Article from the History of Seaham
compiled by Alan H.Coulson and staff at rock house community center.
SOLE SURVIVOR OF SEAHAM DISASTER TELLS HOW LIFEBOAT
"ACCIDENT" VERDICT ON NINE.
The sole survivor of the Seaham lifeboat disaster on November 17, a 32
year-old miner, Donald Whinfield Burrell retold the whole story of the tragedy.
He gave evidence at the Seaham inquest on the eight men and the boy - his own
son, who died. A verdict of "accidental death due to drowning" was recorded.
The Coroner Mr. T.V. Devey, recording a verdict of "Accidental death due to
drowning" on all the victims said, that it would perhaps be better for
inexperienced fishermen to ask the harbourmaster if it was safe to go out if the
weather was bad.
Mr. Devey said that he was perfectly satisfied that the lifeboat was in a good
state of seaworthiness and that the coxswain was a competent man.
"No blame should be attached to the coxswain," said Mr. Devey.
He added: "The only bright spot about the whole business has been the generosity
of the public in contributing to the appeal fund."
Mr. Burrell of Daphne Cres., Parkside, Seaham said that for the past four years
he had sailed regularly as a member of the crew of the fishing coble Economy,
which was jointly owned by his brother and Joseph Kennedy, both of Seaham.
During the summer they often sailed during the week as well as at week-ends, but
during the winter they sailed only at week-ends as it normally took a full week
to prepare the bait and lines. About 7 a.m. on November 17, 1962, he left the
North Dock, Seaham, in the Economy with Gordon Burrell and Joseph Kennedy only.
Visibility was not too good but the water was ideal for picking up the lines.
The engine was working perfectly. They returned to the North Dock between 10 and
10.30 a.m. the same day.
Between 2.30p.m. and 3.p.m. the same day, he again left the North Dock, Seaham
in the Economy, this time accompanied by Gordon Burrell, Joseph Kennedy, George
Firth and his own son, nine-year-old David Burrell. They went to sea to shoot
the fishing lines again with the intention of taking them in the next day.
Another fishing coble the Silver Spray, put to sea shortly
before them. When they left the North Dock they travelled south to a point
opposite the first aerial flight south of Dawdon Colliery. They started shooting
the line about half a mile out to sea in the four to six fathoms area. At this
time the visibility was fair, although it was drizzling and the sea had only a
moderate swell. There was nothing at this time to give any of them any cause for
anxiety and the state of the sea was even better than at the Seaham Harbour
mouth. They were not wearing life-jackets this time.
They then travelled south-east for about 700 yards, laying a six piece line.
They shot a second line at a point about 500 yards farther out to sea than the
start of the first line, and also to the south-east. The second line, an eight
or nine-piece line, about 1,000 yards long, was' actually two short lines bent
together. They did this not because the weather was getting worse, but to allow
them to haul in quicker the following day. As.soon as they had shot the lines
they made their way back towards Seaham Harbour. It would then be about 3.45
Son was Cold.
After reaching a point about two miles out opposite the Blast Point, sometimes
known as the Viaduct, the weather suddenly started to build up. The wind blew
harder and the moderate swell became a heavy sea with white tops. The boat was
riding through the sea alright and the water was not washing over the top. "My
son had a kapok life-jacket on from the time we finished shooting the lines
because he was complaining about the cold. The jacket was put on over his head,
covering his chest and back and tied by bringing the rope from the back between
his legs, as the jacket was too large to tie in the normal way round the waist.
"We all put our life-jackets on at this point, opposite the Blast point and I
fastened mine securely. I did not see how the other men had theirs fastened but
I did see that they had them on. After the Blast point the weather got worse and
every minute was building up heavier and the sky was rather dark. It was almost
Joseph Kennedy put the engine on half throttle and the boat was still riding
into the wind and the waves, the engine throttle was then put right back and
Gordon Burrell was on the tiller keeping the boat head on to the weather. The
lights of Dawdon Colliery appeared to be not far in front and to port.
Joseph Kennedy remarked "I'm going to try and get back, I'm going to have the
lifeboat out," and he sent up a standard red, five-flare rocket. It was only
about ten minutes after this that the lifeboat reached them. It was then about
4.20. The lifeboat could be seen coming from the landward side round their
stern and then come up from the seaward side.
"One of the crew threw a rope to us as the lifeboat came alongside and there was
a bump, beam to beam. I then passed my son David over to the lifeboat. The boats
parted and v/hen the lifeboat came back alongside, I jumped into her with one
other man from the coble, I don't know who. The lifeboat sheered off again.
"There was not a lot of water in the coble when we
transferred to the lifeboat as it had been deflected by our 'dodger.
Mr. Burrell described the return journey to Seaham Harbour and said he could see
the Seaham lights through a port-hole. Either Leonard or Arthur Brown, Leonard
he thought, told him they were already at sea looking for the coble when the
rocket went up.
His son, himself and Leonard Brown were underneath the engine cowling, the rest
of the coble's crew were up forward with one of the lifeboat men. Behind him
were three lifeboat men. The waves were hitting the lifeboat on the sides and
splattering off to each side. The lifeboat was riding the sea very well and none
of them under the engine cowling got wet at all. In fact, the engineer, Leonard
Brown, was not wearing his oil-skins at all. He had said he did not have time to
get them. Only the bottoms of his overalls were wet.
"From where I was I could only see the waves retreating at the back of us and
they were monstrous, although I have seen bigger seas. As the lifeboat was
making her run to get into Seaham Harbour, the lifeboat man behind me and on the
shore side of the boat, pointed across to his left and said 'There's the piers
there, the red light's over there.' The coxswain started his run in and Arthur
Brown who was on the seaward side of the boat behind me said 'No, there's the
lighthouse over there, man,' pointing to his right. The coxswain had only about
a minute's run on the course and then veered off to his right and back out to
sea. Two of the lifeboat men pulled the wheel over together. I don't know
whether the coxswain took the lifeboat round in a circle or whether he just took
her off to the right and carried on with his run. I was still under the engine
"In any case, the coxswain made a second attempt at a run into Seaham Harbour.
He shouted, 'Hang on. We are going in now.' My son and I hung on to the brass
rail inside the engine cowling and Leonard Brown hung on to the two wheels under
the cowling marked 'ahead, astern and stop. ' Arthur Brown had one hand on the
same brass rail as I had. The coxswain was holding on to the wheel and the third
lifeboat-man at the rear had one hand on the port side brass rail. I could not
see the others at the bow end of the lifeboat.
Had Hold Of Son.
"The lifeboat then slowly tipped over to the port and carried on until she went
right under. We fought our way out from under the boat. I tried to get hold of
my son and did so. I had hold of one of my son's arms and someone with a yellow
oilskin had hold of my other arm but the sea parted us. When I surfaced I saw
that I was one of eight men clinging on to the lifeboat and one man was swimmimg
towards the lifeboat from the seaward side.
"I don't know if he got to .the boat: I did not see my son. I was holding on to
the propeller shaft and a big man. I don't know who, was lying almost on top of
me. My brother was next to him and another man along the same side of the boat.
Arthur Brown was somewhere at the bow end. There were two other men clinging on
to the other side from me and one swimming and one man was lying on the keel of
the boat. Another big wave came and washed all of us off the boat and I could
not then see it. Almost immediately, another wave lifted me back to the boat and
there were then three or four of us on the boat, including my brother Gordon. I
got my left arm through a winch hole in the stern and my right arm round the
propeller shaft and hung on. The waves were still bursting over the top of us.
There was a life- jacket light winking about 30 to 40 yards to the landward side
and another further inshore and one man was swimming towards the piers at Seaham
"I clung on and drifted with the boat, the others must have been washed off with
the waves later. I saw some lights just north of the big rock on the Chemical
beach and we were only 10 to 15 yards off shore with at least three of us still
hanging on. We all shouted but no help came and the boat drifted south. I then
heard the mast scraping on the bottom and the lifeboat was washed ashore on the
Chemical beach and I dropped on to the shore. I was washed back and forth and
some chains were wrapped round me. I managed to get out of these and on to the
shore and round a big rock."
Mr. Burrell said that after resting in a little hole at the back of the rock he
attempted to get up the cliff. He rolled down and lay awhile and then went along
toward a pipe. A Mr. Thomas Elliott and some others came near and he shouted to
them and they took him up the cliff on a rope and he was then taken to hospital.
About the mistake in finding the harbour entrance at the first run in by the
coxswain, he wanted it to be known that on several occasions in the past he had
seen what he thought was a red light on the end of the pier (south) and had
started a run-in only to find that they had to alter course to starboard on
sighting the south pier red light to starboard. He had walked round the south
end of Seaham Docks looking for this other red light but had never been able to
locate it. He did not think he had commented upon this to anyone before. The
light was apparently at the same height as the red light on the south pier.
Coastguard Alexander MacFarlane of Seaham, said that at 3.30 p.m. on November
17, he set bad weather watch and on the way to the Coastguard lookout a local
fisherman mentioned there was still a coble at sea.
Shortly after the lifeboat left the harbour at 4.10 p.m. he saw red star rocket
distress signals from the coble. At about 5. p.m. he saw the navigation lights
of the lifeboat as she was heading north towards the harbour entrance. He did
not see the lifeboat turn over but heard someone say it had done so.
The life-saving company was called out and after getting some additional
equipment he went to Dawdon beach to help in searching for survivors. When he
set up a bad weather watch there was a heavy swell, over-cast, rain it was
squally and deteriorating fast.
Lights Went Out.
Captain Robert Hudson, Harbourmaster at Seaham Harbour, said that at about 4
p.m. on November 17, he was informed that the fishing coble Economy had put to
sea before 3 p.m. and because of the sudden gale there was no chance of her
making back to port or even surviving. After making sure that the coble had not
returned unobserved, the lifeboat was launched.
After having picked up survivors from the coble the lifeboat was set to return
home. The Coastguards at Seaham received this information by wireless from the
lifeboat coxswain. About 5.20 p.m. when almost at the South Pier end, the
lifeboat's lights were suddenly extinguished and it was realized that she had
capsized. All the available men from the docks went southwards from the harbour
in an attempt to rescue survivors.
Rescue attempts by police, fire brigade and the Volunteer Lifesaving Brigade
were organised. About 7 p.m. a survivor of the coble crew, Mr. Donald Burrell
was rescued from the sea near the Pinnacle Rocks, where the lifeboat was washed
Capt. Robert S. Tait, of Burdon Crescent, Seaham, a Trinity House pilot at
Seaham, said he saw the lights of the lifeboat a short distance off the South
"The boat appeared to me to be making reasonably good headway. I kept a close
watch for her but lost sight of her momentarily due to the drum-head of the
south pier. The boat then re-appeared just clear of the South drumhead and I saw
her white masthead light and red port side light. I then saw the white masthead
light and the green starboard light. Then almost immediately I again saw the
white masthead light and the red port side light.
"I then saw these two lights take a heavy lurch to port and disappear. I
realized that the boat must have turned turtle. I went along to the South pier
and saw some lights shining on life-jackets which were floating on the sea about
150 yards south of where I was standing and drifting towards the beach."
Capt. Tait said that from the cliff top at Dawdon he could see the lights
on the life-jackets and the upturned lifeboat drifting towards the beach.
"I heard shouting from the sea but could not say whether it was from the boat or
the life-jackets. On getting down to the beach farther south of the upturned
lifeboat, I picked up a life-jacket with the light burning."
"After picking up a second life-jacket with the light burning I continued
walking along the beach and came to a survivor sitting among the rocks. The
lifeboat was beached about 20 to 30 feet to seaward from the survivor."
"Short Of Crew"
Tugmaster Mr. Thomas Turnbull, of Camden Square, Seaham, said he was sitting at
home on November 17, when he heard the first rocket go off. He rushed to the
door and saw the second rocket, which meant that the lifeboat had to be launched
immediately. He got his car, picked up the coxswain, Mr. Jack Miller, in South
Crescent. The mechanic, Mr. Len Miller, on their arrival at the boathouse, was
already starting the engine. By this time Messrs J. Farrington and F. Gippert
appeared. He put six life-jackets into the boat on the starboard side and two on
the port side. He also placed all the available oilskins and seaboots into the
"The coxswain asked me if
I would go with them because they were short of crew and I agreed as I have
often been out with them and knew the routine. I was preparing to go when Arthur
Brown came along and the coxswain said 'You stay, Tom and launch her, Arthur
will come...' The crew aboard consisted of Jack Miller, Leonard Brown, James
Farrington, Fred Gippert and Arthur Brown. The boat was launched and I saw the
mast hauled up and lights switched on."
Mr. John Mackey, of North-Dene Avenue, Seaham, a Trinity House pilot at Seaham
Harbour explained about red lights at the port. He said the only red light that
was permanently fixed at the docks was the one on the south pier. This was quite
a powerful light and under no circumstances could any other light be mistaken
for the one on the South pier. There was a red light on the dock head which was
far less powerful than the one on the South pier. This light was operated by the
dock gate-man and gave a signal to the colliers that the gates were open for
them to enter the harbour. On the occasion of the lifeboat disaster, there were
no ships waiting to enter the port as the gates were closed. The light could not
possibly be mistaken for the one on the South pier.
SEAHAM TAKES REPLACEMENT LIFEBOAT
On the 13th of February, 1963, until a new lifeboat was provided, the lifeboat
Clarissa Langdon was stationed at Seaham Harbour.
The Clarissa Langdon was handed over to the coxswain, Captain Richard Muir, she
replaced the temporary lifeboat Howard D. which was brought to Seaham Harbour 11
days after the George Elmy capsized with the loss of nine lives on November 17.
The Clarissa Langdon was brought to Seaham from Amble, where she had been
undergoing overhaul, by Commander L.F.L. Hill, District,Inspector of Lifeboats.
Captain Muir, after a trial run in the boat, said he and the crew were impressed
by her performance. A Liverpool- type boat, as were the George Elmy and Howard
D., she was 35ft. 6in long but with perhaps a little more beam. She appeared to
have more power than the Howard D. She was a single screw boat with a speed of
about eight knots and carried enough fuel for 12 hours. She was on service at
Boulmer, on the Northumbrian coast.
She went to Boulmer as a new boat and Mr. James Carss, coxswain of the Boulmer
lifeboat, said that during the five years he was coxswain of the Clarissa
Langdon she proved to be a good stable boat and that during her 22 year stay at
Boulmer, particularly during the war, she took part in many successful rescue
to the George Elmy Restoration Fund
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