Saving Lives: Scarborough Coxswain John Owston and the Lifeboatmen of the North Yorkshire coast

By Gwyneth Endersby, Record Assistant

SC005007 Scarborough lighthouse with the lifeboat going off c. 1820

Coastguards of the late 1700s and early 1800s were posted in coastal villages and ports in an attempt to prevent smuggling, which was rife in places like Robin Hood’s Bay. Drawn from the Royal Navy initially, they were rarely local men – in an attempt to prevent conflicts of interest arising. Some hailed from as far away as Devon, Scotland and Ireland.         

With the decline in smuggling by the mid-1800s, however, local sailors and fishermen gradually replaced Royal Navy coastguards, and the emphasis was firmly on saving lives at sea.

Lifeboat stations were operational on the North Yorkshire coast from as early as 1801, managed by locally run lifeboat associations. Yet the rate of shipwrecks off the British coastline remained high.  In 1824, concerned by this high rate (1,800 per annum on average), Sir William Hillary founded the National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck, with the aim of coordinating and developing these local initiatives on a national basis. Hillary’s institution was renamed the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in 1854.

SC005229 Etching of the great storm at Scarborough on 17 February 1836, during which the station’s 2nd lifeboat (1822) capsized with a devastating loss of 10 of the crew of 14

The Scarborough Lifeboat Station is one of the oldest stations in the British Isles, founded in 1801.  In 1826, the boathouse moved from Mill Beck to a site near the West Pier. The RNLI took it over in 1861, and oversaw upgrading and expansion work in 1886. Today’s lifeboat house remains at West Pier, rebuilt in 2016. Our large collection of Scarborough Borough Council records (DC/SCB) contains John Petch’s architectural drawing of November 1886, detailing proposed revisions to increase the size of the boathouse to accommodate the arrival of a new, larger lifeboat in 1887 (‘Queensbury I’).

DC/SCB 3130 Plan of Scarborough lifeboat house, John Petch 1886

One of the lifeboat coxswains, John Owston, had a long association with Scarborough lifeboat station. Born in Scarborough in 1843, and coming from a long line of fishermen, he joined the crew of the lifeboat ‘Mary’ in 1870 and was made coxswain in 1871. John was coxswain for 41 years, serving 24 of these on the renowned ‘Queensbury’ rowing lifeboats (three lifeboats in service at Scarborough between 1887 and 1918).

SC053210 Queensbury III rowing lifeboat, in heavy seas

We hold a wonderful portrait (undated) of John in a collection of historic photographs and etchings relating to Scarborough. John wears a cork lifejacket, of a type designed by RNLI Inspector Captain Ward and introduced by the RNLI in 1854. Such a lifejacket worn by Whitby lifeboatman Henry Freeman – sole survivor of the notorious Whitby lifeboat disaster of 1861, and poignantly the only crewmember who wore one.

SC165230 Scarborough coxswain John Owston

During his many years of active service, John was involved in the saving of 230 lives. In 1880, he received the RNLI Silver Medal for Gallantry after the lifeboat launched at Scarborough five times during a severe gale in late October, and all 28 people from the five wrecked ships rescued.

On 13 December 1911, John was himself washed out of the lifeboat whilst out on service. Fortunately, his fellow crew managed to rescue him, but he required hospital treatment for a blow to the head and exhaustion. Following this incident, aged 68, John decided to retire in 1912 from active service. His son John – Jack – became coxswain in his place. When John senior died in 1916, a pair of oars and a lifebelt graced his coffin at his burial in Dean’s Road Cemetery.

Further information & reading

RNLI Scarborough Lifeboat Station timeline and history

Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre

Excerpts from Arthur Godfrey’s book “Scarborough Lifeboats” (1975) Hendon Publishing Co. Ltd

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