Stronsay’s First Lifeboat – the John Ryburn Part 2

Continuing this great story from Ian Cooper from his series Records of a Bygone Age, (Stronsay’s First Lifeboat: The John Ryburn) and republished here with thanks to The Stronsay Limpet.

In last month’s Limpet it was reported that the three new lifeboats for Thurso, Stromness and Stronsay had problems on their journey north from where they had been built on the Thames. The story continues:

These problems mostly befell the Stronsay boat, with engine problems on the run to the Tyne necessitating a new bearing to be fitted to the engine. Then, on the Fraserburgh leg of the journey, she lost her mizzen mast which had to be replaced before she could continue and finally, on leaving Thurso on 30th April 1909, the engine again gave problems and the John Ryburn had to return to Thurso to berth.

Below is a report from the Orcadian of 8th May 1909, recording the long and arduous journey undertaken by the volunteer crews of the three lifeboats to bring their new vessels to Thurso and Orkney:


The Stronsay men courteously supplied us with the following particulars of the run north from London: – Three new lifeboats for the North of Scotland – the motor lifeboats John A. Hay the John Ryburn for Stromness and Stronsay respectively and the new sailing lifeboat for Thurso left London on the morning of fifth April at 8 o’clock. Stronsay men manned both the Orkney boats. The Stromness lifeboat had as a crew George Williamson (coxswain), John Williamson, John Muir, John Eunson, and John Stout. There were also on board Commander F. J. Rowley, R.N., who acted as navigating officer to the flotilla, and Mr Small, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s motor expert.

The crew of the Stronsay lifeboat consisted of the following: – G. Eunson (coxswain), John Fiddler (bowman), Peter Williamson, John Leslie, James Logie, and John Miller (engineer.) The Thurso boat had representatives of the boat’s crew on board. The first stop after leaving London was at Harwich which was reached about 8 o’ clock on the evening of 16th April. Here the crews were exceedingly well treated. On the morning of the 17th, the boats left for Yarmouth, and in fine weather this port was duly reached. The next day’s run was a good test for the engines. The departure made from Yarmouth at 6 o’clock, and 14 hours later, Grimsby was reached – a non-stop run of 96 miles. Scarborough was reached on the 20th. On the following day the flotilla on leaving for the Tyne encountered a strong head wind, and the boats put into Hartlepool.

Next morning, the weather having moderated a course was set for the Tyne, which was reached about 8 p.m. On this run the after bearing of the shaft of the Stronsay boat had heated, necessitating the engine being taken out, and waiting till the new bearing arrived. On the defect being remedied the boats sailed for Blyth, but, owing to the detention at Shields remedying the engine detect, the call at Berwick, arranged, was not made, and the flotilla proceeded direct to Dundee from Blyth – a distance of 110 miles. The engines during the whole run went without a hitch. After leaving Dundee such a strong head wind was encountered on reaching the mouth of the Tay that Commander Rowley deemed it expedient to put back.

A start was made for Aberdeen at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, and the boats arrived off Girdleness about eleven hours later. Here they were taken in tow by a tug, and safely berthed in dock. At Aberdeen the Stronsay boat lost her mizzen mast, but this was remedied on reaching Fraserburgh on the 28th inst. The next port of call was Wick, but such a strong head wind was experienced that the passage occupied some 17 hours. The boats were expected to arrive at Thurso last Friday forenoon about 11 o’clock, and a number of persons proceeded to Scrabster Roadstead at that time to welcome the arrival. It was, however, almost 1 o’clock before the boats were sighted off Dunnet Head, and fully an hour later before they arrived at Scrabster Roadstead.

Stormy weather had prevailed and the flotilla encountered a rough passage coming through the Pentland Firth, heavy hail showers falling at intervals, accompanied by a strong wind and a heavy sea. When in the Firth owing to the heavy sea running, the tow rope between the John Ryburn, and the Thurso boat (Sarah Austin) slipped off the billet head of the latter, and some time elapsed before they were again connected. The crews were accorded a great reception as the boats drew alongside the pier under the command of Commander Howley. In the course of the afternoon the two Orkney boats sailed for Stromness but when off Dunnet Head, the engine of the Stronsay boat again gave trouble and had to return to Scrabster. Commander Rowley proceeded to Stromness with the boat for that station.

Next day, Mr Small, the motor expert, proceeded to Scrabster, and it was then found that the fore bearing of the Stronsay boat was now the cause of the trouble, and that a new part would require to be obtained. It was accordingly arranged that the mail steamer St Ola should tow the lifeboat to Stromness. It was this part of the passage that was perhaps the most trying for the crew. They were simply drenched with spray, and Mr Small’s kindness in seeing that the men were supplied with tea on arrival at Scapa was most highly appreciated. The events which followed the arrival at Stromness have already been described. We were specially requested by the Stronsay men to express their sense of gratitude for the great kindness and consideration they received front both Commander Rowley and Mr Small.

The Stromness boat had arrived safely at her home port late in the evening of 30th April while the following day, as reported above, the Stronsay boat suffered the indignity of being towed across the Pentland Firth by the St Ola before she too was berthed safely at Stromness. The crew later described their tow across the Pentland, at full speed and in adverse sea conditions, as being the worst part of the whole journey!

The John Ryburn had to wait in Stromness for new engine parts to arrive and be fitted before she could continue her journey, eventually reaching Stronsay on 15th May, a full month after leaving London. The following day she was officially handed over to the local Lifeboat Committee by the RNLI’s Commander Rowley and was accepted on the committee’s behalf by Dr Robert Rosie, the local GP.

Built at the Thames Ironworks near Greenwich in London, the John Ryburn was a Watson class lifeboat, 43ft (13m) long with a beam of 12½ft (4m), built at a cost of £2770 -9-5d, and was one of two lifeboats funded from a generous bequest from William McCann of Largs. She was fitted with a single Blake 40 bhp engine, which cost £375 and weighed around 15 cwt (750kgs), and achieved a top speed of 7.2 knots during her sea trials. Her cruising speed was reckoned at 6.4 knots, a very sedentary pace by today’s standards but a very acceptable speed at that time.

As a little bit of trivia, in the late 1890s the Thames Ironworks had a very successful works football team, Thames Ironworks Football Club, who played in the Southern League. In the 1898/99 season they were 2nd Division champions, achieving promotion to the 1st Division where they played the following season. In 1900 this club resigned from the league and were immediately reformed under the new name of West Ham United Football Club. This club has, of course, achieved much fame and success over the intervening years and still plays in the English Premier League today. West Ham’s emblem of crossed hammers represents the large riveting hammers used in the shipbuilding trade and their nickname of “The Hammers” is for this reason. While the media and the general football world commonly refer to the club as The Hammers, the club’s own supporters seemingly usually refer to their team as ‘The Irons’, which again comes from that historic link with the Thames Ironworks. Apparently, more than 120 years after the club was formed, the chant ‘Come on you Irons’ is still to be heard on match days at West Ham!

The John Ryburn was yet to be officially named, although a naming ceremony had originally been planned in Kirkwall as she headed home to Stronsay. With the delays and breakdowns on the journey, this never happened and the ‘Orcadian’ of 17th April reported that it was ‘decided to postpone the ceremony, as it was considered that the lifeboat after her passage north will hardly be presentable, and will first require to be painted.’

The new date for the naming ceremony was fixed for 28th September, again to be held in Kirkwall, and the John Ryburn duly appeared in Kirkwall Basin that day, resplendent in her new coat of paint and bedecked with a colourful display of flags. Her appearance attracted much interest and attention as she lay alongside the Corn Slip in the basin and a steady stream of visitors came to cast their eyes over her until, soon after noon, a large crowd had gathered for the naming ceremony. This ceremony was carried out by Mrs Balfour, wife of Colonel Balfour of Balfour and Trenabie, who named the ship John Ryburn and recited the traditional wish of “success to her and all who sailed in her” before breaking the customary bottle of champagne over the bow.

Below is a full report of the ceremony which was carried in the Orkney Herald of 29th September 1909.

The third and final part will be in next month’s Limpet. Ian Cooper

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