Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Spurn Lifeboat Station 1908-1911: Three turbulent years

Today I would like to share a number of architectural plans – found amongst the un-catalogued Conservancy records in C DPD – illustrating the Victorian cottages, school, and lifeboat house built for the Humber Lifeboat Station at Spurn Point. Why are these plans among the records of the Humber Conservancy Board (HCB)?

The HCB was formed by an Act of Parliament in 1907. The Act replaced the Humber Conservancy Commissioners, and also transferred all responsibilities connected with navigation on the River Humber from Hull Trinity House to the new Board. This inheritance included the Lifeboat Station at Spurn Point, which had been established in 1810. This transfer would lead to three years of uncertainty and difficulty for the Lifeboat Station and its crew.
Detail from plan no.2 of proposed cottages at Spurn Point
The chief difficulty was the fact that the Humber Station was manned by a paid full time crew, a situation which was unique at the time and remains so to this day; the isolated nature of Spurn Point makes a full-time crew a necessity. The Conservancy Board members saw themselves as primarily running a commercial operation, and were unhappy about expending a large sum of money on what they considered to be a philanthropic concern. They therefore decided that they would either close the Station, or pass responsibility for it on to another body. The 1907 Conservancy Act had made the HCB responsible for the Humber Lifeboat Station, but had not included any legal compulsion for the Board to maintain it. Thus its future was placed in jeopardy!

The Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) was approached by the HCB as the appropriate body to operate the Station. However, the RNLI was reluctant to assume responsibility for a full-time paid lifeboat crew. Many bitter arguments would follow with the Conservancy often threatening to abandon the station!

Detail from plan no.3 of proposed cottages for Spurn Point
In May 1910 the situation reached a critical point when Constable Settled Estates issued Trinity House with one year’s notice to quit Spurn Point. Trinity House leased the land for the Lifeboat Station at a nominal rent for lifesaving purposes on a yearly rolling basis, but had permitted the Admiralty and Lloyd’s to utilise some of this land for other purposes. Constable Settle Estates had not been informed of this arrangement, and once made aware of the fact issued notice to quit. Following the 1907 Act the HCB was effectively sub-letting from Trinity House. If the HCB desired to continue to operate the Station a new lease would need to be negotiated.  This development provided the pretext for the HCB to announce its intention to close the station; the Board could now claim legitimately to have no choice in the matter.

Plan of proposed Lifeboat House, 23 October 1854

The potential loss of the Lifeboat Station, and the impact this could have on shipping in the Humber was a serious concern to shipping interests. The Board of Trade, which had for some time been attempting to mediate between the HCB and the RNLI, stepped up its efforts to find a solution.

Finally, after three difficult years it was agreed that the RNLI would take over the station on 1 May 1911. The future of the Humber Lifeboat Station was assured, and the HCB’s brief involvement with lifeboat operations came to a close. Over one-hundred years later, the RNLI continues to operate this Station for the purpose of saving lives at sea.

Detail from plan for proposed school at Spurn, October 1890
Further reading:
Roy Benfell Spurn Lifeboat Station–The First Hundred Years (Hull, 1994)
Barry Herbert Lifeboats of the Humber (Hutton Press, 1991)
Nicholas Leach Lifeboats of the Humber: Two centuries of gallantry (Amberley Publishing, 2010)

All of these titles can be consulted here at the History Centre, and are available to be borrowed by library members - see details on how to apply for library membership.

Robert Astin, Project Archivist

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