.

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20.1.1939: Sole survivor of famous lifeboat crew - Mr W Lowrie, now of Plean [village near Falkirk]

The "Callandar Advertiser" of 14th January [1939] published an article and interview with Mr William Lowrie, last surviving member of the crew of the Irvine Lifeboat which gained fame in the "eighties and nineties" of last century by their life-saving exploits. The article says:

Sitting by the fireside in the living-room of his home at 59 Burnside Crescent, Plean, on Wednesday afternoon, 76-year-old William Lowrie, now sole survivor of the Irvine Lifeboat crew which figured in an outstanding episode of the sea, described to me how he and his mates faced death to rescue the crew of the Norwegian barque, 'Frey', in a great storm off Lady Isle on 29th December, 1894. [The article then gave the crew details already transcribed in the first article above.]

Mr Lowrie told me, "I was one of two bow oarsmen for eighteen years. I was a fisherman, went to sea when I was 11 years of age, and was connected with it for half a century. I came to Plean 25 years ago to join members of my family who had gone there before me to work in the pits. I was a bricklayer's labourer at the pits until I retired a few years ago.

"The night we rescued the crew of the 'Frey', the worst gale that I ever experienced was blowing. I was in the boat more than a year later when we effected another rescue, but saving the crew of the 'Frey' was the most thrilling experience of my life. My second rescue occurred when we went to the assistance of the 'Elf', a fore and aft-er, and took off the crew of five."

Mr Lowrie said that twelve horses hauled the Irvine lifeboat down the slips the night they went to the aid of the 'Frey'. The force of the storm prevented both the Troon and Ardrossan lifeboats being launched. Seventeen men, including the captain and pilot, were taken off the 'Frey' by the Irvine lifeboat.

The boat lay over for about half a minute and, when it righted, of the thirty people who had been in her, only two or three were still aboard. Several were holding on by the lifelines and three were floating without any grip. One of these, the steward of the 'Frey', was lost.

"I owed my life to the fact that I clung to a life-line," said Mr Lowrie, "and three other occupants of the boat were hanging on to me. Ultimately we got into the boat and took it round past the Dog Rocks, finally beaching it with the assistance of the Troon lifeboat crew."

The old coxswain, who lived to be 90 years of age, was awarded a gold medal by the Norwegian Government. The other members of the crew were given silver medals specially struck to commemorate their heroism by that Government. The coxswain was given a cash award of £75, and the other members of the lifeboat crew £25 each.

Mr Lowrie lives at Burnside Crescent with his wife who is presently confined to bed by illness. The Old Age Pension is almost their only source of income, but though not blessed with this world's gifts they are the proud possessors of one treasure, more than a decade of service rendered by the head of the family in answering the call of ships in distress.

As I left that humble home I thought, "Peace, too, hath her heroes."

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