Great Yarmouth Lifeboat Station

Great Yarmouth Lifeboat Station 1919

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) took over the responsibility for all the Norfolk lifeboats from the Norfolk Shipwreck Association (NSA) in December 1857. By January 1859, the RNLI had built a new Lifeboat House at Great Yarmouth on the Marine Parade, on the corner with Standard Road. This replaced the old Norfolk Shipwreck Association lifeboat house built in 1843 in Wellington Road, almost opposite the Jetty. The new building, which cost £412, could accommodate two lifeboats, defined as the No.1 and No.2 Stations.

The beachmen, who crewed and maintained the RNLI boats, did not use horses to pull the boats across the Marine Parade and down to the shore; they relied on manpower with two hauling ropes. The men were alerted to a launch by a bell on the top of the lifeboat house.

The Mark Lane, a 40ft 12-oar boat was placed on the No.1 Station in 1861, built by the local firm of boat builders, Beeching, for £210. The boat was paid for by contributions from members of the London Corn Exchange.

The No.2 Station’s first lifeboat was the Abraham Thomas, a small surf lifeboat, 28ft long and having 10 oars, built by Beeching in 1859.

The year 1881 was a turning point for the lifeboat station at Great Yarmouth. On 18th January that year a viscous south-easterly gale caused many vessels to be wrecked along the East Anglian coastline. At least six vessels that had been sheltering in the Roads were driven onto the beach between the Aquarium and the harbour mouth. Soon after 10am, a French schooner, the Manne de Ciel, drifted ashore north of the Aquarium and the Abraham Thomas lifeboat was, with the help of the coastguards, able to take off the crew of four. At dusk the lifeboat was launched again, this time in driving snow as a schooner, the Guiding Star, became stranded on the South Beach. The coastguard Manby rocket crew managed to get a line aboard and the surf lifeboat was able to get close enough to take off the mate, the only person aboard the vessel. The large crowd on the beach began pulling the rocket-line in an undisciplined way which was attached to the lifeboat, but in the heavy surf the boat overturned. Six out of a crew of nine lifeboatmen and the rescued man were drowned. The funeral of the lifeboatmen, which had left four widows and 22 children, was held on 24th January. Thousands of people filled St. Nicholas Church and lined the route to the New Cemetery as five hearses (one body had not been recovered) and thirteen mourning coaches passed.

The Board of Trade inquiry into the events cast serious doubts about the future of the Great Yarmouth lifeboat station. An ongoing dispute between the lifeboatmen and the coastguards had deteriorated until it became impossible for them to work together. This was coupled with the increasing problem of a lack of manpower to crew the boat and assemble a shore party as the number of beachmen had declined. In 1882, there were two occasions where the lifeboat did not launch due to a lack of crew and, in 1883, the RNLI decided to withdraw one of the lifeboats. The No.1 Station was closed and the Mark Lane was transferred to Gorleston. The No.1 Station had saved 169 lives since 1859.

In 1892, the Abraham Thomas, now the only lifeboat stationed at Great Yarmouth, was replaced by the John Burch, a self-righting 32ft surf boat built by Beeching. In 1905, this lifeboat helped to salvage the barque, Erna, a Scandinavian timber trader which was eventually wrecked at the entrance to the harbour after drifting for several miles along the coast despite the efforts of three Yarmouth tugs. The lifeboatmen had been at sea for more than eleven hours before they were able to safely take off the Erna’s crew of eight.

In 1912, the John Burch was replaced by the Hugh Taylor which cost £1,250. The last recorded service was in July 1915 and in 1919 the Station was closed and the Hugh Taylor was transferred to Pakefield. The No.2 Station had saved 302 lives since 1859.

The RNLI used the building as a store until it was sold in 1928. It then had a variety of uses including in 1935 a photographic studio, known as Sarony Studios. By 1948, it was the Swiss Cottage Café until, in 1955, it became a tourist attraction called Grotto Castle. This was renamed in 1982 as Terror Castle, which closed in 1990. From 1990 until 2003 it became Ghostbusters before becoming the Mission Bar & Nightclub in 2004. The building reopened in 2023 as Mavvy’s Nightclub.

Colin Tooke