Life Saving Awards from the Collection of John Wilson

Date of Auction: 25th March 2013

Sold for £2,800

Estimate: £1,000 - £1,400

An R.N.L.I. / Indian Chief Medal pair awarded to Stoker George Woodward of the tug Vulcan for the rescue of the Indian Chief, 5/6 January 1881 - one of the greatest rescues performed during the ‘Victorian’ age

Royal National Lifeboat Institution, V.R., silver (Mr George Woodward, Voted 3rd March 1881) with ‘double dolphin’ suspension; Indian Chief Medal, obverse: scene of the Vulcan towing the life-boat Bradford towards the wreck of the Indian Chief; reverse inscribed, ‘Ramsgate Harbour Tug and Lifeboat, Honour the Brave. Presented for Conspicuous Gallantry in Rescuing Eleven Survivors of the crew of the ship “Indian Chief” wrecked on the Longsand Jan. 6th 1881’ (George Wooduard (sic)) 38mm., silver, with silver slip bar, dated ‘1881’ and bearing the shield of the Cinque Ports, complete with silver suspension and top bars, some edge bruising and contact marks, nearly very fine and better (2) £1000-1400


In the early morning of 5 January 1881 the 1,238 ton barque, Indian Chief, four days out from Middlesborough, bound for Yokohama, was wrecked during a gale on the Long Sands in the outer reaches of the Thames Estuary close to Knock Light. During the day she began to break up and the survivors took to the rigging. Following unsuccessful searches for the casualty by the Harwich and Clacton lifeboats, the Ramsgate lifeboat, Bradford (Coxswain Charles Edward Fish) was brought on to the scene, towed by the tug Vulcan (Alfred Page, Master).

The lifeboat, Bradford, a 44ft self-righter, had been towed by the paddle steamer Vulcan for 30 miles in the biting gale and heavy seas. Arriving in the dark it was impossible to find the wreck so the coxswain and crew remained there for the night cruising about between the Sands, the lifeboat crew exposed to the whole fury of the storm and the steamer continuing to sustain damage.

In the morning Coxswain Fish cast off from the Vulcan and positioning the lifeboat, skilfully veered a piece of wood attached to lengths of rope, towards the wreck. This enabled a hawser to be dragged aboard the wreck by the survivors by which the lifeboat crew hauled their vessel close under the Indian Chief’s quarter. The lifeboat then took off the 11 survivors, transferred them to the tug which then towed them back to Ramsgate. The lifeboat had been at sea for some 26 hours in heavy broken water.

A detailed account of the rescue, given by the Coxswain of the Bradford, to a reporter from the Daily Telegraph reads: ‘

News had been brought to Ramsgate, as you know, sir, that a large ship was ashore on the Long Sand, and Captain Braine, the harbour-master, immediately ordered the tug and Life-boat to proceed to her assistance. It was blowing a heavy gale, it came much harder some hours afterwards; and the moment we were clear of the piers we felt the sea. Our boat is considered a very fine one. I know there is no better on the coasts, and there are only two in Great Britain bigger. She was presented to the Life-boat Institution by Bradford, and is called after that town. But it is ridiculous to talk of bigness when it means only forty-two feet long, and when a sea is raging round you heavy enough to swamp a line-of-battle ship. I had my eye on the tug -named the Vulcan, sir -and when she met the first of the seas, and she was thrown up like a ball, and you could see her starboard paddle revolving in the air high enough for a coach to pass under; and when she struck the hollow she dished a sea over her bows that left only the stern showing. We were towing head to wind, and the water was flying over the boat in clouds. Every man of us was soaked to the skin, in spite of our overalls, by the time we had brought the Ramsgate Sands abeam; but there were a good many miles to be gone over before we should fetch the Knock Lightship, and so you see, sir, it was much too early for us to take notice that things were not over and above comfortable. We got out the sail-cover-a piece of tarpaulin -to make a shelter of, and rigged it up against the mast, seizing it to the burtons; but it hadn't been up two minutes when a heavy sea hit and washed it right aft in rags; so there was nothing to do but hold onto the thwarts and shake ourselves when the water came over. I never remember a colder wind. I don't say this because I happened to be out in it. Old Tom Cooper, one of the best boatmen in all England, sir, who made one of our crew, agreed with me that it was more like a flaying machine than a natural gale of wind. The fell of it in the face was like being gnawed by a dog. I only wonder it didn't freeze the tears it fetched out of our eyes. We were heading N.E., and the wind was blowing from N.E. The North Foreland had been a bit of shelter, like; but when we had gone clear of that, and the ocean lay ahead of us, the seas were furious -they seemed miles long, sir, like an Atlantic sea, and it was enough to make a man hold his breath to watch how the tug wallowed and tumbled into them. I sung out to Dick Goldsmith, 'Dick', I says, 'she's slowed, do you see, she'll never be able to meet it, for she had slackened her engines down into a mere crawl, and I really did think they meant to give up. I could see Alf Page -the master of her, sir-on the bridge, coming and going like the moon when the clouds sweep over it, as the seas smothered him up one moment, and left him shining in the sun the next. But there was to be no giving up with the tug's crew any more than with the Life-boat's; she held on, and we followed.

Somewhere abreast of the Elbow Buoy a smack that was running ported her helm to speak to us. Her skipper had just time to yell out, 'A vessel on the Long Sand!' and we to wave our hands, when she was astern, and out of sight in a haze of spray. Presently a collier named the Fanny, with her foretopgallant yard gone, passed us. She was cracking on to bring the news of the wreck to Ramsgate, and was making a heavy sputter under her topsails and foresail. They raised a cheer, for they knew our errand, and then, like the smack, in a minute she was astern and gone. By this time the cold and the wet and the fearful plunging were beginning to ten, and one of the men called for a nip of rum. The quantity we generally take is half a gallon, and it is always my rule to be sparing with that drink for the sake of the shipwrecked men we may have to bring home, and who are pretty sure to be in greater need of the stuff than us. I never drink myself, sir, and that's one reason, I think, why I manage to meet the cold and wind middling well, and rather better than some men who look stronger than me. However, I told Charlie Verrion to measure the rum out and serve it round, and it would have made you laugh, I do believe, sir, to have seen the care the men took of the big bottle -Charlie cocking his finger into the cork-hole, and David Berry clapping his hand over the pewter measure whenever a sea came to prevent the salt water from spoiling the liquor. Bad as our plight was, the tug's crew were no better off; their wheel is forrard, and so you may suppose the fellow who steered had his share of the seas; the others stood by to relieve him; and, for the matter of water, she was just like a rock, the waves striking her bows and flying pretty nigh as high as the top of her funnel, and blowing the whole length of her aft with a fall like the tumble of half-a-dozen cart loads of bricks. I like to speak of what they went through, for the way they were knocked about was something fearful, to be sure.

By half-past four o'clock in the afternoon it was drawing on dusk, and about that hour we sighted the revolving light of the Kentish Knock Lightship, and a little after five we were pretty close to her. She is a big, red-hulled boat, with the words 'Kentish Knock' written in long white letters on her sides, and dark as it was, we could see her flung up, and rushing down fit to roll her over and over; and the way she pitched and went out of sight, and then ran up on the black heights of water, gave me a better notion of the fearfulness of that sea than I had got by watching the tug or noticing our own lively dancing. The tug hailed her first, and two men looking over her side answered; but what they said didn't reach us in the Life-boat. Then the steamer towed us abreast, but the tide caught our warp and gave us a sheer that brought us much too close alongside of her. When the sea took her she seemed to hang right over us, and the sight of that great dark hull, looking as if, when it fell, it must come right atop of us, made us want to sheer off, I can tell you. I sung out, 'Have you seen the ship?' and one of the men bawled back, 'Yes.' 'How does she bear?' 'Nor' -west by north.' 'Have you seen anything go to her?' The answer I caught was, 'A boat.' Some of our men said the answer was a life-boat,' but most of us only heard 'A boat.' The tug was now towing ahead, and went past the lightship, but ten minutes after Tom Friend sings out, 'They're burning a light aboard her!' and looking astern I saw they had fired a red signal light that was blazing over the bulwark in a long shower of sparks. The tug put her helm down to return, and we felt the power of those waves, sir. It looked a wonder that we were not rolled over and drowned, every man of us. We held on with our teeth clenched, and twice the boat was filled, and the water up to our throats. 'Look out for it, men!' was always the cry. But every upward send emptied the noble little craft, like pulling out a plug in a wash-basin, and in a few minutes we were again alongside the light-vessel. This time there were six or seven men looking over side. 'What do you want?' we shouted. 'Did you see the Sunk Lightship's rocket?' they all yelled together. 'Yes. Did you say you saw a boat?' 'No,' they answered, showing we had mistaken their first reply. On which I shouted to the tug, 'Pull us round to the Long Sand Head Buoy!' and then we were under weigh again, meeting the tremendous seas. There was only a little bit of moon, westering fast, and what there was of it showed but now and again, as the heavy clouds opened and let the light of it down. Indeed, it was very dark, though there was some kind of glimmer in the foam which enabled us to mark the tug ahead. 'Bitter cold work, Charlie,' says old Tom Cooper to me: 'but,' says he, 'it's colder for the poor wretches aboard the wreck, if they're alive to feel it.' The thought of them made our own sufferings small, and we kept looking and looking into the darkness around, but there was nothing to be spied, only now and again, and long whiles apart the flash of a rocket in the sky from the Sunk lightship. Meanwhile, from time to time, we burnt a hand-signal -a light, sir, that's fired something after the manner of a gun. You fit it into a wooden tube, and give a sort of hammer at the end a smart blow, and the flame rushes out, and a bright light it makes, sir. Ours were green lights, and whenever I set one flaring I couldn't help taking notice of the appearance of the men. It was a queer sight, I assure, to see them as green as leaves, with their cork jackets swelling out their bodies so as scarcely to seem like human beings, and the black water as high as our masthead, or howling a long way below us, on either side. They burned hand-signals on the tug, too, but nothing came of them. There was no sign of the wreck, and staring over the edge of the boat, with the spray and the darkness was like trying to see through the bottom of a well. So we began to talk the matter over, and Tom Cooper says, 'We had better stop here and wait for daylight.' 'I'm for stopping,' says Steve Goldsmith; and Bob Penny says, 'We're here to fetch the wreck, and fetch it we will, if we wait a week.' 'Right,' says I; and all hands being agreed -without any fuss, sir, though I dare say most of our hearts were at home, and our wishes alongside our hearths, and the warm fires in them -we all of us put our hands to our mouths and made one great cry of 'Vulcan ahoy!' The tug dropped astern. 'What do you want?' sings out the skipper, when he gets within speaking distance. 'There's nothing to be seen of the vessel, and so we had better lie-to for the night,' I answered. 'Very good,' he says, and then the steamer, without another word from her crew, and the water tumbling over her bows like cliffs, resumed her station ahead, her paddles revolving just fast enough to keep her from dropping astern. As coxswain of the Life-boat, sir, I take no credit for resolving to lie-to all night. But I am bound to say a word for the two crews, who made up their minds without a murmur, without a second's hesitation, to face the bitter cold and fierce seas of that long winter darkness, that they might be on the spot to help their fellow-creatures when the dawn broke and showed them where they were. I know there are scores of sailors round our coasts who would have done likewise. Only read, sir, what was done in the north, Newcastle way, during the gales last October. But surely, sir, no matter who may be the men who do what they think their duty, whether they belong to the North or the South, they deserve the encouragement of praise. A man likes to feel, when he has done his best, that his fellow-men think well of his work. If I had not been one of that crew I should wish to say more; but no false pride shall make me say less, sir, and I thank God for the resolution He put into us, and for the strength He gave us to keep that resolution.

All that we had to do now was to make ourselves as comfortable as we could. Our tow rope veered us out a long way, too far astern of the tug for her to help us as breakwater, and the manner in which we were flung towards the sky with half our keel out of water and then dropped into a hollow - like falling from the top of a house, sir - while the heads of the seas blew into and tumbled over us all the time, made us all reckon that, so far from getting rest, most of our time would be spent in preventing ourselves from being washed overboard. We turned to and got the foresail aft, and made a kind of roof of it. This was no easy job, for the wind was so furious that wrestling even with that bit of a sail was like fighting with a steam-engine. When it was up ten of us snugged ourselves away under it, and two men stood on the after-grating thwart keeping a look-out, with life-lines around them. As you know, sir, we carry a binnacle, and the lamp in it was alight and gave out just enough haze for us to see each other in. We all lay in a lump together for warmth, and a fine show we made, I dare say; for a cork jacket, even when a man stands upright isn't calculated to improve his figure, and as we all of us had cork jackets on and oil-skins, and many of us sea boots, you may guess what a raffle of legs and arms we showed, and what a rum heap of odds and ends we looked, as we sprawled in the bottom of the boat upon one another. Sometimes it would be 21 Johnny Goldsmith - for we had three Goldsmiths - Steve , and Dick and Johnny - growling underneath that someone was lying on his leg; and then maybe Harry Meader would/bawl out that there was a man sitting on his head; and once Tom Friend swore his arm was broke; but my opinion is, sir, that it was too cold to feel inconveniences of this kind, and I believe that some among us would not have known if their arms and legs really had been broke, until they tried to use 'em, for the cold seemed to take away all feeling out of the blood. As the seas flew over the boat the water filled the sail that was stretched overhead and bellied it down upon us, and that gave us less room so that some had to lie flat on their faces; but when this bellying got too bad we'd all get up and make one heave with our backs under the sail, and chuck the water out of it in that way. 'Charlie Fish,' says Tom Cooper to me, in a grave voice, 'what would some of them young gen'lmen as comes to Ramsgate in the summer, and says they'd like to go out in the Life-boat, think of this?' This made me laugh, and then young Tom Cooper votes for another nipper of rum all round; and as it was drawing on for one o'clock in the morning, and some of the men were groaning with cold, and pressing themselves against the thwarts with the pain of it, I made no objection, and the liquor went round. I always take a cake of Fry's chocolate with me when I go out in the Life-boat, as I find it very supporting, and I had a mind to have a mouthful now; but when I opened the locker I found it full of water, my chocolate nothing but paste and the biscuits a mass of pulp. This was rather hard, as there was nothing else to eat, and there was no getting near the tug in that sea unless we wanted to be smashed into staves. However, we hadn't come out to enjoy ourselves; nothing was said, and so we lay in a heap, hugging one another for warmth, until the morning broke.

The first man to look to leeward was old Tom's son - young Tom Cooper - and in a moment he bawled out, 'There she is!' pointing like a madman. The morning had only just broke, and the light was grey and dim, and down in the west it still seemed to be night; the air was full of spray, and scarcely were we a-top of a sea than we were rushing like an arrow into the hollow again, so that young Tom must have had eyes like a hawk to have seen her. Yet the moment he sung out and pointed, all hands cried out, 'There she is!' But what was it, sir? Only a mast about three miles off -just one single mast sticking up out of the white water, as thin and faint as a spider's line. Yet that was the ship we had waited all night to see. There she was, and my heart thumped in my ears the moment my eye fell on that mast. But Lord, sir, the fearful sea that was raging between her and us! For where we were was deepish water, and the waves regular; but all about the wreck was the Sand, and the water on it was running in fury all sorts of ways, rushing up in tall columns of foam as high as a ship's mainyard, and thundering so loudly that, though we were to windward, we could hear it above the gale and the boiling of the seas around us. It might have shook even a man who wanted to die to look at it, if he didn't know what the Bradford can go through. I ran my eye over the men's faces. 'Let slip the tow-rope,' bawled Dick Goldsmith. 'Up foresail,' I shouted, and two minutes after we had sighted that mast we were dead before the wind, our storm foresail taut as a drum-skin, our boat's stem heading full for the broken seas and the lonely stranded vessel in the midst of them. It was well that there was something in front of us to keep our eyes that way, and that none of us thought of looking astern, or the sight of the high and frightful seas which raged after us might have played old Harry with weak nerves. Some of them came with such force that they leapt right over the boat, and the air was dark with water flying a dozen yards high over us in broad solid sheets, which fell with a roar like the explosion of a gun ten and a dozen fathoms ahead. But we took no notice of these seas even when we were in the thick of the broken waters, and all the hands holding on to the thwarts for dear life. Every thought was upon the mast that was growing bigger and clearer, and sometimes when a sea hove us high we could just see the hull, with the water as white as milk flying over it. The mast was what they call 'bright,' that is, scraped and varnished, and we knew that if there was anything living aboard that doomed ship we would find it on that mast; and we strained our eyes with all our might, but could see nothing that looked like a man. But on a sudden I caught sight of a length of canvas streaming out of the top, and all of us seeing it we raised a shout, and a few minutes after we saw the men. They were all dressed in yellow oilskins, and the mast being of that colour was the reason why we did not see them sooner. They looked a whole mob of people, and one of us roared out, 'All hands are there, men!' and I answered, 'Aye, the whole ship's company, and we'll have them all!' for though, as we afterwards knew, there were only eleven of them, yet, as I have said, they looked a great number huddled together in that top, and I made sure the whole ship's company were there. By this time we were pretty close to the ship, and a fearful wreck she looked, with her mainmast and mizzenmast gone, and her bulwarks washed away, and great lumps of timber and planking ripping out of her and going overboard with every pour of the seas. We let go our anchor fifteen fathoms to windward of her, and as we did so we saw the poor fellows unlashing themselves and dropping one by one over the top into the lee rigging. As we veered out the cable and drove down under her stem, I shouted to the men on the wreck to bend a piece of wood on to a line and throw it overboard for us to lay hold of. They did this, but they had to get aft first, and I feared for the poor half-perished creatures again and again as I saw them scrambling along the lee rail, stopping and holding on as the mountainous seas swept over the hull, and then creeping a bit further aft in the pause. There was a horrible muddle of spars and tom canvas and rigging under her lee, but we could not guess what a fearful sight was there until our hawser having been made fast to the wreck, we hauled the Life-boat close under her quarter. There looked to be a whole score of dead bodies knocking about among the spars. It stunned me for a moment, for I had thought all hands were in the foretop, and never dreamt of so many lives having been lost Seventeen were drowned, and there they were, most of them, and the body of the captain lashed to the head of the mizenmast, so as to look as if he were leaning over it, his head stiff upright and his eyes watching us, and the stir of the seas made him appear to be struggling o get to us. I thought he was alive, and cried to the men to hand him in, but someone said he was killed when the mizenmast fell, and had been dead four or five hours. This was dreadful shock; I never remember the like of it. I can't hardly get those fixed eyes out of my sight, sir, and I lie awake for hours of a night, and so does Tom Cooper, and others of us, seeing those bodies tom by the spars and bleeding, floating in the water alongside the miserable ship.

Well, sir, the rest of this lamentable story has been told by the mate of the vessel, and I don't know that I could add anything to it. We saved the eleven men, and I have since heard that all of them are doing well. If I may speak, as coxswain of the Life-boat, I would like to say that all hands concerned in this rescue, them in the tug as well as the crew of the boat, did what might be expected of English sailors - for such they are, whether you call some of them boatmen or not; and I know in my heart, and say it without fear, that from the hour of leaving Ramsgate Harbour to the moment when we sighted the wreck's mast. there was only one thought in all of us, and that was that the Almighty would give us the strength and direct us how to save the lives of the poor fellows to whose assistance we had been sent.’

For their great bravery in saving life, under terrible conditions, the R.N.L.I. Medal in Gold was awarded to Coxswain Charles Edward Fish and R.N.L.I. Medals in Silver were awarded to eleven members of the lifeboat crew and to the master and six members of the crew of the Vulcan. The R.N.L.I. Medals were presented at a ceremony at the Ramsgate Coastguard Station on 11 February 1881 by H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh.

Immediately after the valiant rescue, a subscription was started for the crews of the Vulcan and Bradford. The money raised was in part used to strike a special medal for award to the crews - Indian Chief Medal.

With a quantity of copied research, including several accounts of the rescue.