By Steven L. Harrison, 33°, FMLR
|Launch of the Freemasons' lifeboat Albert Edward at Clacton-on-Sea|
The port closest to London, Clacton-on-Sea, served as a major shipping channel in 19th century England. Weather, rocks and shifting conditions made it an especially treacherous place to navigate and, as might be expected, the waters there claimed many ships and human lives. In 1875, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England and later King Edward VII (1901-10), voyaged to India. Thankful for his safe return eight months later at Clacton-on-Sea, the Grand Lodge of England decided to make the port safer by donating a lifeboat in his name. With more than 4,000 spectators in attendance, they dedicated and launched the Albert Edward Lifeboat on July 10, 1878, amidst pomp and circumstance fit for the future King. An unknown poet immortalized the event with an official poem which said, in part:
Built from henceforth life to save,
Manned by crew so strong and brave-
Launch the boat with ringing cheer!
Honour the name to all now dear!
Honour the dead in the living son!
Honour the love so justly won!
“ALBERT EDWARD," aye to be
The sailor’s friend on this Eastern Sea!
Honour “the Craft,” whose generous thought
So much of sterling good has wrought!
Honour the gift that they have given,
To save man’s life, if willed by Heaven!
Honour the true hearts ever found,
When storms and tempests rage around,
To leave their homes, where loved ones weep,
And brave the perils of the deep!
By the day of the dedication, the Albert Edward had already proven its worth. Delivered to Clacton prior to the official launching, the lifeboat saw its first action on May 23, when the ship Garland, on a voyage from Shields to London, ran aground and broke up. The crew rowed for three grueling hours to reach the stranded vessel and saved the lives of six men and three boys on board.
No one will ever know how many crewmen, most of whom were likely Freemasons, lost their lives in this dangerous service. However, the 1884 proceedings of the United Grand Lodge of England made note of the following:
"That the sum of 50 guineas (about $4,800 today) be granted to the family of the late James Cross and a similar sum to the family of Thomas Cattermole, two of the crew of the Albert Edward lifeboat at Clacton-on-Sea, which boat was presented to the National Life Boat Institution by Grand Lodge.
These two men, after having assisted, the first in saving 116 and the second 33 lives, having lost their own in the discharge of their duty on the night of the 23rd January last, whilst in their boat endeavouring to rescue the crew of a vessel in distress, leaving their families consisting of a widow and six children and a widow and three children entirely destitute."
For over a half century, from 1878-1929, the Albert Edward and its two successors of the same name, guarded the port of Clacton-on-Sea and saved countless lives. Today, Freemasons still take part in rescues there and at other ports. In addition the Fraternity regularly donates funds to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which oversees the lifesaving operations throughout Great Britian.