Beachmen

Before lifeboats the only rescue organisations were of the beachmen, although making a profit out of the salvage their first objective was to rescue the crew from the vessel in distress. The number of beachmen at their greatest was around 1500 these belonged to 30 companies and the beachmens coast was from Mundesley to Aldeburgh.

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A Yarmouth beachmen's community in 1795 showing watchtowers and longboats

My great-grandfather and his father were of the same breed, hardy men whose courage was never questioned, and their sense of fair play was never doubted.

My great-grandfather nicknamed ‘Tentust' Taylor had a disagreement with his partner about how to split the salvage moneys, after rescuing the crew from a ship in distress. Tentust thought everything should be split down the middle but his partner thought otherwise. Going home and thinking on this he went out without a word collecting some tools as he went. In the morning  there in the backyard was his half of the boat, he had ended their partnership by sawing the boat in two and collecting his half, this was his opinion of fair play.

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Beachmans cottage with watchtower on Great Yarmouth beach 1838

The first known records of beachmen are in the early 1700's and were from the Great Yarmouth area. Erosion of the East Anglian coast has added to the sand-banks offshore. Nessa named in the Doomsday Book which is thought to have been off Caister went without any trace, Eccles beyond Sea Palling finally disappeared on 4th January 1604 with a thousand acres of land,  Waxham Parva was also lost from this part of the coast, all this loss of land has helped alter our coastline.

Yarmouth itself is a sand bank which formed after the Romans invaded our shores, silting up the mouth of the then river inlet of Breydon. All this change would cause navigational problems now but then without good maps or communication it led to disasters. It was not only sand banks that caused problems but also avoiding other shipping running for shelter.

Sailing ships of this era were hard to maneuver in bad seas partially with a head wind, so they tried to make it to the Yarmouth Roads which was a natural haven in bad weather. Many of these ships ran into trouble and this is where the beachmen came into their own. Watchtowers were the only way of seeing a ship in distress and our coast line was riddled with them.

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Beachmen launching their boat during a storm 1821

Lighthouses started to be used in the sixteenth century before the beachmen came into existence, but these were built by private money and not very well planned for overall safety, in the middle of the eighteenth century Trinity House were given the job of supplying all lighthouses along our coast this was the start of the beachmens demise. Private organisations like the Suffolk Humane Society, Norfolk Association for Saving the Lives of Shipwrecked Mariners and the Suffolk Association for Saving the Lives of Shipwrecked Seamen were formed in the early eighteen hundreds to supply a better rescue boat then the beachmen's yawl, these had to be manned by good seamen and the beachmen were given this job, this was the start of the lifeboat service.

Salvage work was only part of their income, ferrying the fish from the fishing vessels anchored in the roads to the beach was for some their biggest earner. Steam started to be used at the beginning of the nineteenth century and towards the end of this century had improved that wrecks had now diminished. In 1869 a new fish wharf was built at Yarmouth and the steam tugs started pulling the fishing boats in to unload within the safety of the harbour, this was a big blow but the biggest was the steam boats themselves taking on salvage work. The resentment between the two fractions boiled over because the steam boat owners only went after the easy pickings leaving the awkward work to the beachmen. A great number of the beachmen's companies then folded, till eventually only the lifeboats remained under the wing of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, R.N.L.I.

The beachmen were very good sailors and had the courage to face those seas, the same type of man who joins the modern lifeboat service today.

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