'It's a weskit made of cork!' the Cox'n said.
The lads all laughed and drank their bitter beer;
But Henry tried it on, over his head;
It felt ungainly and both stiff and queer
And it's pull, boys, midst the foam,
Life's a flame, a fragile spark;
And it's pull, boys, bring them home,
Shining lights against the dark
The cork it rubbed against both neck and chin,
Made Henry's whiskers both to pull and chafe.
‘Now, lad, you'll nivver need to learn to swim;
Gold ring through t’ ear will serve to keep you safe.’
As Henry walked Tate's Sands the bell it spoke;
Struggled to run while pulling seaboots on;
He's hurried to the station and the boat,
His oilskins and sou'wester, last to don.
Then, last moment, Henry reached out for the rack,
Took the cork waistcoat from its hanging place,
Tied it around his barrel chest and back,
Jumped for the boat to join that fatal race.
The shipwrecked crew cried, 'Mercy on us, Lord!'
Such prayers young Henry never heard before.
The lifeboat held but thirteen souls on board,
Yet twelve never returned unto the shore.
Four times they'd braved the ocean's fearsome ire,
When waves upturned their frail and valiant boat;
Through cold more sharp and piercing than Hell's fire,
Henry alone returned, in his cork coat.
Now when the stormwinds roar and lightnings fork,
The lifeboatmen all know what Henry'd known;
They wear their waistcoats made of bulky cork,
For the first life that you save must be your own.
© Paul Davenport – February 2009
This is a contemporary song about Yorkshire.
The song arose from a set of odd circumstances; first, a picture of Henry Freeman in his famous waistcoat/lifejacket, second, a comment about how you do right by other people; ‘The first rule of mountain rescue is secure yourself!’ From these the song seemed to arise and write itself.
Henry Freeman wore the lifejacket, with which his image is associated, on his first day on the Whitby lifeboat. It was a busy day and they launched four times. On the fourth occasion the boat was swamped and all hands were lost, save for Henry, who was wearing the lifejacket.
The reference to earrings in verse two stems from when I was at school. In those days Hull fisher lads wore a single earring with a crucifix attached ‘to keep them safe from drowning’. In truth trawlermen rarely drowned despite their being unable to swim. The water in the Arctic seas killed them with cold far too quickly!
Henry Freeman was photographed by Frank Sutcliffe and the iconic image became the trademark for Players Navy Cut cigarettes. Freeman himself served the Whitby lifeboat for a further forty years! See 120 The Visitor for another song on Henry Freeman.