The Dunbar Lifeboat

In 1789 the young George Miller of Dunbar was witness to a wreck at South Shields. Its aftermath prompted a national competition to design a rescue lifeboat and Henry Greathead built the first based on the best elements suggested by the competition. Greathead’s Original Class eventually extended to 31 boats – the first successful rescue craft.

Meanwhile George Miller had returned to Dunbar and established himself in business. Around 1807 there was a wreck at Thorntonloch; only one crewman made land and he died soon after. This tragedy inspired Miller to action and remembering his early experience he wrote to Greathead about the costs and designs of lifeboats, then used his press to publish an appeal to buy from Greathead’s yard a lifeboat for East Lothian. 

Within a year the appeal had raised £370 – enough for the lifeboat and carriage, shipment from Shields to Dunbar, and a lifeboat house to store the craft. A local committee was appointed to manage the boat, which was stationed at Dunbar.

The Dunbar Lifeboat was called into service at least four times:

In 1808 it stood by the dismasted Royal Navy vessel Cygnet at Redheugh.

In 1810 it rescued an estimated 45 of the crew of HMS Pallas, wrecked at the Vaults; a volunteer crewman, Benjamin Wilson, was lost when the boat upset on its third trip alongside the Pallas.

In 1816 it saved the last two of the crew of the John and Agnes of Newcastle, cast ashore on Tyne sands in a storm.

In 1821 the boat was found to be unserviceable when the volunteers attempted to go to the aid of the Lady Anne Murray of Gatehouse of Fleet. By using a fishing yawl one crewman was saved.

The Dunbar Lifeboat and fittings were finally sold ‘for what they could bring’ on 15 October 1829. Only two of its crew are known with certainty: the Coxswain David Laing, a Dunbar boatbuilder, and the unfortunate Ben Wilson, a mariner and cooper. A list of those who attempted to launch the boat in 1821 probably includes some who had served in earlier rescues; many names are recognisable as coming from Dunbar fishing families: James Comb, James Merrylees, William Robertson, John Tod, William Miller, William Marr, William Smith, Thomas Kerr, Andrew Punton, Charles Craig, and Thomas Robertson.

The career of the Dunbar Lifeboat was well documented in the press of the day and by interested local correspondents, not least George Miller himself. The failure of the enterprise stemmed from the inability of the local committee to sustain the service. It took the development of a national recue service, now the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, to provide the infrastructure to support the vessels at Dunbar and North Berwick to the present day.

Further Reading: A History of Dunbar, James Miller (second edition, 1859); The Dunbar Lifeboat, David M Anderson, Transactions of the East Lothian Antiquarians and Field Naturalists Society, 25 (2002), 89-113. As well as these two accounts, the John Gray Centre and East Lothian’s libraries have a number of publications with information relating to Dunbar’s lifeboats including a recent (1997) history by Ivor McPhillips as well as a manuscript volume written by George Miller himself.

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