Truly a most remarkable event in the annals of lifeboat rescues
12 January 1899 – the night of the Great Storm. As ferocious winds batter the Exmoor coast, a 1900 ton ship, the “Forrest Hall”, was under tow from Bristol heading to Liverpool. In the atrocious conditions, the cable between the tug and “Forrest Hall” parted, she lost her rudder, began to drift dangerously in Porlock Bay and was perilously close to being washed ashore.
The alarm was raised. Normally the Watchet lifeboat would have responded, but the horrendous conditions and wind direction ensured she could not launch and aid the “Forrest Hall” – this being in the days of oar driven lifeboats. So, at 19.52, a telegram came to Lynmouth asking for the “Louisa” lifeboat to launch and assist. This set in motion one of the most incredible chapters even in the remarkable history of the RNLI.
With his crew assembled, Coxswain Jack Crocombe realised that the conditions were too rough to launch from the Lynmouth foreshore – indeed houses and shops on the seafront had already been flooded in the storm. However, he did know where there would be a sheltered beach to launch from, and that would be at Porlock Weir. He, therefore, made the fateful decision to tow the “Louisa” up the 25% incline of Countisbury Hill, proceed along the top of the moor, descend the 25% incline of Porlock Hill and then out to the Weir – journey of 13 miles and involving an ascent and descent of over 434 metres in one of the worst storms in living memory.
A team of 18 horses were assembled and attached to the carriage. With aid from over 100 local people, the long haul up Countisbury began. A small team of men were sent ahead with shovels to widen the road across parts of the moor; two men were assigned the sole task of keeping lanterns alight – not an easy task on such a night; the rest pushed as best they could to aid the straining horses as they ascended the hill.
Disaster struck at the Blue Ball Inn, where a wheel came off the carriage. Undaunted, the men repaired the carriage and just 20 carried on – including 14 crew – while the remainder made their way home.
As the trek continued, a further problem arose near Ashton where the track was too narrow for the carriage to continue, so the “Louisa” was taken off the carriage and manhandled on skids before being lifted back on to the carriage.
Following a hazardous descent of Porlock Hill, as the party trekked through the village, a narrow lane caused a further problem. This was simply resolved by demolishing a garden wall to enable the carriage to pass. The somewhat angry householder, reasonably politely(!) asking what was going on, was mollified when told of the reason for the destruction of her property.
Heading along the relatively flat track from Porlock to the Weir, yet another hazard occurred when – due to flooding of the lower track – the carriage proved too high to pass under a tree on the higher track. Undaunted, the men felled the tree and arrived at the Weir at 6.30 after a journey of 11.00 hours towing a 10 ton, 10-metre long lifeboat and carriage.
Despite being exhausted, they immediately launched, rowed through the mountainous seas to the “Forrest Hall”, by now anchored but drifting slowly, off Hurlestone Point, and put some crew members aboard her before standing off and awaiting the arrival of two tugs at daybreak.
Having assisted in connecting the tugs to the “Forrest Hall”, the crew then rowed across the Bristol Channel to Barry in support, to ensure the “Forrest Hall’s” safe arrival, arriving at Barry at 6.00 pm that evening.
Having been fed and rested at the Seamen’s Mission in Barry, the crew rowed back to Lynmouth the following day, were rightly treated as heroes and given a meal and memento by local folk, proud of the efforts of their lifeboat crew.
A replica of the “Louisa” can be seen in Lynmouth at the entrance to the Glen Lyn Gorge, and a visit to the Lynmouth Flood Memorial Hall near the harbour gives full details of the rescue, together with an account of the 50 or so local people who replicated the rescue to raise funds for the RNLI on the centenary, 12 January 1999.