Stronsay’s First Lifeboat – The John Ryburn Part 3

From his series, Records of a Bygone Age by Ian Cooper and republished here with kind permission from The Stronsay Limpet.

Following her arrival in Stronsay in May 1909, the John Ryburn was anchored in the channel between Stronsay and Papa Stronsay, out below the house of Feastown in the Lower Station. A dinghy was then used to ferry the crew from a little stone-built jetty out to the adjacent lifeboat. Then, in 1911, a new concrete slip with a shed atop to house the lifeboat was built at a cost of £3050. All the gear needed for the John Ryburn and its crew was also stored in this shed, resulting in a much quicker response time than was possible with the lifeboat anchored offshore. Situated close to the Station Pier in the area known as the Lower Station at the far end of Whitehall Village, it was ideally suited for the lifeboat to head east or west as needed.

The following year a new house, Ryburn Cottage, was built in the Lower Station at a cost of £300 as accommodation for the lifeboat mechanic.

Moving on now to the men who volunteered to crew this new lifeboat, those who have been identified are: George Eunson, Jubilee Cottage; John Eunson, Jubilee Cottage; John Fiddler, Rose Cottage; John Leslie, possibly No 10 Station?; William Leslie, No 7 Station; James Logie, No 28 Station; John Miller, No 23 Station; John Muir, No 23 Station; Peter Shearer, Feastown; George Stout, No 13 Station; John Stout, No 13 Station; George Williamson, No 11 Station; John Williamson, No 26 Station and Peter Williamson, No 32 Station. Nearly all those crewmen, fishermen to trade, stayed with their families in the little cottages at the Lower Station, and most would have been descendants of the families which emigrated to Stronsay from Fair Isle in the 1850s.

Back in 1904, when agreement in principle had been reached to set up a new Station at Stronsay most of these men had volunteered as crewmen for the new boat when she arrived, with William Leslie being appointed as the first coxswain of the new lifeboat when she arrived. He was coxswain from then until 1911 when he was succeeded in the role by George Eunson. The 1904 agreement also saw the appointment of Robert Mitchell of Ocean View as Honorary Secretary, a role he held until the lifeboat was withdrawn in 1915.

During the next few years the John Ryburn was called out to assist ships in distress on 11 separate occasions. Perhaps the best known of these was when, in the early hours of 10th February 1912, she was called out to go to the assistance of the Aberdeen steam fishing boat ‘Crimond’, ashore on the Holms of Ire off Sanday’s north coast. It was a night of poor visibility, with the wind in the south-east and a heavy sea running but the lifeboat covered the fifteen miles in just over two hours with little to guide her passage other than the waves to be seen breaking white along the Sanday shore. Before the lifeboat’s arrival, five of the Crimond’s nine-man crew had attempted to gain the safety of the shore in the ship’s small boat but it had been swamped by the heavy seas and only one managed to scramble ashore alive. In darkness near to low water on a rocky coast the John Ryburn had no option but to lay off for a time but, with the first glimmers of daylight and a flood tide, and at some considerable danger to lifeboat and crew, the coxswain attempted a rescue. He managed to manoeuvre the John Ryburn alongside the stricken ship long enough to get the Crimond’s four remaining crew safely aboard the lifeboat before carrying them back to the safety of the Stronsay harbour.

This was probably the high point of the John Ryburn’s time in Stronsay but there were low points too as, over the years, the engine problems encountered on her way north to her new home continued to beset her and blight her early career.

When the 1672 ton full rigged sailing ship Edenmore, bound from Hamburg to Sydney with a mixed cargo on board, was driven ashore and wrecked on Papa Stronsay in the late evening of 7th October 1909, the John Ryburn was away in Kirkwall having her engine repaired. This, remember, was little more than a week after the excitement of her naming ceremony at the same port!

The crew of the Edenmore were in grave danger and, although with no functional motor to propel her, the lifeboat was still sent for. An Aberdeen trawler, the Ben Eden, took the John Ryburn under the command of her engineer John Miller, in tow and headed for Stronsay. In the meantime, the remainder of the lifeboat crew still on Stronsay commandeered and manned a large rowing boat and, at great risk to themselves, carried out an epic rescue of the Edenmore’s 25 man crew. That is a story for another day!

In September 1913, she was again on the Stromness slip where her engine was removed in preparation for a completely new engine to be fitted the following spring. Enough ballast was placed aboard to counteract the weight of the missing engine and she returned to Stronsay under oar and sail, the only means of propulsion she was to have for several months.

It wasn’t until May 1914 that she returned to the Stromness slip to be re-engined. There she was fitted with a new model 40hp Tyler’s motor at a cost of £375 and, it was reported, the latest improvements for boats of her class were made. These improvements must have taken some considerable time as she apparently lay on the slip for some months until being launched in October that year for sea trials of her new engine and fittings, all of which proved eminently satisfactory. She eventually returned to station on 31st October 1914.

On 16th January 1915 the John Ryburn was called out for what was probably her final mission when she was tasked to go to the assistance of the Norwegian steamer Skotfos, stranded on Seal Skerry on North Ronaldsay. She made her way there in what was described by onlookers as ‘mountainous seas’ only to discover on arrival that fortunately the crew had all been safely rescued by the North Ronaldsay volunteer coastguard team.

Soon after this, with the First World War in progress and the onset of conscription, many of Stronsay’s able bodied men were called away to help in the war effort. It was found increasingly difficult to guarantee a crew to man the lifeboat and sadly, on 12th June 1915, the Stronsay Station was closed – supposedly a temporary measure – and the John Ryburn moved to station at Peterhead.

This temporary measure dragged on until, in 1922, the closure was reviewed by the authorities but sadly they found there were still insufficient volunteers available to guarantee a crew. It was to be a full thirty years later, in May 1952, before the Stronsay Lifeboat Station was reinstated and a lifeboat again placed on station.

With the withdrawal of the lifeboat, Ryburn Cottage was used as a store for a time before being rented out and then eventually, in 1937, it was sold. The following year, ownership of the lifeboat slip reverted back to the landowner, with the lifeboat shed being demolished and sold around 1949. A number of the heavy metal rollers on which the lifeboat ran for launch and retrieval were bought by farmers and put into use as land rollers and, although no longer used for this purpose, a few are still to be seen lying around the farms on the island.

At first glance it appears that all that now remains to remind people of Stronsay’s first lifeboat is the old concrete slipway which still stands at the far end of the Lower Station in Whitehall Village. Now well over a hundred years old, the structure is still in remarkably good condition and is easily visible to any coming in through Papa Sound by sea or visiting the Lower Station.

There are other reminders of this heritage though, not so visible to the casual observer, and what must surely be the most important of these are the black RNLI ‘Records of Service’ boards. These were originally kept on display in the window of the ‘Lifeboat Hoose’ (later renamed Cardinham House) but are now housed proudly and prominently inside the Community Centre. They provide a lasting record of the services rendered by the Lifeboats which have been based in Stronsay and served the North Isles of Orkney so diligently over the years, although only brief mention is made of the service provided by the John Ryburn.

The little stone-built jetty, on the shore not far from Ryburn Cottage, also still stands, It was used by the crew of the John Ryburn for boarding and disembarking from the small dinghy which was used to reach the lifeboat while she was anchored just offshore in this area. It continued to be used for many years afterwards by fishermen who also anchored their boats offshore but latterly has been little used.

The house built for the John Ryburn’s engineer also still stands and still bears the name of Ryburn Cottage.

Then of course there is the John Ryburn herself. After being withdrawn from Stronsay, the John Ryburn was stationed at Peterhead until 1921 during which time she was launched 21 times and saved an amazing 158 lives. She then moved on to Broughty Ferry where she was launched 15 times and saved 6 lives. She was withdrawn from service by the RNLI in 1934 and sold in February the following year to Mr Hughes of Rhyl in North Wales who fitted a wheelhouse and new engine, and re-named her “Bempo”.

No more is heard of her until, in April 2014, the Thames Ironworks Heritage Trust (it was at the Thames Ironworks Boatyard that the John Ryburn had been built more than a hundred years earlier) bought her in a sorry condition with a view to renovating her. I’ve been unable to find any more details about her and whether the renovation was successful but can only hope that she has been restored to something of her former glory.

If anyone has any information photos or stories about Stronsay’s lifeboats or anything else Stronsay related I would be delighted to hear from you! Ian Cooper January 2023.

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