Beach companies were established all along the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts from the late eighteenth century into the nineteenth. Some of the larger and busier ports, like Yarmouth, had several. Caister had a beach company from at least the 1790s, when it had two boats. Even little Aldeburgh had two companies, each with its own lookout tower and boat shed. In the picture above, you can see how the south tower looks today, with the top of the north tower showing above the roof of the boat shed.
The companies established detailed rules for their management, relations with shareholders and to govern the expectations of those who manned and launched the boats, especially for sharing any gains from salvage. For example, most had a rule that anyone who actually touched a boat going out for salvage work could claim an equal share in any profits made on that trip; sensible enough, in terms of making sure those who helped ashore were paid fully, but often leading to a good deal of rushing into the surf to make sure of getting a hand on some part of the boat.
Most companies were also remarkably enlightened and egalitarian employers for their time. Injured crew members received paid medical assistance and compensation for loss of earnings. If the worst happened, as it did all too often in such dangerous work, death and widow’s benefits were payable. There were also rules covering relations between different beach companies, when more than one boat went to attend a ship in trouble. Indeed, the care taken in drawing up these rules indicates how seriously the beach companies took the business they were in. For example, here are two extracts from the rules for the Caister company:
If any man belonging to the Company shall receive any hurt or injury in the Company’s boats … he shall have a full share of all that is earned … on the occasion of any such injury and also on every other occasion afterwards, during the period of his disability …
If any man shall be drowned, or shall die from any injury while engaged as stated … then, for the twelve months ensuing, his widow and children shall have a full share of all that is earned by the Company during that time …
Boat sheds and lookouts
Each beach company needed its own boats and somewhere to keep them, so they built boat sheds, usually with attached lookout towers to help them spot vessels in distress, manning these lookouts round-the-clock. Getting to a wreck first might make the difference between profit and loss, or between saving lives and picking up bodies. They even co-operated with the new-fangled coastguard, despite the major role those men played in preventing smuggling.
The beach companies favoured big, fast sailing yawls for salvage work, with oars for use where sails were useless or dangerous. They also used smaller, rowed gigs and cobles for inshore work; very necessary when some wrecks could be only a hundred yards or so off the beach. And when, soon after 1800, specially-designed lifeboats were developed, beach companies often bought these too for use in the very worst weather.
The precise relationship between the beach companies and the growing number of local and national associations for providing and supporting volunteer lifeboats varied from place to place.Both drew on the same pool of fishermen for crews and there were many cases where a lifeboat went out crewed by a mixture of beachmen and lifeboatmen. In times of emergency, almost anything was acceptable. If the two groups generally remained distinct, it was because the beach companies had a commercial role that did not involve saving lives. Lifeboats do not generally concern themselves with the salvage of property, which was the major part of the beach companies’ income.
Salvage was an extremely dangerous and difficult activity that often resulted in no reward. Payment was always strictly by results and failure to be chosen as the salvor or to effect a salvage meant no money, however much work had been put in.
Your boat might even set out and be “pipped at the post” when it reached the vessel in trouble. It was not uncommon for several boats to set out, owned by competing beach companies. Later, steam tugs from the harbour or railway companies added to the competition. Though the principle of “first to arrive, first to get the work” was often claimed by beachmen, this had no basis in law and was never accepted if disputes reached court. The ship’s master could choose any of the boats, or none, to undertake salvage. Some were grateful for any help offered, some tried to hold out for better terms, some refused all aid and relied on their own efforts at the pumps or the change in tide to get them off the shoal without incurring any expense.
Even if the captain accepted the terms offered, he might try to go back on the agreement once the danger had passed, or even slip away in the night to avoid paying. Beach companies frequently ended up before the courts with claims for non-payment or to try to demand payment after the job had gone to someone else, who arrived later but offered a cheaper deal. Salvage could bring large profits, but it was a cut-throat business. Insurers were always on the lookout for opportunities to lessen their liabilities, and as technology advanced, competitors like steam tugs were quite ready to use price reductions to break into the salvage market.
Photo credits: Yawl photo by Hayley Green, Coble by Les Hull, both of http://www.geograph.co.uk.