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Who was Henry Freeman?

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A new statue to commemorate him is planned for Whitby. But who was Henry Freeman?

Henry Freeman was born on 29th April 1835 and passed away on 13th December 1904; he was a fisherman and lifeboatman in Whitby. He was also the sole survivor of a 19th-century lifeboat disaster and is set to be immortalised with a statue in Whitby. In this article, you can learn more about Henry Freeman.


Henry Freeman was born in Bridlington 

Bridlington

Henry, the son of a brickmaker, was born in Bridlington. At sixteen, he worked as a farm labourer in Flamborough. Later, he returned to Bridlington to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, Henry eventually moved to Whitby at age 20 in 1855. He started his career as a brickmaker and labourer but eventually turned to the sea. There is some evidence that he worked as a seaman on colliers sailing to London; by 1861, Henry was working as a fisherman.

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Henry Freeman was the sole survivor of the 1861 lifeboat disaster

FMS Henry Freeman Wearing Cork Floatation.
Henry Freeman, photographed by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe

During a great storm that wrecked more than 200 ships on the east coast, Freeman was the only survivor of the Whitby Lifeboat disaster on 9th February 1861. The Whitby lifeboat crew had launched five times to rescue stricken vessels, but on their sixth launch, tragedy struck. The lifeboat capsized after a freak wave hit it, and all but one of the crew were lost. Fortunately, Freeman wore a new cork lifejacket design, which helped him survive. He was awarded an RNLI Silver Medal for his courage and determination that day.


His first boat was called “William and Margaret”

In October 1861, Freeman tied the knot with Elizabeth Busfield, the daughter of a jet ornament manufacturer. He continued working as a fisherman throughout the 1860s. By 1870, he was listed as the master of Alexandra, a coble primarily used for herring fishing. Later, in November 1870, Freeman bought his first boat – a line fishing coble named “William and Margaret”.


After the 1861 lifeboat disaster

Whitby Coxswain Henry Freeman displaying his gallantry medal.
Whitby Coxswain Henry Freeman displaying his gallantry medal

Following the 1861 disaster, Henry Freeman’s name did not appear on the list of crew members for the RNLI lifeboat until 1865. This is when the Upgang Lifeboat station was opened. However, during this time, he was involved with an unofficial lifeboat group known as the “Fisherman’s Friend,” which did not participate in significant rescue missions.

Freeman remained one of the reserve crew members of the Upgang lifeboat. But he wasn’t listed as having participated in any more rescues with the boat after one successful rescue on December 31st, 1866.


Henry Freeman becoming Whitby coxswain

When the Whitby coxswain, John Pickering, retired in 1875. The lifeboat committee removed responsibility for the Upgang station from the Whitby coxswain. They appointed Henry as coxswain to the Upgang lifeboat.

Henry Freeman had a brief stint as the coxswain of the “Robert Whitworth” lifeboat in 1876 when they rescued the crew of a coble in distress. However, this was his only rescue as the Upgang Coxswain. In January 1877, the Whitby Coxswain, Samuel Lacy, along with two other crew members lost their lives while attempting a rescue. A few weeks later, Henry Freeman was appointed the new Whitby Coxswain, replacing Lacy.


Henry Freeman’s opposition

When Henry Freeman was appointed as Whitby coxswain, some individuals expressed their opposition. Mr. Smales, the secretary of the Whitby branch of the RNLI Committee, resigned from his post over the decision. Additionally, Thomas Hartley, a highly experienced lifeboatman, refused to serve under Freeman. However, the Committee did not accept Mr. Smales’ resignation and passed a motion to “relieve him of all responsibility arising from the appointment of Henry Freeman”.

Freeman faced opposition when he was appointed Whitby coxswain. But he led his crew with great dedication and continued the proud legacy of the Whitby lifeboat men. In the following three years, Freeman’s crew aboard the “Robert Whitworth” successfully rescued sixty people. Demonstrating their exceptional skills and bravery.


Rescues

Robin Hood's Bay Beach.

A severe gale hit the northeast coast on 28th October 1880. It was reminiscent of the one that caused the 1861 lifeboat disaster. Henry Freeman actively rescued four individuals on that fateful day. He was later honoured with a silver clasp for his 1861 RNLI silver medal.

In January 1881, Freeman played a crucial role in the heroic rescue mission of the “Visitor” crew at Robin Hood’s Bay. Despite the severe weather conditions, men and horses transported the “Robert Whitworth” six miles overland through snowdrifts and down a steep road into Robin Hood’s Bay. Freeman led the lifeboat mission. The struggle to reach the stranded crew grew more arduous as an enormous wave hit the lifeboat. This caused six oars to break. Freeman steered the lifeboat back to the beach, gathering a fresh crew and oars to launch the lifeboat again and finally rescue the “Visitor’s” crew.


Henry Freeman retired in 1899

After serving as the Whitby coxswain for 22 years, Henry Freeman retired in 1899. Sadly, his wife Elizabeth had passed away the year before. In 1901, Henry married Elizabeth’s widowed sister, Emma. He passed away on December 13th, 1904, at the age of 68, leaving behind his widow, Emma, but no children.


Henry Freeman statue planned for Whitby

Crows Nest

An application has been submitted to the North Yorkshire Council to construct a statue of Henry Freeman on Khyber Pass in Whitby. The proposal is yet to be approved. The statue is envisioned to be crafted by artist Emma Stothard.

Emma has previously designed nine other sculptures for the Whitby Heritage Sculpture Trail. The application mentions that the statue would honour the town’s rich legacy of maritime lifesaving.


Today, visit the RNLI museum

RNLI Museum Whitby

Since 1802, the people of Whitby have been operating lifeboats to rescue those in distress at sea. Their incredible work and lifesaving missions are showcased at the Whitby RNLI Lifeboat Museum, once an RNLI lifeboat station. This Victorian double boathouse is a testament to Whitby’s award-winning lifeboat history. It houses a treasure trove of paintings, medals, photographs, and mementos from famous wrecks and rescues. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the RNLI and their work in Whitby, the museum is worth a visit. You can learn more about it here.


Freeman’s contribution to rescues and lives saved is a testament to his selflessness and commitment to the lifeboat cause. Freeman’s legacy will forever inspire and remind us of the importance of such noble acts of service to our communities.

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