This year seems to be producing terrible storms, so it seems the right time to tell this tale, of the brave Captain Bennett – The Hero of Lyme.
November 23rd 1824
Captain Charles Bennett stood on top of Church Cliff and watched the destruction of Lyme Regis. Around him stood a crowd of men, women and children, some still dressed in nightgowns, having just managed to escape from their houses before they collapsed. Every so often there was a cry as another house fell before the pounding waves.
Suddenly there was a scream, worse than the others, Captain Bennett raised his telescope and gasped, the Fox cutter had broken from its moorings, there was a man still clinging to the mast, for a moment it seemed to run before the wind, then the waves covered it.
“Poor Fellows!” He shook his head, he had seen men die in battle but this was somehow much worse.
“Was it the Fox?” He turned to see William Porter, the Lyme Pilot and an old friend.
He nodded, Porter tried to look straight into the wind and failed.
“How does Pierce ride?”
Captain Bennett raised his telescope and focussed it on the Unity, he knew the ship well, every six weeks it sailed for London and was the best way of bringing heavy goods to Lyme Regis, Captain Pierce was popular in Lyme and all his crew were local men. She had been due to sail the next day and there were a number of men on board. Now she was straining on her moorings, tied to the Cobb, the ancient harbour of Lyme Regis, invisible under the pounding waves.
The Destruction of Lyme Regis
“She rides well.” He replied, “And will hold I think – as long as the Cobb stands.”
The sun rose, the sky cleared with fast scudding clouds, but the storm didn’t abate. Then, Captain Bennett estimated about seven o’clock, the worst happened. The Cobb collapsed!
There was a terrible scream from the crowd as the Unity seemed to shoot across the bay, for a moment it seemed that she was going to be wrecked under their feet, at the bottom of Church Cliff, but she was swept past and along the shore.
“She’ll strike at Charmouth no doubt.” Said Porter, “And no hope for them.” Added John Freeman, a local fisherman.
“No, I’ll be damned it I watch more men die.” Shouted Captain Bennett. “I think there is hope for them, if you are with me.” He held out his hand, first Porter then Freeman grabbed it.
“Ay Ay Captain – we’re with you.”
Captain Bennett turned and ran down the slope, “I always thought it was nuisance that I had to keep my gear well away from the shore, now I am glad, very glad indeed.”
He pushed open the door to his store, the gear for his boat, now smashed by the storm, filled the shed. He loaded a small cart with ropes, hooks and grapnels, then they dragged it up, onto the rutted coast road, chasing the Unity.
They passed several groups of weeping women struggling against the weather, he recognised the wives of two of the men on board the Unity, then there were two women who were screaming at each other.
“Jim’s mine!” screamed one, “No you whore, he’s mine!” screamed the other.
“I think Jim’s in trouble.” Laughed John Freeman.
“Only if we get him to shore.” Replied William Porter.
Onward they struggled, helped by other men they met, until they dropped down towards Charmouth where the masts of the Unity were visible over the cliff top. Here William Freeman tied hooks to the ends of light ropes and, again and again, the men tried to throw them to the ship. Every time they fell short, it was impossible to throw into the gale. Captain Bennett held onto the cart and shut his eyes, he couldn’t look at the men on the Unity, he had failed.
The Wreck of the Unity – showing what the rescuers had to face
The crowd watched in horror, waiting for the end, then the miracle happened, the Unity was swept off the sand, it was moving again! A few moments later it grounded on another sandbank, it hadn’t moved far, but far enough.
Now there was a way down to the beach where there was just enough room to stand. The three men scrambled down, tied ropes round their waists and handed the ends to other men who had followed them. Captain Bennett had just finished tying his rope when there was a cry from above, one of the men of the Unity had tried to climb down off the ship and had fallen. Captain Bennett ran, straight into the surf. As the water swirled round the stern he glimpsed the fallen man, diving forward he grabbed him then shouted for the men to pull him back. To his horror he saw that no one had held the end of the rope as he ran into the water, he struggled up the beach, but knew it wouldn’t make it, then to his relief a man ran forward, grabbed the rope and pulled him back.
He recognised the man, Joshua Knight another fisherman. Joshua grabbed the sailor and handed him to one of the other men, then he pointed at the ship. Captain Bennett saw that John Porter was standing by the side of the vessel with a grapnel in his hand, he threw it up and it caught on the railing, then he was hit by the next wave and pushed back. As the water receded Captain Bennet ran forward, reaching the rope just at the same time as John Porter, who smiled and allowed him to go first up the thin rope. On the deck he saw that William Freeman was already there, he had grabbed a man, then they held on as another wave broke over them. As the water flowed out though the scuppers they all grabbed a man, tied him to their rope, cut them free from the ropes they had used to stop them falling overboard, and ran for the side.
The next wave hit them as they were dropping onto the sand, they ran with it towards the shore, helped by the men pulling on the ropes, Joshua Knight had organised them now and it didn’t take long before the three men, and their precious cargo, were safe.
They rested for a few seconds, then Captain Bennett pointed to the Unity’s rigging, there were three men hanging from the ropes, they had climbed into the rigging out of the waves and tied themselves there, they weren’t moving, they were either dead or unconscious. They all knew that if they were unconscious then they would be dead soon, if they got no help.
“One more time lads!” Shouted the captain, they didn’t reply but both turned back to the ship, as the next wave pulled back they ran. Holding on tight as the water broke over them, then up the side of the ship and into the rigging. They were all experienced sailors, used to climbing rigging in all weathers, but none had climbed in such conditions. They reached their men, in Captain Bennett’s case it was a boy, then came the problem of first tying the unconscious man to their waist then cutting them free.
John Porter reached the deck just before Captain Bennett, as he was about to try and climb down a wave hit him and pulled him overboard. The Captain ran forward and without thinking jumped, with the boy in his arms, into the surf. It cushioned his fall and he was able to grab his friend. Together they dragged the last of the crew back to safety, finally, above the surf he dropped to his knees and collapsed. He had done it, the crew were safe.
This story is completely true, the storm, the rescue, the named characters, the squabbling women and even some of the dialogue.
In 1824 the National Institute for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck had been formed, it is now the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The first gold medal it presented was to Captain Bennett, the first silver medals to John Porter and William Freeman.