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Part Four: Poole Lifeboat’s First Coxswain, Richard Sutton Stokes

User Avatar Nicole Grant 15/04/2021 11:37:18

In St Mary’s Churchyard on Brownsea Island is the grave of Richard Sutton Stokes https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/183698229/richard-sutton-stokes The inscription reads:

To the memory of Richard Sutton Stokes who died at North Haven on 11 th March 1886 in the 73 rd year of his age.  He was for 17 years coxswain of Poole and Bournemouth Royal National Lifeboat and was publicly presented with the silver medal of the Institute for long and gallant service in the saving of 72 lives from shipwrecks.

The history of the Poole Lifeboat and crews has been told over the years in different publications and on websites – there is a wealth of information already out there to find.  I thought that I would share this snippet of the life of Poole’s first Coxswain and link to what else you can discover if it whets your appetite for more.

Richard Sutton Stokes was born in a cottage at Sandbanks in 1813. His parents were Henry and Dorothy (nee Wills). Henry Stokes was a Customs House Officer. In 1839 Richard married Mary Ann Perry at Stoke Damerel, Devon, by 1851 they were residing at Sandbanks, and Richard’s occupation was Lighting Harbour Lights. The couple had ten children but sadly three were to die in childhood.

In 1864 a public meeting was held in Poole and it was decided that a lifeboat house would be built at North Haven Point (now more familiarly known as Sandbanks), so that a lifeboat could be launched inside or outside of the harbour. During this time North Haven was quite a remote place only visited by coastguard and fishermen.  One of the fishermen’s cottages was where Richard Stokes was born, and he was appointed the first Coxswain which he coupled with his job as light keeper.  

The lifeboat house was built by builders Dunford and Saunders and the land donated by Ivor Guest of Canford Manor. The lifeboat was a 32ft ten-oared boat and was the 139 th in the country. It was the gift of an anonymous woman and was built by Forrest of Limehouse, costing £210. The lifeboat was launched and named on 19 th January 1865 as ‘Manley Wood’.

The History of Poole Lifeboat Station on the Poole Lifeboats website records that, in 1866, “Assistant Inspector visited the station and attended a public meeting for the enquiry into the loss of life which took place from a shipwreck off Poole Bar on 16 January (not sure why Manley Wood didn’t launch).”  The shipwreck, loss of life and subsequent enquiry led to criticism of Richard Stokes and his crew in Poole and the surrounding area.

This incident and enquiry have been fictionalised by Simon Wills in his book, Lifeboatmen, a well-researched novel that really brings to life the events of that time.  In 1867, the year after the enquiry, the lifeboat crew and Richard Stokes were involved in another call out to the ‘Contest’.  Simon Wills writes that although the events in his book seem extraordinary, they are all recorded in contemporary sources, and “the dramatic rescue of the crew and labourers from the ‘Contest’ turned out to be the biggest saving of life from a single vessel by any lifeboat in the whole of the UK in 1867, so in the end it proved the best imaginable means of silencing the Poole lifeboatmen’s critics.”

In 1882 when the Poole Lifeboat Station was moved to Fisherman’s Dock, Richard Stokes retired from service and was publicly presented with a silver medal.  The Poole Lifeboats website records: “In the Life-boats Précis Book D (kept at RNLI Headquarters) the entry for 7 September 1882 says: ‘Committee voted the Silver Medal of the Institution to Richard Stokes late Coxswain of the Lifeboat. He had held that position for [nearly] 20 years in which period seventy-two lives had been saved by the lifeboat.’”

In 1886 Richard Stokes died aged 72.  According to sources at the Poole History Centre he was found dead in the snow by his son after setting out to tend to the lights at North Haven. He was taken to St Mary’s church, Brownsea by the coastguard and the coastguard crew fired rockets over his grave.

To discover more about the Poole Lifeboats and Crew here are some sources:

Lifeboatmen Never Turn Back: Poole Lifeboat Service from 1826, Andrew Hawkes, https://www.waterstones.com/book/lifeboatmen-never-turn-back/andrew-hawkes/9781873535202 

Lifeboatmen, Simon Wills, https://www.waterstones.com/book/lifeboatmen/simon-wills/9781783462889



Both images from the collection of Poole Museum Service.

Image 1 - Sandbanks

Image 2 - The ‘Manley Wood’and crew including Richard Sutton Stokes.



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