Northern Belle

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The rescue of the crew of the Northern Belle

Northern Belle was an American transatlantic ship which ran aground near Thanet, England on 5 January 1857. No lives were lost, thanks to heroic rescue efforts, in blizzard conditions. However, another ship sank en route to the scene, the Margate lugger "Victory" was lost with a crew of 9.

The Northern Belle set out from New York, crossing the Atlantic, only to run into trouble at Thanet, so close to its destination of London. At 3 am, on a bitter-cold morning, it became apparent that a ship was in some peril in local waters near the little harbour of Broadstairs.

The ship had been cast ashore on a dangerous ledge of rocks below the Foreness Point, at Kingsgate, between Broadstairs and the coast of Margate. On seeing the plight of the Northern Belle's crew, the Coastguard had sent warning to Broadstairs, and so, despite the severe conditions prevailing, the Mary White and Culmer White lifeboats were hauled overland by horse-drawn trailer, against the blizzard, to a point where they could be safely launched.

The rescue[edit]

The rescued crew of the Northern Belle at The Captain Digby, in Kingsgate, Kent, England, 5 January, 1857

Whilst these preparations were underway, the lugger Ocean managed to rescue five of the Northern Belle's crew, leaving some 25 men still on board the stricken vessel.

In the 1850s, with two life craft, it was the regular practice for the boatmen to have one lifeboat ready at the harbour, and the other on its launching trailer stored in the coachyard of the Rose Inn, which had been a coaching inn since 1784, with the horses stabled in nearby Albion Street, close to the pier. In this way, one boat could always be taken to any part of the Thanet coast without delay. On this occasion, so fierce was the wind however, that both lifeboats had to be moved overland, one being reloaded from the pier.

In accordance with the prominent local historian William Lapthorne's careful reconstruction of the event,

"On arrival at the beach the boats were launched, and with a total disregard for their own safety, the crews pulled boldly through the boiling surf and, after making several hazardous trips, saved most of the crew of the stricken vessel.
"The Mary White, having been dragged across fields of snow, was able to bring off seven of the American crew, and then the Culmer White, having arrived with a fresh crew, made two further journeys, on the first attempt rescuing 14 shipwrecked men, and only then returning to recover the Captain and the Pilot."
The Maritime Heritage of Thanet, East Kent Maritime Trust 1997, (Howard Biggs) - Ed.: Cates & Chamberlain.

Cold, wet and exhausted but rescued, the American survivors were taken to an inn overlooking the bay and the scene of the disaster. All involved were there able to thaw out before a blazing log fire, in the bar's "cozy parlour" where food and hot rum was served and warming blankets given around.


In response to these events the then American President, Franklin Pierce ordered 25 Silver Medals to be struck which, together with a sum of salvage money, were awarded to each of the lifeboat crews. It is believed that this is the only known occasion on which such a medal has ever been awarded to an English lifeboat crew.

Perhaps the following day, but certainly very soon afterwards, the Mary White, with both lifeboat crews aboard, was drawn through the narrow streets of Broadstairs, proudly displaying the American ensign of the Northern Belle.

Again with thanks to the diligent work of W. H. Lapthorne, a memorandum from one Lawrence Macey, an official of that State department, was unearthed from the United States National Archive in Washington, which had been sent to President Franklin Pierce;

To the President:
"I have the honour to report that information has been received from Robert B. Campbell, Esq., United States Consul in London, of the wreck of the American ship ‘Northern Belle’ near Kingsgate, England, and the rescue of her crew by the aid of Lifeboats under circumstances of peculiar peril.
" -The details are sent forth in the annexed list from The Times of January 8, I respectfully suggest that our Minister at London be instructed to present in suitable terms the acknowledgement.

"-L. Macey. (1857)

The response being:

"Both recommendations are heartily approved. I deign to confer with the Award of State in relation to the appropriate Tokens to be presented to the gallant crew of the ‘Mary White’. 3rd. July 1857"

The names of those recorded of the lifeboatmen on the rescue of the Northern Belle, wrecked of Kingsgate, Broadstairs that 5 January:

R.(or) John Castle, Thomas Holbourn, J. Tiller, George Castle, John Sandwell, R. Cox, William Hiller Jnr., William Wales, Thomas Sandwell, Robert Miller, Jethrow Miller, Robert Simpson, Edward Emptage, R. or William Ralph, Jerimiah Walker, James Rowe, W.or John Cowell, John Pettit, George Fox, Charles Emptage, James Bere/Bear, William Rowe, George Emptage, R. Port, George Emptage, Edward Emptage and George Emptage.

It is not clear on which specific journey Robert Parker and Robert Gilbert participated, or if they assisted with the haul-off, and remained ashore, but their names also appear on the salvage list, along with a Fred Lawrence.

George Emptage was the only man to make all three journeys, to and from the wreck. The salvage list was compiled by General Robert Campbell, United States Consul in London at the time. He also launched an appeal to all Americans living in Britain, requesting them to give generously by means of subscription to a fund, raising money to provide for the widows and orphans of the nine-man crew of the Margate lugger "Victory", which was lost with all hands going to the aid of the "Northern Belle" (Lapthorne).

John Laing, a boatman of Broadstairs wrote an article and sent it to The Times detailing the event for the nation of the fate of the Margate lugger Victory. The loss of the crew of the lugger must have been a hard blow for the robust boatmen of Thanet however, and later was the inspiration of the founding of a surfboat service which, over the next 50 years, became famous in its own right for the lives saved and the misfortune it suffered at the perils of wind and sea: the "Friend of all Nations" and the later ‘Friend to all Nations’.

A tablet recording the names of those men lost on the lugger as she turned over, and went down, was inscribed and placed on Margate Pier, but is lost today. Out of due respect for these men, here is a list of their names:

John Smith (aged 63), William Emptage (aged 52), Isaac Solly (aged 46), Abraham Busbridge (aged 35), Charles Fuller (aged 34), John Emptage (aged 29), George Smith (aged 29), Henry Paramor (aged 27) and Frederick Bath (aged 22).

The London Illustrated News carried a lengthy account of the rescue and, in reference to the Culmer boatmen, quote:

"These men were not labouring under any species of excitement when they engaged in the perilous duty which they performed so nobly and well. They had no hope of a decoration when they bounded into the boats to storm batteries of billows far more appalling to the human mind than batteries surrounded by cannon and bristling with bayonets. The crew of the ill-fated ship grasped their preservers warmly by the hand saying “none but Englishmen would come off to our rescue in such a sea”."


After the event, one of Margate's oldest pubs, the "Watermans Arms" was renamed the "Northern Belle", and timber salvaged from the shipwreck was used to renovate the pub. The original wooden beams and davitts, which became bar posts, are still visible today. The pub is still called the "Northern Belle" and is still open daily. During the Second World War and the Cold-War years, the pub was used by American airmen. (margate historical society)

There are some items salvaged from the "Northern Belle" on display in the Margate Museum, alongside a medal awarded to Robert Parker.