Bert Morris

Herbert (Bert) Morris (1909 - 1991) was a member of the crew of the Brook lifeboat Susan Ashley from 1929 to 1937. Bert had a fund of stories about the Brooke lifeboat, one went back to the First World War when a destroyer came ashore in fog on the bar at Brook. Here he is in conversation with Maldwin Drummond in the 1982.

"The last Brook lifeboat was Susan Ashley, a self righter and on the Brook lifeboat station from 1907 to 1937.  She was named after Lady Susan Violet Ashley who was born in 1868 and became the Countess of Mar and Kellie. She was the daughter of the 9th Earl of Shaftsbury.

Bert said the lifeboat was launched on a carriage using a Clayton and Shuttleworth tractor. This was originally designed for towing Handley Page aeroplanes. The experimental use at Brook was successful, which relieved the need for ten horses to recover the boat and six for launching. The tractor had eight gears and the cone clutches were open to the sea. The tractor time was seven minutes from boathouse to the water.  On the way down the tractor took up station behind the carriage and the boat was steered down the track by two long handles. They brought the lifeboat up from the beach on skids and loaded the Susan Ashley onto her trailer in what is now the car park. 

There was little or no shelter on the beach and sometimes it was impossible to launch. Bert remembered the Susan Ashley had a ‘feeling’ about her. She was a safe boat and looked after the crew if she was treated right. There were five oars on each side, a coxswain, a second coxswain and bowman - 13 in all. She had one centreboard which took two men to raise with a tackle on the after end.  One night they lost the plate off the Needles when they were returning from a re-fit. 

Susan Ashley sailed well and would go to windward. Often she beat the motor lifeboat. When going well she would ‘bark like a dog,’ this was caused by relieving valves opening and closing. She was steered by tiller lines and could take on water ballast. The lifeboat carried a two gallon wicker-covered water bottle and by the compass a bottle of rum. The compass was in a box screwed to a bulkhead and they carried three or four spare 17 foot oars. To go astern they turned round and rowed the other way. When the Susan Ashley was sold out of service in 1937 she was converted into a motor yacht. 

In 1978, under the direction of Dick Stower of Laurent Giles & partners, she was bought for Worldmark Production Ltd. to play the part of Dulcibella for a full length feature film of the famous novel “The Riddle of the Sands” under the production of Drummond Challis. She was much larger than Vixen, the model for the fictional Dulcibella, being only 28 foot as opposed to 35 foot between perpendiculars.

Bert and his wife Gladys have some interesting relics. On the lid of an old coal scuttle they have nailed a cover of the log of the Carn Brea Castle’s sixth voyage. They also have the bell of the Castle Craig. She was built in 1888, 31 people being saved from the wreck by the previous lifeboat at Brook. That boat saved 90 lives from the Eider in 1892. They also have the name board of the Souvenir, a Norwegian barque, and were visited by the grandson of the Master. (These items can be seen in the Brighstone Museum). "

Bert told many amusing stories. He remembered that on one Sunday, when all the lifeboatmen were in Church and the maroon went up, the crew gathered their hats and made for the door. The parson said to his father, Joe Morris, “Hold on a minute, Joe, and I will say a closing prayer.” Before he could utter the last word the crew were out of the door.

Bert recalled that General Seely, who died in 1947, was quite a character. They once had a difference of opinion which became quite heated. However, the General seldom took such things to heart and his last wish was for Bert to take his ashes from the Royal Yacht Squadron steps at Cowes to Brook for burial.

Bert told the story of an incident during the First World War. A destroyer had gone ashore in fog on the bar at Brook. The old parson, who was very Victorian in outlook, asked the coxswain to take him out in a 14 foot beach boat so that he couldinvestigate what was going on. He rowed round the stern of the warship. A sailor leaned over the rail and shouted down, “Good God, we don’t want a parson, we want a tug.”

Joe Morris (Bert’s father) was nearly strangled by one of the Norwegian sailors when the Souvenir went ashore in 1916. He managed to pull the great man’s hands off his throat and knocked him into the bottom of the boat where they lashed him so that he could not cause any more trouble. The crew could hear him gurgle and spluttering but he was none the worse for wear when they reached the beach.

Bert must be one of the last surviving crew of the old sailing and rowing lifeboats.