RNLI introduces cork lifejackets, 1861

Freeman was sole survivor of a tragic disaster on 9 February 1861, when his 12 fellow crew members drowned.

Henry Freeman wearing his cork lifejacket Photograph: Frank Meadow Sutcliffe

This iconic image of Henry Freeman, Whitby coxswain, is from the Frank Meadow Sutcliffe Collection, Whitby.

Posing for the famous local photographer wearing the lifejacket that saved his life, has made Freeman famous throughout the world.

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (Hon. FRP.), active between 1875 and 1910, was probably one of the greatest photographers of his day. He won over 60 gold, silver and bronze medals from exhibitions around the world. His large camera was made of mahogany with brass fittings and it took ‘whole plate’ glass negatives (6.5″x8.5″).

Henry Freeman, out on his first ‘shout’ with the Whitby Old no. 1 (West Side) lifeboat, was sole survivor of a tragic disaster in which his 12 fellow crew members drowned. On 9 February 1861, on its fifth ‘shout’ of the day, the Whitby Lifeboat Association lifeboat was overturned in fierce northeasterly gales and heavy seas.

Designed by RNLI Inspector, Captain Ward, in 1854, the lifejacket worn by Freeman that day had cork strips sewn into a canvas vest to provide flexibility and ease of movement. It was the only one available, having been sent to the lifeboat station as a sample.

A young man at the time of this tragic accident, Freeman went on to become Coxswain of the Whitby lifeboat, and was decorated several times during his 22 years with the RNLI.

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