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This is the story of what we’ve discovered about how the Lifeboat service in Winterton on Sea grew from the long maritime heritage of the village and surrounding Norfolk coastline.  It’s a fascinating story of hardship, bravery, some very interesting characters and we hope you’ll enjoy reading about it as much as we enjoyed discovering it.  It really is the reason why we believe it is so important to rescue and restore the Edward Birkbeck and provide her with a permanent home in the village.  So those of us who are lucky enough to live here (whether Chitterrunners or “incomers”) as well as all those who visit our lovely village and its wonderful beach and dunes can get an understanding of “The Winterton Story” as we plan to call our Heritage Centre.

We’re grateful to author David Higgins who has allowed us to reproduce information and  photographs from his books “The Winterton Story” and “Winterton Remembered” published by Phoenix Publications and further information from Jeff Morris of the Lifeboat Enthusiasts Society.

If we go right back to the beginning and start with The Domesday Book of 1086 - Winterton is mentioned with a total population of around 250 with 58 men recorded as head of households.  The survey recorded “manorial economic activity” and Winterton is described as a farming community of 334 acres with 9 ploughs and access to 11 acres of watermeadow. Six pigs were mentioned and a salt works shared with another village.  It is almost certain, however, that fishing did take place and had done so for centuries but it was not recorded.

Moving forward, we know that Winterton households were indeed fishing as in 1334 the Hemsby Manorial Accounts record the receipt of 5 shillings and 6 pence from the tolls on 11 boats at Winterton and in 1360 King Edward III sent in bailiffs responsible for the Yarmouth Herring Fair to regulate the fishing, making mention of fish merchants from Winterton.  Manorial Lords with coastal lands were entitled to claim “wreck of sea” – that is anything washed up on the beach - and there are records of men from Winterton and Somerton carrying away cargo washed up on the shore as far back as 1477 (infringing these rights).  Indeed, there are stories of villagers “rescuing cargoes” of oranges and coal in more recent years.

In 1565 a survey of boats and sailors was taken as Britain was at war with Spain and for Winterton the entry reads “There are belonging to the said town boats occupied in herring fair only to the number of 6.  These boats are relatively small; 5 being 4 tonnes and the other 5 tonnes.  Crewing them were 6 mariners and 8 fishermen”.

In 1664 as the first Anglo-Dutch war began, another survey was taken, recording 29 seamen.  The Light Keeper was Clement Trotter who died in 1686 who was described in his Will as a Mariner and his gravestone stands against the porch of the Parish Church – the oldest in the churchyard.

Ships sailing along the East coast had to set a course between Winterton Ness (which many years ago was a more prominent feature) and Flamborough Head to navigate the ever-changing sand banks and they frequently came to grief.  Writer Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) visited Winterton in 1722 and described the coast as “particularly famous for being one of the most dangerous and most fatal to the sailors in all England” and reported that “ ‘tis no wonder that upon the shore beyond Yarmouth there are no less than 4 lights kept flaming every night beside the lights of Caister”.  These were what were at that time known as the Thwart Lights coming from a lighthouse on the cliff, two lights on the Ness and an additional small light in the village.  During the 18th Century the marram grass was planted to create the present sea-bank helping to prevent erosion by the sea which in 1665 encroached on the cliffs and supposedly “several large bones were found”.

So the beach rather than the land was the workplace of Winterton men with around 70 seafaring men involved in “longshore fishing” working from small clinker-built boats, using nets braided in the village and selling their catch around adjacent villages.  The nets they used were braided in the village in Net Houses.  Between 1794 and 1810 nearly 50 Winterton skippers are identified with surnames still well-known in the village – George, Haylett, Brown, Hodds, Kettle, Sheales and King.

The earliest detailed map of Winterton is dated 1801 and shows buildings spread out along Black Street with only a smattering of cottages on King Street, Back Road, The Loke and The Back Path, plus The Three Mariners pub. The Church then was actually a distance away from the houses in the village.  The first National population Census in 1801  reported 378 people divided into 84 families living in 54 houses in Winterton.  That’s an average of 7 people per house and residents and visitors may know how small some of the oldest cottages are in the Conservation Area of the village.

Although fishing provided a steady income with more demand for mackerel and herring, salvage offered the opportunity for high rewards as Britain became an industrialised nation with a dramatic increase in the number of vessels sailing the East Coast.  The men were used to working together to launch and retrieve their boats from Winterton beach and it made sense to band together and buy a Yawl specifically for the purpose and to build their own Lookout to spot vessels in difficulites.  These became known as the Beach Companies and their members “Beachmen”.  These two Beach Companies were “The Old Company”, secure in its shed to the north of the cart gap and “The Young Company” who had set themselves up on the south side. Salvage Registers suggest The Young Company was set up around 1815. There were 40 to 50 members in each Company enough to launch and crew 2 yawls if necessary and their income came from salvage work, servicing shipping, anchor retrieval and taking out pilots - competing for work and with men manning the lookouts on a daily basis.  The rivalry between the two groups affected village life and divided families.  However, although competitive, they would work together on larger salvage jobs with terms reflecting which boat had reached the casualty first.  Vigilance was essential if the Winterton men were to be first to arrive at a boat in trouble.  There would be plenty of men around during the day but, between 10pm and 7am, three men would take it in turns to scan the sea from the Lookout.  The Beach Company Shed was lined with lockers holding dry clothes and boots and on night watch the men would take it in turns to sleep on the lockers.  In the seaward-facing walls of the shed were a number of shuttered square holes to take a telescope for scanning the sea.

To be successful the Beach Companies had to be well organised and work together as a team.  Each member had a Share in the Company.  Many were handed down through inheritance but some were sold.

A lifeboat was first placed at Winterton in 1822 and taken over in 1823 by the Norfolk Association for Saving the Lives of Shipwrecked Mariners and a lifeboat house was built in 1843.  It was a 12-oared North Country Type 32ft long, 10½ ft beam and 3ft deep but not popular with the Beachmen and it was reported that nobody would go afloat in the lifeboat.

In 1836 an Act of Parliament brought to an end the era of private lighthouses and the lighthouse built in 1687 by Sir John Turnour became the property of Trinity House on payment of considerable compensation, though it was to be another 4 years until the old lighthouse was demolished and the current circular towered lighthouse was built – 62 feet high and its cluster of 11 oil burners and reflectors which could throw a beam 17 miles out to sea.

By the 1851 census, 105 men were described as “fishermen” in one form or another and, by contrast, only 37 farm labourers and two women were described as net-makers and 2 as beatsters (net menders).  The rapid population growth and expansion of the Yarmouth fishing industry in the mid-1850's saw many Winterton men migrate to the newly established beach colonies from Newport to Caister and Great Yarmouth and some in the opposite direction to Sea Palling and further, right up to Goole.  The Winterton men took with them their expertise and improved on existing Beach Companies or started new ones.

On 7th January 1858, at the request of the Norfolk Shipwreck Association, the RNLI took over all its lifeboats and a year later they provided a Lifeboat House close to the beach, built at a cost of £121 16s 6d.  The RNLI decided to replace the old lifeboat then in service and ordered a 30ft x 7ft 6ins 10-oared self-righting boat built by Forrestt of Limehouse, London at a cost of £185 3s 5d with a special launching carriage  from Ransome & Simms at £73 1s 6d.  It was towed by steamer from London to Great Yarmouth, then sailed by her crew on to Winterton arriving on 27th April 1858.  However, the lifeboat men did not like this self-righter and asked  for one similar to the Norfolk & Suffolk class of non-self righting lifeboat as built in 1859 for the Great Yarmouth Lifeboat Station by James Beeching, shipbuilders in  Southtown, Gt Yarmouth.  This class of lifeboat was more like the men’s own wide-beamed, very sturdy fishing yawls in which they had great faith.  This request was accepted and an order placed for a 32ft x 10ft 12-oared Norfolk & Suffolk Class which was delivered on 5th January 1861 at a cost of £120.  Originally unnamed, she was named the Anna Maria in 1867 and re-named in 1878 the Edward Birkbeck after one of the RNLI Vice-Presidents who later went on, as Sir Edward Birkbeck, to become Chairman of the RNLI.

Around 1868 the two Beach Companies were merged into one.  Salvage work was shrinking so finances were tight and both Companies needed to renew their boats. They asked for a larger lifeboat, particularly for service out to the Haisboro and Cockle Sands, but the RNLI did not agree the request and in November 1868 William Burnley Hume of Hill House, Winterton bought The Rescuer for them from the Rangers Beach Company in Gorleston .  A surprising decision maybe as this 42ft x 12ft Beechings non-self righter had previously been capsized on service when hit by a fishing vessel with the loss of 19 men who had been rescued and 6 lifeboat men too.    

Ten years later in 1878, and again in 1879, the lifeboatmen asked the RNLI to provide another larger boat and the District Inspector of Lifeboats visited the Station.  The men explained that they did not have sufficient money to maintain their boat themselves. The RNLI agreed to take over their lifeboats and by coincidence the decision was taken to close the Lifeboat Station in Corton and the Husband was transferred to Winterton – a 36ft x 10ft 6ins 14-oared Norfolk & Suffolk Class built by Beechings and the beachmen’s Lifeboat Rescuer was broken up.

The Husband was kept in the open on the beach under a tarpaulin but in 1883 the RNLI took the decision to build a new double boathouse at Winterton to accommodate both lifeboats.  The smaller No. 1 Lifeboat still being kept on her launching carriage while the larger No. 2 lifeboat had to be hauled out of the boathouse and down the beach using wooden skids before it was launched into the sea.  The boathouse was completed in 1884 having been built by local builder, W Hubbard, at a cost of  £487-13s-9d.

In January 1890 a new Lifeboat arrived at the Winterton Station – the Margaret, a 44ft x 14ft 2ins 12-oared Norfolk & Suffolk Class non-self-righter, again built by Beechings of Great Yarmouth at a cost of £368.  In July 1896 the Margaret was removed for an overhaul and replaced by Reserve No. 1 Lifeboat.  After only 2 calls to service she was replaced on 2nd November 1896 by the 34ft x 10ft 12-oared Norfolk & Suffolk Class non-self-righter built by Beechings of Great Yarmouth at a cost of £436 from RNLI funds – and christened the EDWARD BIRKBECK – the subject of our restoration project!

The Edward Birkbeck served as Winterton No. 1 Lifeboat until 1924, alongside her in No. 2 station was the Margaret until 1907 (with Reserve No. 1 serving spells in  1896, 1903 and 1907-1909 when the Eleanor Brown arrived and served alongside the Edward Birkbeck until 1924.

The Edward Birkbeck was withdrawn from service on 10th October 1924, leaving the Station with just the No. 2 Lifeboat, the Eleanor Brown, which was also removed from service on 12th November 1924 and sent to Lowestoft and put into storage.  The same day, the RNLI sent the Reserve No. 9 (formerly the Charles Deere James) to Winterton, built in 1903 for the St Agnes Lifeboat Station.  She was a 38ft x 10ft 10-oared Liverpool Class non-self-righter which was unfamiliar to the lifeboatmen which they felt was totally unsuitable for work on the outlying sandbanks so refused to operate her.  Following a meeting of the Committee of Management of the RNLI on 18th December 1924 the RNLI decided to close the Winterton Lifeboat Station and the Reserve No. 9 was removed on 5th January 1925 and the Station closed.  A very sad ending to what had been a fine Lifeboat Station with over 100 years of outstanding service and at least 496 lives having been saved by generations of gallant Winterton Lifeboatmen.