History of Brooke Lifeboat

The stretch of coast between the Needles and St Catherine’s Point is the most treacherous on the Isle of Wight. The clay and smooth rock slabs known as Brook and Brighstone Ledges extend half a mile out to sea, stretch for six miles and have claimed many ships and lives in thick fogs, heavy ground swells and wild south-westerly storms.

For hundreds of years, ‘wreck,’ like smuggling, was an important source of income for Islanders. Cargoes they came across in this way included valuable building materials, spices, salt, sugar and wine. If the longshoreman could not use the goods themselves they would sell them on, often using the smugglers’ distribution routes and networks. The timbers from wrecks were used to build houses, sheds and boats; the panelling in Mottistone Church roof, for example, is taken from the Cedarine, wrecked in 1862.

Brooke Lifeboat Station was established in 1860. Before then rescues were carried out by the coastguards and prior to that by the local longshoremen.

Between 1860 and 1937, when it was closed down, the Brooke service is credited with saving 381 lives. It was a succession of wrecks along this coast in 1859 that resulted in committees being formed by the rectors of Brooke and Brighstone and Charles Seely.They raised enough money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to build two boats, one for each village. From then on everyone in Hulverstone, Mottistone and Brook was in some way connected with Brooke Lifeboat. For a start, to launch the Susan Ashley (1904 - 1937) thirteen crew members, ten heavy horses and up to thirty helpers were needed. Six horses were needed to launch the boat and ten to recover it when it was heavy with sea water. The crew of thirteen included five oars on each side, a coxswain, a second coxswain and bowman.

Support work on shore included keeping a chest of dry clothes always ready for those shipwrecked and we are told that in the 1850s, before John Dennett’s and then Colonel Boxer’s rocket was regularly used, the smithy at Downton Farm had been experimenting to create a line to wrecked ships by firing a canon ball with a line secured through the middle. Although they perfected the drilling of a hole through the canon ball, the line always broke when fired. The lifeboat house still stands but the original launching path has long since been worn away by the sea. The doors of the lifeboat house are in the end away from the sea to allow them to be opened in stormy weather when the prevailing south westerlies funnel up from the sea.

The last launch using horses is featured in a 1933 Pathe News film ‘For the Last Time,’ and subtitled ‘The Picturesque must give way to the Practical!’ When the final inspector’s report was made in the late 1930s, he could not shy away from the truth, that these gallant men were over-age and under-equipped for the job they were still so very proud of doing. Sold out of service in 1937 and converted into a motor yacht, the Susan Ashley had her second starring role in 1978 when she played the part of Dulcibella in the feature film of the novel, ‘The Riddle of the Sands,’ pictured right.

This content of this section of the website is dedicated to the memory of the Brooke Lifeboat crews. We are grateful for the material collected over the years by a number of local people including Bob Buckett , Bert Morris, Bob Cassell, Geoff Cott on and Chris Bull. We are also very grateful to John Medland’s Shipwrecks of the Isle of Wight (1986).