Chief Boatman John Devlin's medal returns to the Port
Tue 10 Jun 2014
The strange circumstances of the tragedy seemed to beggar belief at the time and still now 116 years later. Contemporary accounts paint the horror of the desperate struggle trapped amid the freezing, thrashing surf, but if this was hard enough to bear, the family’s agony was compounded by the apparent futility of a risky mission that was maybe needlessly undertaken. The five Wells coastguard men, who left 18 children fatherless between them, together with the six seamen lost from HMS Alarm, had died not in some dire emergency, but for the sake of what one commentator described as the “trivial task” of delivering a few stores.
Like so many aspects of the tragedy, it represents something of an informed guess based on the best available evidence. For the truth is that much of what occurred remains frustratingly a matter of conjecture. The facts, so far as they are known, were pieced together in the immediate aftermath of what the EDP referred to as the “Terrible Calamity at Wells”. It was a saga of sacrifice and selfless courage which struck a chord with the people of Victorian England.
The story of the disaster began in the early afternoon of February 22nd 1898 when the gunboat HMS Alarm was sighted off the port, her mundane duty to deliver stores to the town’s coastguard station. A flurry of signals announced her arrival and, as was the custom, preparations were made for the coastguards to row out to collect the provisions. To reach HMS Alarm involved a long pull along the harbour’s channel north as far as the Point, before branching off in a westerly direction to pass over the bar into the open sea.
At the time of the ship’s arrival, there was insufficient water in the channel to make the trip, so Chief Boatman John Devlin, temporarily in command of the station, decided to wait until the incoming tide had raised the water level. By then, it was almost 5pm, light was fading fast and a strong, northerly wind was gusting, sending great breakers crashing over the sandbanks as the flood tide raced in at a rate of at least seven knots.
Buffeted by the freezing wind, the coastguards mustered on the quay, watched by a number of people and despite the worsening conditions and the approaching darkness, Devlin, a 42 year old ex-naval seaman posted to Wells from Ireland three years earlier, had made his decision to go.
Contemporary accounts point to a heated argument about the hazards of venturing out in “nothing more than a four-oared gig”. Among the protestations was one from a former coastguard, whose views were endorsed by fishermen aboard two whelk boats that had just limped into the port reporting the sea “running very high beyond the Point”. So the question is why did Devlin, a vastly experienced seaman, set off? This was asked many times in the days that followed but never satisfactorily answered. Harbour Master Robert Smith who has studied all the evidence, reckons the real answer lies not in any judgement over the conditions, but in a rigid code of obedience. At the time the coastguards came under naval command and the fact that HMS Alarm was standing off the harbour and had signalled her presence was regarded as being tantamount to an order to go and in those days if you received an order you carried it out, This view was also that of Mrs Olive Cox who was Devlin’s daughter who in 1977 told the EDP “ I understand my father signalled to the commanding officer of HMS Alarm that conditions were unsuitable to take his boat out to collect stores, but he was ordered to put out. Remember in those days the coastguards were all Royal Navy men and an order was an order”.
The coastguards launched at 4.45pm. Along with Devlin on the boat were Commissioned boatmen Henry Perry aged 42 and George Bearman aged 38 and two other boatmen, George Jordan, 33 and Patrick Driscoll, 31. Two more coastguards, Michael Fitzgerald and William Williams, had been ordered to the Point to try and signal the Alarm, but by the time the coastguard gig rounded the Point, there had been no response from the Alarm and Williams called out to Devlin who instructed Williams to go back to the station and telephone Morston and ask them to use their flashlight to tell the Alarm where they were.
The night was inky black and the air icy cold. The coastguards at Morston dismissed the idea of signalling the Alarm as impossible and Williams aged 29, whose health had been undermined by sunstroke, refused to accept defeat. He collected a hand lamp and set off alone to the Point, reasoning that if he could not contact the Alarm he could still help guide his comrades back. Twice his light blinked a message through the blackness and then suddenly out of the night came a piercing cry and a lone voice answered that they were “alright”, but after a pause there was a shout “Lifeboat ahoy” and immediately Williams realised something was wrong. Despite freezing conditions, Williams plunged into the sea which was numbingly cold and he was forced to turn back. As he ran along the shore, he saw the gig’s vague outline some 20yds off. Later he reported “I could see there was someone on her but still he did not seem to come any closer, so I went in again.”
Reaching the upturned boat, Williams found Devlin, exhausted but still clinging to the keel and fighting the tide and his fear Williams succeeded in dragging both man and boat towards the shore, hauling Devlin up the beach.
When the first rescue party reached them, they found Devlin, barely alive, lying just above the water mark. Sadly Williams’s brave heroic effort was in vain and Devlin died from hypothermia three hours after being carried into the Town. But this was not the end of the tragedy.
The following morning as searchers scoured the coast for bodies, they discovered the capsized whaler of the Alarm and later the bodies of three seamen still wearing their lifejackets.
Signals from shore to ship revealed the full extent of this second disaster. It emerged the gunboat, not realising that the coastguards had launched decided to send its own boat with a crew of six under the command of the ships navigating officer Sub-Lt William Lowther. The men were last seen about a mile from the Alarm shortly before their boat disappeared into the thrashing surf of the sandbar.
An inquest into the disaster resulted in a verdict of “Accidental Death”. Nine of the men who died were buried in St Nicholas Church in two funeral processions on 28th February 1898, one being a Church of England ceremony and the other under the Roman Catholic faith. Today the remains of 10 of the 11 men who died lie together in the north-east corner of the churchyard in the shadow of the tall Celtic cross commemorating the double tragedy. The body of William Lowther was never found but a plaque in his honour was unveiled alongside the gravestones of his comrades in a service in 1998 to mark the 100th anniversary of a tragedy that shocked the entire nation. Also the present flagpole was erected at the Harbour Office by Wells Harbour Commissioners in memory of the disaster.