The Burnham-on-Sea Lifeboat    


It has only been during the last 20-30 years that it has become more generally known how Burnham became the home of a lifeboat, this is probably because of the caring attitude of the many persons involved in attempting to ensure safer waters for all who sail in and out of the Parret Estuary and along the Bristol Channel coastline, but before furthering this narrative I must pay tribute to my family relationship with Richard Cox, Burnham's first official Coxswain and his descendants to whom I am so very grateful for their help.

Even before records began, Bridgwater Bay has been the scene of ships coming and going to the various little ports along its coastline, and with the increase in the size of these craft in order cope with the required trade, so did the number of foundering ships increase with the subsequent loss of life as happened and recorded by Daniel Defoe in the 18th century. Before the arrival of a craft to be used exclusively to save the lives of those in peril, the only hope came from a fisherman's wife, whose concern was so great that she came up with the idea of placing a light in her window so that her fisherman husband could find his way home after dark

Their home was probably one of the few near to the church. There is a further intriguing anecdote that a previous light had been displayed on the docking jetty of the Hotel that existed at the end of Steart before the 1782 storm that washed a channel from Bridgewater Bay through to the river Parret, thus cutting off a piece of land to become known as Steart Island. This establishment was apparently a haven for smugglers, and, it being closer to the open sea made it an ideal place where the Excise Men {Tide Waiters} "feared to tread!". It was during the incumbency of Bishop Walker King that his Curate, Rev. David Davis took up the idea of providing some sort of navigational aid and had a light placed atop the tower of St Andrews but it was not agreed by the Bishops of Bath & Wells and was removed.

Rev. Davis then had a small lighthouse built at the top of the foreshore, a little north of the church. Remains still stand today, recognisable by its castellation. This lasted until 1829 when the Trinity House Corporation paid Rev. Davis for the responsibility and had the two present lighthouses built, the wooden one on its four stilts and the round one nearer to St Andrews Church on the Berrow Road. Incidentally, the tower of Berrow church was at one time, regularly whitewashed to enhance it as a landmark for approaching shipping, and St Andrew's churchwarden's accounts record for two consecutive years, quantities of whitewash being purchased for the same purpose, although it is thought the whitewashing never materialised. Today, the tower has once again a light for the same purpose, before which it was at the entrance to the churchyard in line with another on the promenade.

But it was not until 1836, that existing records exist tell us of Sir Peregrine Acland and the Bridgwater Corporation had a lifesaving craft built to be stationed at Burnham, which in effect was only a large rowing boat with perhaps some strengthening struts and if the craft in the first picture was the first lifeboat, then its crew were only 6 Oarsmen and a Coxswain. Approaches to Bridgwater and other landing stages via the Parret estuary were perhaps the more hazardous due to the differentials in currents and under-currents, and what was even more insidious; the insatiable GORE sand, ever moving and ever eager to suck all those who were unlucky enough to misjudge its position, into its grim depths.

And so, Burnham had its first official lifeboat, of no recorded name it is thought to have been first housed at the end of the footpath opposite the Wooden Lighthouse, but this may not be very likely as its crew would have all lived in Burnham and a more logical place would be at the end of Maddox Slade, where the fishermen's huts were housing their craft and nets, after all, crews for the boats would have all been mariners of some sort. It was also thought this boat was later taken to a place at the head of the launching jetty.

In Graham Farr's book "Somerset Harbours" he says there is some evidence of a second craft being provided in 1847 to RNLI standards with 10 oars, which if true means there may have been two lifeboats. One boat stationed at the head of the jetty, and the second at Maddox Slade is a logical thought for as quick a launch as was possible.

However, whatever arrangements there were lasted until 1866, when the Cheltenham Corporation paid by public donation for the first Royal National Lifeboat at Burnham. This was named "The Cheltenham"  (32ft with 10 oars) at its launch from Spaville Garden Lake in Cheltenham of which Richard Cox of Burnham was the first recorded Coxswain, amid a large and appreciative audience. The boat was later transported by road to Burnham and in 1874 was housed in a new boathouse alongside Burnham station, where it lay on a small wheeled trolley on rail track that led to an extension of the main line where it joined by means of points, making it possible for a fast launch down the jetty, providing of course there were no railway carriages or trucks waiting on the track!

The Cheltenham was replaced by the "John Godfrey Morris"  (34ft with 10 oars) in 1887, with Richard Cox continuing as Coxswain until his death in 1890.

The next craft was named "The Philip Beach"  (35ft with 10 oars) in 1902.

In 1930 life saving responsibility was taken over by the Motor Lifeboats stationed at Minehead & Weston-super-Mare, these stations being about equidistant from Burnham as the sea runs and continued for the next 60 years, when in 1994 the Anneka Rice Challenge was put to the test to provide a new life saving station at Burnham. This was essentially a locally funded event which also involved the BBC who produced and ran the event being broadcast in the evening with a cut down version of the event which took just 72 hours to achieve, and so the 1st Burnham Air Rescue Boat came into operation, the Hovercraft.

The RNLI returned in 2003, building a new Boathouse taking over operations with relief lifeboats, and in 2004 the Burnham station saw the 'D' class service commence with the arrival of the Atlantic 75 "Staines Whitfield", and in 2007 the new IB 1 'D' Class "Puffin" replaces relief fleet D-Class.

There have been a great many persons rescued from the many ships that have been caught up in the storms and insidious currents of the Bristol Channel and Bridgwater Bay, some not giving enough caution to the Parret approaches. Even today, these waters still hold the same hazards of ever changing depths from the moving sands caused by various undercurrents. One shipwreck commands attention here, that of the SS Nornen, the hulk of which can be seen off Berrow Flats, North East of the Gore Sand where she foundered and then driven to her present resting place.

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Page Updated: - 29/12/2013