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Friend to all Nations

The Friend to all Nations was one of two surfboats stationed at Margate, in Kent from about 1860, the former being named the Friend of all Nations.

It is for an incident on the night of the November 24, 1897, that the crew of the surfboat the Friend of all Nations is best remembered. Only a few days before, they had been out in hurricane force winds and what has been described as the worst storm for many years was then sweeping the coast causing a tremendous amount of havoc and damage.

Friend of all Nations

In what amounted to one of the most eventful nights in life saving ever witnessed along the Kent coast (South-east England) the gallantry and perseverance of the Margate boatmen was tested to the limits of endurance.

In what was later described as "a boat totally unfit for the dangerous service" and with its crew "deserving of the highest praise," the surfboatmen were compelled by the temporary absence of the Institution Lifeboat Quiver for the best part of the operation, to redouble their greatest efforts.

The Friend of all Nations which was owned by about 50 boatmen, was consequently left in a condemned state, unfit for any further service. In all, 31 men were rescued in this meritorious service.

The boatmen were nevertheless able to raise independent funds sufficient to order a replacement to suit their needs from the original boatbuilders of the first surfboat, White’s of Cowes. The new boat could still be launched by four men without the need of horses. Its arrival in Margate on July 6th, 1878, was attended with the traditional procession, and at her naming ceremonial she was christened with the slightly altered name the Friend to all Nations.

The Storm of 1897

The sea has been a fickle friend to Margate and a decade later the great storm of 1897 blew up into a cyclone and all but destroyed the town, its harbour, sea front and main roads. Yet still at daybreak the men of the Friend to all Nations surfboat remained undaunted, and responded to a distress flag put out by the crew of a passing barge.

After some difficulty finding a safe launch, the surfboat was maneuvered into position. The rescued crew were taken to the Arcadian Hotel and placed into the care of Mr. and Mrs. Lilley who for many years had acted on behalf of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society.

Conditions that night could not be matched to any other natural disaster known of in local history from living memory. Such was the suddenness and ferocity of that storm that not only did it wreck the Surfboat, it also caused considerable damage to the little town of Margate nestled beside the sea, and stands as an exceptional occasion, with the sea breaching the town causing considerable flooding of shops and homes.

The storm raged throughout the night and allowed so little of an ebb tide when it was due, that when the heavy seas came in again they flowed some eight feet above the normal sea level and thundering against the sea front shops, inns and houses reduced the substantial sea wall to a mass of tangled wreckage, broken timber and confused heaps of stone.

"Huge slabs of masonry were hurled along the torn up surface of the promenade as waves cut six feet into the structure. Chaos reigned and ruin was rampant as coastal defenses, buildings and roadways were washed away. Dense volumes of seawater flooded the streets and locals rowed boats along King Street (behind the Harbour) under the spray from masses of water being thrown as high as the lighthouse. The decking of the jetty was torn away, its iron piles dislodged and thrown, as if by giants hands, on to the shore."

Droit House, the headquarters of the Pier and Harbour Company which was situated above a restaurant suffered considerable damage and the Switchback railway was completely destroyed. Work on the Lifeboat Station had previously been underway, with the intended construction of a much needed slipway incomplete, during the storm blocks weighing 10 tons were lifted out of their positions and ‘thrown about like pebbles’. The beach itself, renowned for it’s golden sands was a carpet of seaweed ripped up off the murky ocean bed and thrown upon the shore by the hundreds of tons.

A centennial service was held in remembrance of these events in 1997 when several hundred persons turned out against a very nasty wind to warm their hearts to that far off day and remember the families that suffered as a consequence of their bold and fatal endeavor.

The Wreck

On the fateful morning of December the 2nd 1897 the distress flares and rockets of ‘The Persian Empire’ were seen off Margate, and thirteen boatmen on the ‘Friend’ launched into the surf at 5:20, a full ten minutes ahead of the larger Margate R.N.L.I. Lifeboat ‘Quiver’.

The weather having been described as dark and dirty with sudden and severe squalls of rain and hail was nothing exceptional for these men to have to endure, between them having made hundreds of perilous excursions against the angry seas. It was however under these conditions, just as they had come by the Nayland Rock, an inshore low water obstruction, that a decision was taken to lower the sail.

It was during this fateful action that the boatmen were caught in one of those sudden squalls and which ‘struck them all of a heap’, seawater quickly filling the boat and it’s bulging sailcloth, causing serious listing under the captured weight and momentum of the water. The boat, not having time to right itself was then hit by a further wave causing the ‘Friend’ to turn over onto it’s keel, trapping one man, Joe Epps inside and throwing those that had not jumped with all their strength, including men that had been knocked unconscious in the boat, into the freezing water, beneath which hid many jagged and seaweed covered rocks. The capsized Surfboat was later to drift ashore and beached on the tide, it came to rest beneath the Nayland Rock.

First on the scene was the lamplighter, who had been going about his dawn duty of extinguishing the night lamps along the Promenade when he heard distressed voices calling out from the direction of the Nayland Rock, where in the dim morning light he was able to make out four men clinging to an upturned boat. He was no doubt unaware that another man was still trapped inside and underneath who until, at some length and later, was freed, having been trapped, and pinned down by the thwarts.

Putting aside his task the unnamed lamplighter rushed down to the shore too the assistance of two men he then noticed, who were crawling exhausted to safety. He guided them to a wall near the Royal Sea bathing Infirmary and soon with help from people out of nearby houses a third man was saved, with the forth having disappeared out of sight. The locally respected medic Charles Troughton had attempted the swim to shore but was overcome by shock and exhaustion he made the short distance as an able swimmer and was initially spotted by the lamplighter but then collapsed, to be found having died upon reaching land.

Of these intrepid adventurers, the remaining nine men were not found in the search that followed, although aided by daylight the efforts of some 20 men were required to turn over the surfboat and only then found a man they thought must be dead, but Joseph Epps from Paradise Street was just barely alive and was a survivor.

The sea gradually released the missing boatmen from its grip over the course of the following days, as the bodies, many of which had become virtually unrecognisable on account of impacts made against the men’s heads and faces from repeated contact with the sharp rocks, were washed ashore.

Recovered in this way were:
William Cook, (Coxswain), William Cook junior, Robert Cook, Edward Crunden, William Gill, John Dyke, George Ladd, Henry Richard Brockman, and the boatman’s medical aid, and superintendent of the Margate Ambulance Corps Charles Troughton.

The four men who survived the disaster were: John Gilbert, Robert Ladd, Henry John Brockman and Joe Epps, the veteran who had also survived the occasion of the 1866 capsize of the previous Margate Surfboat, and who lived on to the age of 93.

The Surfboat itself, having been well built emerged relatively unscathed from the ordeal of that winters morning, damage being chiefly limited to the masts and rigging. During that day the boat was shipped onto its carriage and placed on the promenade where many people gathered in the bitter cold to see the Surfboat and its badly broken mast.

The Board of Trade Enquiry, Funeral Cortege and Monument

A Board of Trade Enquiry that followed at Margate on the 22~3rd of December reported, in the closing pages of the Principal Officers statement that, ‘Their can be little doubt that the Margate boatmen are a bold and adventurous race, who think little of the dangers of the sea when afloat’ but in the same breath underestimated and insulted their zeal and ability with "but I fear that so long as they use a boat such as the Friend to all Nations it will be hopeless to expect them to wear lifebelts, however much it is desired."

At the time of the disaster a fund had been set up locally and sponsored nationally by ‘The Daily Telegraph’ for the widows and orphans of the lost Margate boatmen, and although most boatmen religiously belonged to the ‘Ancient Order of Oddfellows’, or one of the Friendly Societies for support in exceptional times.

As news of the disaster of the wreck filtered through to the press, interest in the story drew National support and subsequent publicity at the plight of the Margate boatmen’s families provided some ten thousand pounds that was raised in their name.

On the day of the funeral all the shops were closed and black curtains hung in the windows, no one went to work, for the whole town, and much of East Kent was in mourning. At the Cortege over 33 groups assembled, amongst them mounted police and combined bands, with muffled drums led the Lifeboat trolley which bore the eight boatmen who were attended by the four survivors. The crew of the ‘Quiver’ and boatmen from the ancient town of Deal and from Broadstairs and Ramsgate.

Also amongst this group were the firemen, and the rifle corps. Close in attendance with postmen, Doctors and members of the clergy were a number of local dignitaries. The entire route was lined with crowds of grief stricken people and all Margate mourned their passing. The Ambulance Corps. marched close to the lone body of Charles Troughton who in his last desperate moments was not disfigured, and still carried the kindly expression so familiar to all those who knew him.

The funds that had been collected should have ensured that those dependent relatives of the deceased were suitably cared for, for the rest of their days, however the money was mis-appropriated into the management of an Executive Committee of local Dignitaries and Councilors of the Margate Corporation and in this way the grief stricken boatmen’s wives, and their children were robbed a second time.

With the town in tatters, the committee finally resolved to have erected a very large monument in the cemetery. This was carved from Italian marble, which in itself posed many problems in delivery and transport to its final resting place. Roads had to be strengthened and a special carriage constructed for the undertaking and were of little benefit to the six widows and fourteen children left in want, and out of whose pity the cost of these extravagances were met. The cost of this grand proposal could not have been undertaken without the mercy payments and it is notable that many of the boatmen’s families were reported as saying that they had wished for something far less ornate.

It was Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year, when pomp and ceremony might have been given free rein and thus to some degree explains the decision to erect such a worthy monument, and even given that the Queen herself had sent some £35/~ into the fund goes no way at all in justifying the rational in depriving the boatmen’s families of their wishes.

Given the costs of the road improvements, the monument itself besides the splendid funeral, and that the corporation it seems did not match a penny to these expenses having control of the Surfboat-men’s money, it is a lamentable indictment to Thanet’s officials that although their still should have been money enough left over, had it been wisely invested, to have yielded an income for life to the widows and orphans, who in the end personally received nothing out of the fund.

It was argued at the time that 15 Shillings a week could at least be offered to the widows and a half crown to each of the orphans, but Margate Corporation was having none of it and rejected the idea out of hand. In a clear vindication of these charges, who but the meanest profiteer would dispute the need of John Dyke’s widow, who before the turn of the Century had to apply to ‘The Sarah Kidman Bounty’, then a local charity able to make single payments to the destitute.

A well deserved suspicion of those in authority was not lost on the local press who were also outspoken in their criticism of the way the funds had been squandered although this seems to have had no outward effect and the whole sorry incident. Some consolation to the survivors was forthcoming in the form of a booklet entitled ‘The loss of nine gallant lives’ and sold to raise a sum to reward the four survivors. 400 copies of which were sold on the day of the funeral. They also each received silver medals, and a marble clock was given to each by the mayor. The RNLI also made a considerable independent donation to the general disaster fund.

The Margate Surfboat in its final days

(See the: Margate Surfboat.)

Postscript

It has been said often enough, that out of those available, only the bravest men of the community dare to put themselves at such high a risk as is demanded by the task of saving lives imperrilled upon the sea. Although new blood is ever ready to meet this daunting challenge, it is clear that a tradition exists among many families where this duty is held with some pride, so that a son will follow in the footsteps of his father. One such boatmans family is found to be named Brockman, whose irrepressible spirit was tested beyond all reason in the disaster at Penlee, Cornwall in 1981.

The Southport Lifeboat story

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