The following is taken from a booklett produced for Wick Lifeboat, (see the bottom of the page for details).
Black Sunday 19th August 1848
Albeit Sir William Hillary founded the RNLI back in I824. it would be many years before this service provided a nationwide coverage. Wick, like many other coastal towns, would find no shortage of brave men ready to commandeer any available shoreboat and proceed to the rescue of a nearby vessel in distress.
As early as 1828 men from Wick were being awarded Medals for gallantry and bravery. Mr Andrew Lake was awarded the Silver Medal for his actions in saving some of the crew from the brig " St. Nicholas" which was wrecked near Wick earlier that year. Eleven years later during be night of be 23rd March the two hundred and seventy ton brig "Thomas Dougal" was driven onto the rocks ten miles south of Wick in a violent gale at four o'clock in the morning. A local man Mr Robert McAlistair got a crew of eight local men together launched a small fishing boat, and made their way through heavy seas and surf to the rescue of the stricken brig. Showing great skill and courage they managed to reach the wreck and rescued three of the Crew who were still clinging to the cross trees of the vessel's broken mast. The Captain of the brig and five of his crew perished on that. dreadful morning, the other four of the crew managed to jump onto the rocks and were hauled to safety by local people. Mr McAlistair received the Silver Medal from the RNLI for his outstanding bravery.
In 1846 that Caithness born Master Marine Architect, Boatbuilder and Raiser of Wrecks, James Bremner, turned his inventive mind to the construction of a purpose built lifeboat for the port. On a calm, sunny August afternoon trials if this new Lifeboat were carried out in Wick harbour. The vessel was apparently not conventionally powered by oars; but by two paddle wheels which were situated amidships and were cranked by a crew of eight. The trials were a great success and Bremner's new lifeboat managed to be a speedy mile in six minutes and proved to be highly manoeuvrable However these first optimistic trials were carried on a placid summer day. Later trials would prove that the innovative new boat was almost impossible to power through the slightest surf. With this disappointing discovery. James Bremner's Wick Lifeboat quietly disappeared from history.
Almost two years to the date of the first trials of Bremner's boat there occurred the greatest maritime tragedy to afflict the port of Wick, The disaster of "Black Saturday" August l9th 1848 when the Wick herring' fleet were caught at sea by a severe easterly gale. Running for the safety of the harbour a total of eighteen boats were lost with the subsequent perishing of thirty-seven men. To add to the horror of that day the majority of those killed did not lose their lives in the anonymous depths of the North Sea. But at the mouth of Wick harbour in full sight of the horrified and helpless view of the onlookers onshore, many of these were wives and mothers of those who perished. The morning of the 19th of August will long remain in the memories of the people of wick as the most heart-rending calamity that the town has ever experienced. On the afternoon of Friday the 18th the Wick fishermen proceeded to sea. as usual, full of hope that heir efforts would he crowned with success, and that next morning would return, their boats laden with the fruits of their labour, The evening was fine, a gentle breeze blew from the south west and as darkness fell the sky gave promise of a beautiful night. Before eight o'clock the sky to the west grew suddenly red and the sky to the easy became very black, the barometer rapidly fell. The gentle breeze grew to a stiff gale and changed direction slightly raising a rather disagreeable swell Personal safety overcame the desire for gain for some who returned to the safety of the harbour but others remained. By midnight the gale had somewhat abated. And the wind having returned to a landward direction, the fears of those on shore for the safety of their families and friend was removed. But this was short lived. By one o'clock the wind had risen again in violence until it was blowing a fearful gale, and the sea rose to such a pitch as to create the greatest alarm in the minds of all. Morning began gradually to dawn, as it glimmered in the eastern sky it presented a scene of grave foreboding. The whole coast was studded with boats. all running before the wind. Their crews desperate to reach the safety' of the land. About four o'clock boat followed boat in rapid succession towards the land, many dashing against each other in the boiling waters and became wrecks. Up to this hour so far as the harbour and bay were concerned no life had been lost but ere an hour had passed many a hapless fishermen would disappear under the briny waves. Visibility was poor and with no light on the Pultneytown south-quay-head flatly mistook Wick Bay for Reiss only to find themselves amongst the breakers a nd billows which broke amongst the rocks in the vicinity of Pultneytown harbour Just after four o clock one boat reaching for the bay was thrown by a tremendous wave almost on to the dry to the rocks of Proudfoot, Rescuers went to the scene only to find the two bodies under the upturned boat, one of them had been badly cut. It appears from a statement from one of the survivors that on running for land their rudder had given way forcing them to steer the boat with oars and in the poor visibility had mistaken their position corning to grief on the rocks at Proudfoot. Another boat belonging to Robert Wheir of Wick. While on her nets was run down by a schooner, the Ann and Elizabeth of South Shields, the crew of which paid no attention to the poor fishermen thus endangered who had to run their boat upon Noss Head. The moment she struck, the crew leapt upon the rocks and were miraculously saved, Donald Farquhar and his crew of Wick were driven amongst the reef of rocks at HeIlman, One of the crew lept into the water with a rope and, getting to shore succeeded in puling the rest of the crew to safety.
They then walked barefooted into town. About half past four five boats entered the bay together at. This time the state of the weather was fearful and the bay was almost one entire wave, In the blight of the bay one tremendous wave struck the furthest out of the five boats swamping her and sending the whole crew to a watery grave. As this fearful wave proceeded on its course of destruction and death a second boat was struck and net the same fate as their friends, A third boat, that of Francis Sinclair of Pultneytown made a hairbreadth escape and reached the harbour. A fourth belonging to William Doull of Wick struck the end of the South quay, the moment she struck the crew scrambled up the back of the quay with the exception of poor Doull, who, in a disparate attempt to save his son allowed the opportunity to pass and in the next moment another wave drove the boat to the back of the North quay, and his son perished. The fifth, a small Lews boat came in at the back of the North Quay, and the entire crew. by means of ropes borrowed from boats in the harbour got safely ashore. Another boat appeared and after encountering the surf on the bar she struck on the end of the South Quay. At this point a Mr John Sutherland, Emigration Agent. at that time almost the only person on the parapet wall boldly ventured down the solitary ladder affixed to the back of the quay, and holding one of its steps with one hand he stretched forward the other to the drowning fishermen. Two of them were brought ashore but ere his generous help could be made available to the others the boat was driven off by the surge and the rest of the crew perished. The rapid occurrence of such a horrific event caused confusion everywhere. At one lime four entire crews were at the back of the quay, all exposed to the appalling danger. In one case a poor fishermen clung to the mast for more than half an hour watching his crew mates and friends hauled up the quay one by one to safety, and now he alone remained, It was a fight for life. Gradually the mast floated up towards the shore, ropes were thrown but his stiffened arms could not be raised to take advantage of this aid. At last two very brave men, Mr George Sinclair, boat carpenter and Mr Wm.Young, mason, made a determined effort to save the helpless man. They got ropes fastened round their bodies, and swinging themselves over the quay they dashed into the swirling breakers and brought the man safely to land. The whole bay was a scene of destruction with wrecks of boats floating in every direction while on the land it was impossible to describe the terror edged in every countenance as children were left fatherless mothers losing husbands and sons, The following is a fairly accurate list of casualties of that fearful day:-
Willaim Doull and son Wick 2
David Geddes and crew Staxigoe 6
'Rose of Slickly'' 2
"Harmony' Pultneytown 6
Murdoch Morison and crew 5
George Swanson "Peggy Thurso 1
James Manson and crew Longhope 5
Murdoch Macdonald and crew 5
Donald Morison and part of crew 3
Hope Pultneytown 2
Total men drowned 37
This is one of the events that led to the formation of Wick Lifeboat for more information on the history of Wick Lifeboat there is a small book covering many such events, this is available by sending a stamped addressed envelope to Wick Lifeboat, Harbour Quay, Wick, Caithness, Scotland. Enclosing a cover cost of only £3.
Main text by Ian Cassells
Photographs by A. Anderson and friends of the Lifeboat, Wick Heritage Centre & Newcastle Chronicle & Journal.