The Lifeboat service in Irvine

Mae McEwan wrote about the Lifeboat at Irvine in the 'Irvine Herald', 12th December 2008.

I WONDER if any of you watched the programme on the television a week past on Sunday night about the 150th Anniversary of the RNLI? I watched it and was truly fascinated about the dedication of these brave men - and now women too - who risk their lives so very often.

As I watched, I couldn't help remembering the bravery of the men who were the crew of the Irvine Lifeboat all those years ago. I thought it quite likely that so many Irvineites of today wouldn't even know that Irvine had such a thing as a Lifeboat. Many folks, too, won't even be aware we had our Lifeboat Shed that played such a part when we had a Lifeboat and in my young day how it was a shop in the summer and also had changing cubicles at the rear of it and a long wooden bench along the side that faced the sea; often, even in the winter time, it was continually in use. I've often mentioned the bravery of the crew as well and this week I make no apology for telling you once again about the time, away back in 1894, when one of the most heroic rescues ever was carried out by the crew of our Irvine Lifeboat and its magnificent crew.

I heard about the story first of all in the early days of Fullarton Historical Society being formed and that was back in 1984. The Vice-President was one Mungo Bicker and his wife's name was May. May's brother, Paterson, had been in my class at Loundon-Montgomery School and I was aware of the Harbour connections of both these families as back then, in Irvine, everybody seemed to know everybody. Where they lived, where their fathers worked, who their grannies were and it wasn't nosiness, it was just "the way we were".

There was such a wealth of knowledge about Auld Irvine, particularly among the men there that I felt it should be written down so that it would live on. So, I recorded many of their stories and it was decided that a book should be published. So that's how "Fullarton Folk Reminisce" came about. Many of the stories in it I have passed on to you here in Memory Lane.

I thoroughly enjoyed all the stories but the one that impressed me most of all was when Mungo Bicker told me about the very brave and gallant rescue his and May's forefathers were involved in in December 1894. He had a paper, that he loaned to me for inclusion in our book, written by one of Irvine's Harbour Masters by the name of John Mitchell. Mr Mitchell was invited to speak at Men's Guilds etc. in the town and this story was told over and over again. It's a story I love and always makes me quite emotional. So, as a tribute to these brave Irvine Lifeboat men of bygone days, here is their story once again - 114 years later. "Shipwreck Ahoy" by John Mitchell, "Coxwainship and Christianity". "It has been my joy and pleasure to have a shipping connection for 40 years and during that period I have had ample time to make a most careful study of seafaring psychology. Romance and adventure intermingled with never-ending sacrifice are the chief attributes which to my mind make that major calling of seafarers, God’s Own and God's Best.

"In support of my contention I now set before you the life story of Irvine's gallant of Coxswain whose hazardous adventures and thrilling feats of heroism in and around our own Ayrshire seaboard reveal to us Love, Devotion and Christian Inspiration in true magnificence.

"David Sinclair, born at Irvine on the 31st October, 1823, was a lover of the sea before he was 10 years of age. Is it therefore, surprising that ere he had attained 21 he was standing at the post of duty in hourly readiness for the quivering messages that flash through the darkness telling the tale of poor helpless mariners in dire distress and seeking human aid.

"The 18th century lifeboat was a common construction compared with the modern lifeboat. It has been said that there was as much difference between it and the present day kind of craft as there was between Nelson's "Victory" and one of our latest battleships. This is profoundly true and I mention this solely to demonstrate to you that the rescue feats of David Sinclair were accomplished with the old fashioned lifeboat run down to the beach on wheels, launched and cared by bravery sinews to the derelicts.

"The Port of Irvine had no lifeboat until the year 1861, all rescue work prior to that date being done by "volunteers" from the seamen on the shore [but see footnote]. In this respect David figured in many exciting experiences, two of which I must record. During the terrific gale in the month of February 1860, the French schooner, "Success of Nantes", loaded with a cargo of grain, was driven ashore to the "Suthert" of Irvine Bar. Tempestuous seas swept the bar unconquerable to everyone but David and four oarsmen who made seven brave attempts in a small open boat to reach the perishing. Alas, all in vain! Seven different times did the foaming waves fill their craft with water and much buffeted that had to return and seek refuge on the beach. From early morn 'till late at night this arduous fight had waxed and on each occasion that boat returned to the beach. Dry clothing - seven changes of clothing in all were supplied to each of this gallant little band. The grey dawn of morning revealed the spectre of a desolate ship, all hands having been washed overboard throughout the weary vigil of the night. Their bodies were ultimately recovered and interred together in the old churchyard, Irvine, where a tablet has been erected fearing the following inscription: "To the memory of seven sailors who lie together here, drowned and washed ashore from the schooner "Success of Nantes", wrecked in trying to make the Bar at Irvine in storm, 27th February 1860. The writer goes on to relate about the verses which are on their headstone, saying one of them he cannot decipher, but he quotes this one - "Seven dead the sea gave to the shore, To wrap beneath the sod, Till they and we shall stand before, The Judgement Seat of God".

I actually knew that wee verse off by heart because, as a wee lassie coming home from the Academy and going into the County Library in Bridgegate, I would often head up Hill Street, through the kirkyard and over the Golf-fields home.

Always stopping at this grave, reading the verses and feeling sad about those poor men. As I write this it runs in my mind that I heard that those verses were actually written by the great minister, Robertson of Irvine, the man the Trinity Church was built for but although I think I am right here I cannot trace the source. Also I'm almost sure this headstone was raised by public subscription in the town.

Back to Mr Mitchell's story - "The Royal National Lifeboat Institution made the Port of Irvine a Lifesaving Station in the year 1861. A lady - Miss Kidd of Lasswade, kindly gifted a vessel named "Pringle Kidd" and David was the unanimous choice of Coxswain. Between the years 1861-74 the "Pringle Kidd" adequately demonstrated the permanent necessity of a lifeboat at Irvine, for, in the period of 13 years, 3 vessels and 17 lives had been saved. It is most interesting to know that on completion of her valuable services the "Pringle Kidd" was cut in two and presented to Provost Paterson and Senior Baillie Orr of the town and converted into two summer houses, one in each of their respective domiciles at Union Bank and at Janesville, West Road. Baillie Orr's, grandfather of Baillie Dickie, summer house protrudes above the Boundary Wall at the Low Green. (Wonder if it's still there?)

From 1874 to 87 the lifeboat "Isabella Frew" added two vessels and 8 lives to the life-saving charter of our coxswain and his crew. Until 1898 the good work was carried on by the lifeboat "Busbie" and it was with this vessel, our hero, straight and strong, now a mere youth of 72 summers, close shaven, curly headed, with the physique of a Friar Tuck and the heart of an Ivanhoe, achieved his greatest and final triumph, when the Irvine crew performed a deed of deliberate daring and unselfish heroism that raised the admiration of the whole country and of continental countries too. The Pilots of Troon Harbour had seen signals of distress going up from what appeared to be a large vessel in the offing, storm beaten and dismantled, with the white topped waves leaping round her, midway between the Lady Isle and the Point of Troon. The Troon Lifeboat was launched over the breastwork of the Harbour but the crew found it impossible to get her beyond the lighthouse at the pier end, high over which the spray was flying in dense clouds. Immediately word was flashed to ascertain if the Irvine lifeboat could-or would venture across the bar. Instantaneous was the reply "YES!" and a few minutes later the "Busbie" with the Sinclairs and crew on board was shaping her course for the wreck. The wind literally shearing the tops off the waves and the coxswain and crew found it impossible to see distinctly any distance ahead on account of the spindrift. Slowly but surely the wreck was reached, the vessel being a Norwegian, the SS "Frey" with a crew of 16 and a pilot. All were in a pitiful condition, the haggard and hopeless creatures having abandoned all hope of rescue, crouching under what shelter they could get on the deck, awaiting their doom. Imagine their feelings of unbounded joy at the approach of the lifeboat.

Wreckage and wind prevented the "Busbie" from approaching any nearer than 20 yards of the "Frey". The only conceivable method of rescue was for each man to be tied in a rope, which had been successfully thrown aboard, plunge into the raging seas and be pulled through the lashing foam aboard the lifeboat. This risky and venturous feat was successfully repeated 16 times, and the Pilot who had fastened each man to the rope and displayed the greatest courage throughout, was the least to leave the ship, plunging overboard and hauled by willing though tired hands to safety. After stowing the rescued in the bottom of the much too small craft it was found impossible to fight a passage to Irvine and David had regretfully to make his way for the South Beach at Troon. Hundreds of people fought with the gale on the top of the Ballast Bank, Troon, many on their knees praying and watching with intense eagerness the progress of the lifeboat. Consternation seized the crowds when suddenly the cry went up, "See, She has capsized!".

'Twas only too true, all the men being plunged into the seas and seen struggling into the lifeboat again which had instantly righted herself. The last scene of the glorious rescue was in the brake which conveyed the shipwrecked mariners to hospitable quarters on shore. The strangers were appealed to then as to whether they all got into the lifeboat again, they were all in such a dazed and paralysed condition that they had to count and recount again heads before they could answer with certainty. At length it became apparent that one of their number, a young steward, had perished. Such heroic services of the lifeboat crew could not pass without recognition and an enthusiastic meeting was held in the Town Hall of Irvine on 25th April 1895.

The hall was decorated with British and Norwegian flags. The presentations consisted of a sum of £400 subscribed for the crew. There was also a gold medal for our old coxswain from the Norwegian Government. On the obverse side, in bold relief, was a representation of the head of Oscar II of Sweden and Norway and the inscription "For Adel Daad" that is "For Noble Deed". Replica medals in silver were given to each of the crew while the Royal National Lifeboat Institution presented their silver medal along with a framed Address of Acknowledgement to David.

The latter was manifestly proud of the "Busbie" and it was his greatest joy to say of her: "She gangs oot like a gull and comes back like a gall. If ye want anything better ye'll hiv tae get some contrivance wi wings".

So, that folks, is the story of the "Busbie" and Irvine's gallant men who made up her crew who saved, among many others, the lives of these Norwegian sailors. I certainly hope in this cold December weather that you'll agree with me that their story is worth telling once more.

There had been a lifeboat at Irvine prior to 1861, but not an RNLI one. Its sale by public auction in January 1862 was organised by Harbour Master Alex C McKinlay. (The advert, found by IJD in May 2015, is on our RNLI page.)
The fourth and last RNLI lifeboat at Irvine was the 'Jane Anne' (1898-1914). After 1914, it was put in service at Falmouth until 1928, then used for other purposes and rediscovered at Taunton in the 1980s, and returned to Irvine courtesy of Mr & Mrs Dix. It is now in the Linthouse Museum yard.
For more details, see our page on the RNLI at Irvine and St Mark's Primary School page on Irvine lifeboats.

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