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Forgotten photo reveals tale of bravery and derring do

By WMNlynbarton  |  Posted: April 07, 2014

By Lyn Barton, WMN reporter, Twitter: @BartonLyn


Newquay lifeboat crew from 1899, who rescued men from a stricken steamer. Pic from Newquay Voice

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A forgotten photograph spotted when it fluttered out of an unrelated document folder has revealed an epic tale of bravery, daring and sheer determination.

The intriguing black and white image was discovered at the offices of a newspaper in Newquay, tucked away in a file from 2006.

The only clue was a caption on the back of the picture which read: ‘Newquay lifeboat Willie Rogers, taken January 3 or 4th 1899 at Ilfracombe, North Devon, when going to the aid of the SS Voorwarts of Amsterdam.’

The mystery was put to the town’s RNLI lifeboat crew, who were able to uncover the fascinating and story behind it, which was nothing less than the rescue of nine men from a sinking ship and the longest overland journey made by a Cornish lifeboat crew whilst on a service call

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The story began on January 3, 1899, when the 34 foot Newquay lifeboat Willie Rogers, rowed by ten RNLI volunteers, launched from the steepest lifeboat slipway in the country at Towan Head at 8.45am following reports the coastguard had spotted a ship flying a signal of distress at anchor in rough seas south west of Trevose Head.

The 2,066-ton steamer Voorwarts, registered in Amsterdam, travelling from Cardiff to Italy, was struggling in the west south west gale and required assistance.

The Newquay RNLI lifeboat men rowed out through the rough seas to the Voorwarts and were able to put crew aboard the ship to help the stricken sailors.

None of the ship’s crew could speak English, but the lifeboat men found out that the ship had been in trouble since the previous afternoon and had 17 feet of water in her hold.

The master and ten men had already left the ship in two boats and had not been heard from since.

During the day the steam tug Dragon arrived and agreed to stand by the ship overnight, so the Newquay lifeboat crew rescued the remaining nine men and landed them safely at 7.30pm.

The next morning, Voorwarts was still afloat, although the water onboard had risen by one foot overnight.

The lifeboat crew took the nine seamen back to their ship and worked with them to jettison about 25 tons of cargo in an effort to save her.

Escorted by the lifeboat, the tug Dragon and steamship Olivia then attempted to tow the sinking ship towards Swansea.

However, they only got as far as 15 miles from Lundy Island before the daring attempt had to be abandoned.

The Newquay lifeboat crew again took everyone off Voorwarts and the rowing lifeboat was then given a helpful tow to Ilfracombe in north Devon by the crew of the Olivia, arriving ashore at 10.45pm on 4 January, 38 hours after the RNLI volunteers had first launched from Newquay.

The Willie Rogers lifeboat returned to Newquay by road, a journey of some 90 miles on today’s roads, and this epic rescue turned out to be her last before she was replaced by a new lifeboat later in the same year.

The 11 men who left the ship on boats were believed washed ashore and drowned at Beacon Cove, Mawgan Porth and the Voorwarts eventually came ashore and was wrecked north of Bude.

A spokesman for the RNLI said it was an amazing story which had been uncovered by chance in the offices of the Newquay Voice.

“The commitment of the RNLI crew saved nine men and this proud tradition is maintained by today’s Newquay lifeboat volunteers who remain on call 24 hours a day to save lives at sea.”

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  • ramasesuk  |  April 04 2014, 11:20AM

    This was on displaywith the story at the old RNLI boat house in ilfracombe before it became a aquarium. Perhaps you should do better checks before you claim something as forgotten, I think yoyr reporters dhould go back to making up stories about badgers

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