The Strange & Heroic Journey of the Louisa

On 12th January 1899 Edward Pedder, who owned the post office in Lynmouth, received a telegram for Jack Crocombe, which he passed to the latter at 7:52p.m. Jack was coxswain of the Louisa, the Lynmouth lifeboat, and the telegram reported that a large ship was drifting ashore at Porlock Weir. Watchet lifeboat station reported shortly afterwards that severe weather prevented them from launching their boat, so the Lynmouth boat was the ship's only hope.

A gale had been blowing all day and had already flooded several houses and a shop in Lynmouth, and it was clear that the boat could not be launched at Lynmouth. Not to be beaten, the coxswain proposed to take the boat by road to Porlock's sheltered harbour, and launch it from there.

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.

Most of the helpers gave up at this point, leaving only 20 to help the crew for the rest of the journey. At one stage the road was too narrow for the carriage and could not be widened, so the boat was dragged on skids while the carriage was taken off-road over the moor to get round the obstacle.

Porlock Hill was especially dangerous, but with the horses, and all the men using ropes, to hold the carriage back they managed to get down safely, only to meet another obstacle. Here a garden wall blocked the road. The old lady who owned the property was not pleased to be woken in the early hours by the noise of her wall being demolished, but when she discovered the cause agreed to a corner of her cottage being removed as well to let the carriage through.

The next problem was finding the road to the coast was impassable as a result of a sea wall having been washed away. During the diversion onto a higher road they had to fell a large tree, but they eventually reached Porlock Weir at 6:30a.m.

The crew were, of course, soaked, hungry and exhausted, but immediately launched the boat. It took an hour to reach the ship, which had drifted dangerously close to Hurlstone Point. It was the Forrest Hall, a 1,900 ton ship with a crew of 13 men and 5 apprentices, on its way from Bristol to Liverpool. The ship had been under tow down the Bristol Channel because of the headwind when the cable snapped and the rudder was washed away.

Since the ship was safe as long as the anchors held, the lifeboat stood by until daybreak, when the original tug appeared. The lifeboat was used to get a line from ship to ship, and some of the lifeboat crew even went aboard the ship to raise the anchors because the ship's crew were too exhausted to do it.

A second tug was needed to avoid drifting into Nash Sands, but eventually the ship was towed safely to Barry, accompanied by the lifeboat in case the cable snapped again. Darkness had fallen by the time they docked at Barry.

The crew of the lifeboat were:

  • Jack Crocombe (coxswain)
  • George Richards (second coxswain)
  • Richard Ridler (bowman)
  • Richard Moore (signalman)
  • Richard Burgess
  • Charles Crick
  • David Crocombe
  • William Jarvis
  • Bertram Pennicott
  • Thomas Pugsley
  • George Rawle
  • John Ridler
  • John Ward
  • William Richards (age 16)
Edward Pedder, the post office owner, also sailed in the boat.

Four of the horses used died as a result of their labours on the journey.

Please see a fuller account given by John Travis in his book "An Illustrated History of Lynton and Lynmouth" (ISBN 1 85983 023 4), to whom I am indebted.

The men of Lynton and Lynmouth re-enacted the land journey, in similar weather conditions but in daylight and on today's far better roads, to celebrate the one hundredth aniversary of the event on 12th January 1999. In the re-enactment, Edward Pedder's grandson John Pedder played the part of his ancestor in delivering the telegram, and my son-in-law Barry Coleman was among the team who hauled the boat this time.

Kindly written and supplied by E.J. (Jim) Fisher, 24th May 1999

A poem about the original event

On the 12th of January ’99, a horrible gale blew 
and our lifeboat went to Porlock to save a helpless crew.
Never had a storm so cruel swept our village by the sea
for the waves roll in like thunder and the hills shook violently
Brave men crept to their firesides and barred their doors that night 
children drew close together and women trembled with fright

For hours the storm was raging no sound of life was heard 
it hushed all human voices with a silence still and weird
But hark from out of the darkness a signal rocket fired
A call for the Lynmouth lifeboat the lifeboat men required
And barred doors were unbolted and timid hearts grew brave
A ship in distress they murmur to save from a watery grave

And soon the deserted village was thronged with hurrying feet 
and willing hands pressed forward the lifeboat down the street
To the waters edge they brought her manned by her faithful crew 
But the waves rolled in like thunder and the wind more violently
For and hour or more they battled with each high and awful wave 
oh! can they never launch her and the sinking vessel save?

Stout hands grew sick and fearful and hands were rung in pain 
As the men were driven backwoods they tried and tried in vain
Then a voice was heard, and strangely the crew strained ears to hear. 
Carry the boat up yonder, she’ll launch from there ne’er fear.
Up yonder? A thousand feet above? And then 10 miles or more, 
before we get her to the sea to launch her from the shore.

Nay; Nay; our lifeboat crew are brave and Englishmen are strong.
But they cannot risk that journey, so perilous and long.
Then through the crowd all hurriedly, a women pressed her way, 
And when the crew saw her white face, they knew what she would say.
Oh lads, we fair would keep you, we need our husbands sore
but on that wreck out yonder they surely need you more.

On and save the fathers, that perish but for you,
And mothers may be on that ship, And little children too.  
Can you leave them to perish, and seek your homes again.
Must it be said tomorrow our crew; was called in vain?
No never, never cried the crew we’ll go, cost what it may.
And ‘ere another hour was passed and the boat was on her way

That strange and awful journey when fifteen horses drew
The village lifeboat up that hill manned by her faithful crew
Can never be forgotten for old and young were there
And each man took a lantern and all the work did share
On and on and upwards and then the bleak, bleak moor
Is reached without a murmur with footsteps firm and sure.

No thought of cold and hunger could stay those men that night
Only a lamp rekindled or a loose wrap drawn up tight
And then a moments halting for as they climbed before
They now descend for three long miles before they reach the shore
The horses are growing weary Ah! Can they take the bend
Where the hill is steep and narrow and safely reach the end.

Words cannot tell the anguish ‘tis better veiled from sight
What men and horses suffered during that awful night
Only this, hour of hardship and then the sea at last
The lifeboat launched in safety peril and danger passed      
What of the wreck the drowning? They saved them everyone
They saved the children’s father they saved the mothers son.

Me thinks the heart eternal throbbed with compassion then
And bestowed a benediction on our brave lifeboat men.

30 September 1938 

Kindly supplied by Robert E. Webb. He copied this one holiday in Lynmouth.

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