Bridlington: Looking back on 1,000 years of history in Yorkshire seaside town

Bridlington is more than just a seaside town. It has attracted maritime heroes and giants of literature and warfare. Greg Wright spoke to the author of a new book which charts the town’s 1,000-year history.

For generations of seafarers, Bridlington Bay has been a safe haven, providing a refuge for sailors who have taken a pounding on the open seas. However, for 24 hours in the winter of 1871, it became a place of terror as watchers on the shore were powerless to stop a tragedy which left an indelible mark on the town. The “Bay of Safety” had a brutal edge.

This incident and its aftermath features prominently in a new book, the A-Z of Bridlington, by local author Richard M. Jones which sheds light on the characters and events which have shaped the 1,000 year old town. Mr Jones hopes the book will help a new generation appreciate our ancestors’ heroism and selfless determination. The “Great Gale” certainly showed humanity at its finest.

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“On February 9 1871 hundreds of ships went to anchor in the bay when the lack of wind becalmed them,’’ Mr Jones states in his book.

Fishermen clean and repair their lobster pots as they prepare for their next voyage to sea, on the South Pier of Bridlington Harbour fishing port in Bridlington. (Photo by OLI SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)Fishermen clean and repair their lobster pots as they prepare for their next voyage to sea, on the South Pier of Bridlington Harbour fishing port in Bridlington. (Photo by OLI SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Fishermen clean and repair their lobster pots as they prepare for their next voyage to sea, on the South Pier of Bridlington Harbour fishing port in Bridlington. (Photo by OLI SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

"Overnight the wind picked up and by the following morning, it became apparent that the direction of the wind was actually helping to trap the ships in between the sandbanks and the beaches. Dozens of ships were now in need of their crews rescuing and soon they were seen to be smashed against the harbour wall and beaches.”

The RNLI lifeboat Robert Whitworth went out three times and saved the crews of several ships before it had to be taken away battered, the crews exhausted.

The town’s lifeboat, a private vessel named Harbinger, which was paid for by a Hungarian count named Gustav Bathyany, went out six times and saved dozens of lives. On her seventh trip out, this time to a brig named Delta, her luck ran out.

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"Attempting to save a man unable to jump from the rigging ,the lifeboat was caught by a wave and upended, the nine lifeboatmen thrown into the sea,’’ the book says. “Only three of them were saved. The crew of the Delta did not survive. Twenty eight ships were lost, another two damaged seriously and around 50 people were killed.

High Street in Bridlington Old Town, 2022.High Street in Bridlington Old Town, 2022.
High Street in Bridlington Old Town, 2022.

The book states: “Today the disaster is commemorated on the Sunday closest to the anniversary at a memorial at the far end of the Priory grounds, an obelisk marking the day that Bridlington went into mourning.”

Mr Jones told The Yorkshire Post: “The Great Gale of 1871 showed just how amazing the town was at coming together in the midst of tragedy while everyday folk suddenly became local heroes.”

Another wartime act of heroism in Bridlington also made headlines when Britain faced the prospect of invasion. Thomas Hopper Alderson was working in the town as an air-raid warden during the Second World War when he was called on to carry out rescue operations on bomb-damaged buildings.

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He successfully pulled out alive the residents of two houses and then helped teams free a number of trapped people in the basement of a row of shops which had taken a direct hit. Following these acts of bravery, he was awarded the very first George Cross in 1940. Today he has a street and a nursing home named after him and his medal is on display in the Imperial War Museum.

In the 1930s, the town had a visitor whose life story would inspire a Hollywood blockbuster.

“In the winter of 1934 Bridlington had a new resident in the name of Aircraftsman Shaw who was stationed at RAF Bridlington,’’ Mr Jones writes. “Shaw was not wanting a fuss when he moved here, this is why he had changed his name. He was better known as Thomas Edward Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.”

As a young army officer he had played a key role in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. He had been a frequent visitor to Bridlington, and was formally posted there over the winter of 1934-1935 to oversee the armour-plating of diesel-powered launches that were to be used for RAF bombing practice.

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“He became popular in the town and made many friends,’’ the book says. “A famous photograph was taken of him on a bicycle against a wall at the south side harbour ramp.

"He was discharged from the RAF in February 1935 and died in a motorcycle accident three months later in Bovington (in Dorset). Today a sundial in South Cliff Gardens commemorates the time he spent in Bridlington. Local author Linda Ellis’ book ‘Lawrence of Arabia in Bridlington’ gives an insight into Aircraftsman Shaw’s time in a town that he described as a ‘silent place’.”

Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I, made an unscheduled visit to Bridlington during the English Civil War. The town nearly became her final resting place. The house she was visiting attracted attention from Parliamentarian cannon fire and she was lucky to escape with her life. She later gave gifts as a parting token of her appreciation to the residents of the house.

The novelist Charlotte Bronte took away more positive memories of her trip to Bridlington in 1839 on a tour of the Yorkshire coast. It was the first time she had been on a train and seen the coast.

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"She found the town delightful, and she continued her journey up the coast to Filey and Scarborough, a route she took on several occasions over the years with her sister Anne,” the book says.

“It is incredible just how much there is to learn about such a small place,’’ said Mr Jones. “It is not just a little seaside town but a historic place with lots of stories to tell, plenty of places to visit and a place where heroes once lived.

"So far Bridlington has been the home of two George Medal holders, one George Cross, a Victoria Cross and one Albert Medal. There is so much more to tell, but that will have to wait for another book.”

The A-Z of Bridlington, by Richard M Jones can be purchased direct from Amberley Publishing via: It can also be bought at local bookshops.

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