Lifeboat Disaster Centenary

1916 – 2016

The Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster 1916-2016 Centenary

On the morning of October 27th 1916, in the middle of the First World War, the small community of Salcombe suffered a terrible loss when the lifeboat William and Emma capsized on Salcombe Bar after returning from an abortive mission. Thirteen of the fifteen-man crew were drowned.

The lifeboat had been called out to render assistance to the Western Lass, wrecked in a storm near Prawle Point. In spite of the huge waves breaking on Salcombe Bar, the crew succeeded in getting out to sea, but on reaching the wrecked schooner, found that her crew had already been rescued by the rocket apparatus team at Prawle. Battling against near hurricane force winds the crew returned for home, but on attempting to re-cross the Bar their little craft capsized.

The disaster was one of the worst in the history of the RNLI and, for Salcombe’s close-knit community, the loss was devastating. Many of the townsfolk had seen the lifeboat capsize as it attempted to return to the safety of the harbour. For them, the sight of those brave men – husbands, brothers and sons, friends and neighbours – battling for their lives within sight of their homes, had been almost too much to bear.

Commemorative Church Service, Wreath laying at sea, Memorial Stones & Plaques

In the months leading up to the Centenary Commemorations of 27th October 2016, Salcombe Lifeboat Station made arrangements to honour the memory of the men who drowned in 1916 by :

  • Positioning two large Memorial Stones on the coastal footpath on each side of the mouth of the estuary, overlooking the scene of the 1916 capsize.
  • Creating a lasting Lifeboat corner in Holy Trinity Church, Salcombe incorporating a plaque bearing the names of the crew who lost their lives in 1916.
  • Restoring the headstones of the graves in Shadycombe cemetery Visitors may visit the graves at their own convenience.
  • Holding a service of commemoration at Holy Trinity church Salcombe on 27th October 2016, 100 years to the day after the disaster.
  • Holding a wreath laying ceremony at sea in the vicinity of the capsize, also on 27th October 2016.
  • Producing a 17 minute video/film outlining the events of 1916
  • Publishing a 79 page book outlining the events of 1916.

Click here to view Photo Gallery & Videos of the Commemorations >

Centenary Commemorations of 27th October 2016: Videos

Centenary Commemoration

Tribute by Chairman, RNLI

‘Crossing the Bar’ at the service

Centenary Commemorations of 27th October 2016: Photo Gallery
(scroll down for videos)

The Film

New Book & Film

To mark the centenary of that tragic loss, Salcombe RNLI have produced a book and a film (see video to the left) about the disaster and are planning a full programme of commemorative events on the October 27th anniversary.

The Book

The full story of the 1916 disaster is set out in new book by Lifeboat Museum Curator, Roger Barrett. Drawing on eye witness reports, it gives a gripping account of the events that led up to the disaster and its sad aftermath.  Priced at £7.99, the book is on sale in Salcombe at the Lifeboat Station shop, Salter’s Bookshop and the Information Centre and, in Kingsbridge, at Harbour Bookshop and the Information Centre. It can also be purchased online from or from Amazon (add £2.80 for p&p). All proceeds go to Salcombe RNLI.

‘A compelling and empathic tribute to those who lost their lives’ Western Morning news.

Eddie Distin’s Account of the Lifeboat Disaster

Eddy Distin was an oarsman in the ill-fated lifeboat William& Emma and one of only two members of the fifteen-man crew to survive the disaster. He later became the coxswain of the replacement lifeboat, the Sarah Anne Holden until the closure of the Salcombe station in 1925. When it reopened in 1930 he was appointed coxswain of the new boat, the motor and sailing Alfred and Sarah Heath. He completed his service as coxswain with the motor lifeboat Samuel and Marie Parkhouse from her arrival in 1938 until his retirement in 1951….

Read Eddie’s full account >