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Every object tells a story

If you're a regular reader of our blog, you will know that our collections team are currently busy sorting and cataloguing the amazing collection of HM Coastguard ahead of a new exhibition next year. This treasure trove of objects holds many gems and behind every item, whether big or small, is an individual, a community and an experience that can shed light on the people and the events of the past.

One object from the collection that has thrown up a fascinating tale of derring-do is a barometer. It carries an engraved inscription; ‘Presented to Mr Jesse Simmons by the engineers of SS Sylviana, as a mark of their appreciation of his services, 14 December 1901’.

Which of course begged the question; who was Jesse Simmons and what was his involvement with the Sylviana?

A little research unearthed that Jesse served with HM Coastguard during the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century. He was born in 1868 on the Isle of Wight and at some point joined the Royal Navy; by 1891 he was probably serving aboard HMS Invincible, stationed in Portsmouth. By 1901 he was a boatman based at the coastguard station in Skinningrove, a small village in North Yorkshire not far from Saltburn on Sea, where he lived with his wife Nelly and their young daughter, the wonderfully named Nellie Eliza Ethelwyn.

At this time it was not unusual for members of the coastguard to be serving or retired members of the Royal Navy. The navy had taken over control of the service in the 1850s, from which point the coastguard became almost an auxiliary naval service and recruitment drive in one. Jesse’s skills as an able seaman would no doubt have proved invaluable when he encountered the SS Sylviana on the night of Friday 13 December 1901.

On that night a huge storm had blown up in the North Sea. At around 11pm the Sylviana, a large steamer returning from Antwerp, was seen to be in trouble. With the wind driving the vessel towards land and the crew desperately starting fires to signal for help - with a heat so intense it began to melt the iron deck - the ship became stranded around half a kilometre from the safety of Skinningrove jetty.

The Sylviana beached at Skinningrove

Four ‘rockets’ were sent for; horse-drawn carts that carried lifesaving equipment as well as a device that could fire a line over to shipwrecked vessels. In the early hours of the morning a line was established between the Sylviana and the shore. Once secure, it was Jesse who donned the ‘breeches’ - a buoy fitted with a rudimentary pair of trousers that was used to transport people from a stranded ship back to shore - and who was, as one newspaper report put it, hauled across to the vessel “dangling mid-air above the foaming surf”. Once safely aboard the stricken steamer he helped ensure that every crew member - as well as the wives of the captain and his mate - were pulled to safety. In all, Jesse helped to save 22 lives.

A rocket cart like this one in our collection was involved in the rescue of the Sylvania

Amazingly, exactly a month earlier Jesse had been involved in another dramatic rescue off the North Yorkshire coast. Sadly, this one would not have such a happy ending.

In the early morning of 14 November 1901, the Norwegian vessel Erato was spotted in distress. Her sails were gone and it was clear the ship was drifting dangerously along the coast. When it reached Skinningrove Bay the ship struck the rocks and those on the beach could see it had suffered serious damage and was in danger of breaking up completely. Three men were seen clinging to the ship in a desperate attempt to save themselves.

Rescue teams were summoned but, just as one of the rocket carts in attendance succeeded in sending a line across to the Erato the ship, in the words of those watching on, “seemed to collapse as completely as if it had been a match box”. It broke into two, sending the crew into the water.

Skinningrove Bay and its jetty

A newspaper report revealed what happened next; “It was impossible to see if any men were floating above the ship and as no ordinary boat could live in such a sea, she could not be approached. One man was observed, however, floating towards the shore and Coastguard Simmons rushed into the water and dragged out a sailor more dead than alive.”

Despite Jesse’s best efforts, the young man could not be revived. Another man pulled from the water was the only member of the ten-strong crew who survived.

The following month, the Board of Trade – the government department responsible for safety at sea - awarded Jesse its bronze medal for gallantry. The citation stated that he had entered the water at great risk, among floating wreckage, in an attempt to rescue the two men.

Following these two high profile rescues, Jesse and his family did not stay in North Yorkshire. By 1911 he was at Sutton on Sea in Lincolnshire, serving as a station officer. By World War II he had made his way to Hastings - via Essex - where he lived in his retirement with Nelly and his two daughters; Patricia having joined the family in 1917.

Jesse died in 1953, aged 84, after a lifetime serving at sea. His achievements may have been lost to history until a find in our collection allowed the museum to discover his story once more. And offer a timely reminder during this holiday season of the bravery of the men and women who still help to keep us safe at sea.

Who knows what other discoveries we will make as we explore the collection of HM Coastguard and what stories we will find to share with you in next year's exhibition.

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