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Samuel Brock 1804-1873

By Julie Smith

Since the dawn of time man has depended on the sea to provide food for survival but equally so, the sea has taken lives leaving families bereft of husbands, sons, fathers and brothers.

Samuel Brock was a man who made a living from the sea, however, he would not allow it to take his life although he came very close to it!

This is his story.

I believe Samuel was born on 21 November 1804 in Great Yarmouth to Charles Brock and Elizabeth nee Church and baptised the following day in a private ceremony.

According to his Mariners Ticket which he completed in 1845, Samuel stated that he first went to sea as a Mariner in 1812 when he was only 8 years old.

Mariner’s Ticket

It is possible that his father Charles was a fisherman and Samuel went with him but I have not been able to confirm Charles occupation.

I do know that Samuel was a mariner in several censuses and in later life a fish merchant, however, more importantly Samuel was a Beachman and I will cover this later.

On 24th December 1828 in the church of St Nicholas, Great Yarmouth, Samuel now 24, married a local girl, 27 year old Mary Scarf.

As far as I can tell, Samuel & Mary had at least 5 children the majority of whom appeared to have died in infancy. However, as there was no legal requirement for anyone to be baptised and the official registration of births, marriages and deaths did not begin until 1837 it is possible there were further children.

Even after the introduction of the Registry, it was not compulsory to register either a birth or death until the Birth & Death Act 1874 came into force on 1st January 1875. It was then the responsibility of the parents to register the birth of a child and those failing to do so could find penalties being imposed.

Quite often babies were baptised shortly after birth and although the date of the baptism would be recorded the date of birth was rarely listed. Their eldest child appears to have been Samuel James who was baptised on 13 July 1830, however, he only survived 5 months and was buried on 10 August the same year. Next was Mary Hannah baptised on 26 September 1832. She must have died in infancy as I have then found another baptism for Mary Hannah on 23 September 1834. In both cases I have seen the original documentation and am therefore sure these are different girls. It was not uncommon for a baby to be named after their older brother or sister who had pre-deceased them.

The baptisms that I have found confirm that Samuel’s occupation at that time was that of Beachman.

According to numerous records the Beachmen in Great Yarmouth went back to the 1700’s. Their first objective was to rescue the crew and passengers of any vessel in distress, however, they would also make a profit out of the salvage of any wreck. Until the RNLI came about the Beachmen were the only rescue organisation.

They also needed to make a living, so in addition to salvage work, they would also ferry any fish catches from the bigger boats that were anchored in the roads to the beach where they were unloaded. On many census, the address for some of the Beachmen was simply “Beach”.

Samuel was a member of Layton’s Young Company (Layton Brown & Co) who were based at the Marine Tavern in Portland Place. According to C J Palmer’s Perlustrations of Great Yarmouth with Gorleston and Southtown, “Marine Tavern is one of the oldest houses on the Beach but dating only from the last century (1700’s) and stands a little South West of the Jetty.

Yarmouth Jetty

In 1835 Samuel’s life nearly came to an abrupt end. Instead, after that eventful day he became known as “Brock the Swimmer”.

On Tuesday 6th October 1835 about 1 o’clock, at the Marine Tavern the lookout observed a Brig at sea flying a flag requesting a Pilot. As the Beachmen launched their yawl – “Increase” from the beach, Brock said he was almost left behind – “I was as near as possible being left on shore for at the time the boat was getting down to the breakers, I was looking at Manby’s apparatus for saving the lives of persons on a wreck, then practicing and but for the “singing out” of my messmates, which caught my ear, I should have been too late, but I reached in time to jump in with wet feet”.

 Finally at about 4 o’clock they came alongside the vessel, a Spanish brig called “Paquette de Bilboa”. Both her pumps were leaking and the Captain agreed that 3 of the boatmen – Thomas Layton, John Woolsey & George Darling would take the brig into Yarmouth harbour.

By the time the rescue yawl attempted to return to the beach the weather had become squally. As they passed the Newarp Light Vessel (which marked the southern end of the Happisburgh Sands) they were signalled for their boat to go alongside as they wanted a man named Henry Fenn to be taken ashore as he was sick.

With Fenn on board they set sail to return home with the wind at west-southwest and after passing the buoy off the Newarp, about 2 miles from the lightship, a sudden squall from the northward took the boats sail aback and she was immediately upset and the crew and Fenn went down with her with only Samuel Brock surviving.

Later Brock would report that he thought it was about half past six in the evening and within a few minutes he had lost sight of his companions and the yawl. Struggling in the water, Samuel was able to grab hold of a rush collar. This was used for keeping boats from damaging themselves against other vessels and was made from lint. He managed to put his arms through it to help keep him afloat then taking his knife from his pocket he began to cut off his clothes which were weighing him down. This would not have been easy due to the number of layers and the weight of the water. He managed to cut of his oil trousers, his oil frock, a blue striped frock, waistcoat and neckerchief. He kept his other trousers on in case they got tangled on his legs. He soon abandoned the collar as it hampered his swimming. He started to swim towards Winterton but the tide took him away from the sight of land. He then fixed his sight upon two stars as a guide for land but too his dismay they were soon hidden behind a dark cloud until the moon shone through. At this point he was still wearing his shoes and they were starting to tire him, he was able to cut them off. He still had on his trousers, drawers and stockings.

He managed to swim to the chequered buoy off St Nicholas’s Gat which was almost opposite his own door but four miles out to sea. He did not attempt to get upon it in the hope that he should have strength to get in the Gateway. He thought he had been in the water for about five hours and was only disheartened when about 12 or 14 seagulls hovered over his head pecking him and mistaking him for a corpse. He splashed the water to keep them away.

He finally saw a brig at anchor and swam towards it although at times the sea was running over his head. When he was about 200 yards from the brig he managed to call out and the man on watch on the deck answered him and the crew immediately launched their boat. By now it was half past one in the morning and after 7 hours and swimming 12 miles he was finally rescued.

Samuel fainted as soon as he reached the deck of the brig “Betsy”. His neck and chest were perfectly flayed and the soles of his feet, the palms of his hands and his hamstrings were much excoriated. His throat was highly inflamed having breathed the saline particles in the air for so long and became so swollen as to threaten suffocation.

Once ashore at Lowestoft and under the roof of a relative, he received good nursing and medical assistance and despite his ordeal, five days later he walked the 10 miles home to Yarmouth.

Many men might not have survived this terrible ordeal but Samuel was in the prime of his life, he was 31 years old, and although only 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighing 14 stone in other respects his bodily proportions were Herculean – his chest was of unusual breadth and he possessed great strength in his limbs.

Subscriptions were raised for the 6 widows and 17 children of the drowned men not only in Yarmouth but also in Norwich, Bury and Cambridge and one newspaper report stated “This melancholy accident having awakened public sympathy, a large sum was raised by subscription for the widows and children of the drowned men”. Whilst another said that “A very liberal subscription was made for the widows and children of Brocks unfortunate companions and a fund being established for their relief, the surplus was offered to him. Brocks response was “I am obliged to you, gentleman; but thank God, I can still get my own living as well as ever; and I would not spend the money that was given to the fatherless and the widows”.

The men who lost their lives were listed in the Cambridge Chronicle –

Cambridge Chronicle

I do not know why Jonathan Budds the pilot did not remain on the stricken vessel and can only assume that the men who remained behind were qualified enough to pilot the boat into harbour.

I believe Brock was a man of faith. When he was recounting his ordeal he said “I ought to be a good living chap, for three times I have been saved by swimming. What I did on this night, I know I could not have done of myself, I never asked for anything but it was given me”. He was also quick to point out that the Master of the ship who rescued him was a man by the name of Captain Christian!

By some it was considered bad luck for a fisherman to learn to swim. Some believed it showed a lack of faith in the boat; others that struggling against the sea would result in a more stressful drowning. This seems to be the case with Brocks comrades as he said that “Twas terrible to listen to the cries of the poor fellows, some of whom could swim, and others could not. Mixed with the hissing of the water and the howling of storm, I heard shrieks for mercy, and some that had no meaning but what arose from fear. I struck to get out clear of the crowd, and in a few minutes there was no noise for most of the men had sunk”.

.His experience did not seem to have a lasting effect and he soon returned to his normal life although still putting himself in danger on more than one occasion!

Samuel & Mary went on to have another two children. On 18th August 1837 their son Samuel James was baptised and would become their only child who survived into adulthood.  I have not been able to find a burial record for their daughter Mary Hannah who was baptised in 1834 but on 28th April 1841the couple had another daughter also baptised as Hannah Mary.

On Friday 12th April 1839 about 4 o’clock in the morning the lookout saw a brig underway with her flag Union downwards – a sign of distress. The rescue boat was launched and with some difficulty due to the surf they managed to get to the brig and upon boarding they hoisted another signal for more assistance. The brig had six feet of water in the hold so they immediately manned the pumps. The yawl “Water Witch” with 15 hands came along side about 8 o’clock. The yawl was placed under the brigs stern to assist steering her into Harwich where she arrived about 6pm. At that point a pilot took over and run the brig on the mud near the Custom House so that she became salvage. For this the Beachman were awarded £290 by the courts which today would be in the region of £21,100.

On 24th October 1840 the lookout for Joseph Denny, Samuel Brock & Co spotted a vessel on the cross sand about 5 miles from the shore with a distress signal flying. The Beachmen immediately launched their large yawl “The Reindeer” with 16 men in her and headed towards the ship “Amirys”. The sea was so rough the waves were going over the top of the maintop. At great personal risk the beachmen managed to rescue the crew of 9 men who were in the rigging.

Once safely back in Yarmouth the Beachmen said that they had never experienced a case of greater risk and if they hadn’t lashed themselves to their boat they would have been swept overboard. They were granted a reward of £50 guineas about £3700 today.

In November 1840, Samuel attended a meeting of The Norfolk Association for Preserving the Lives of Shipwrecked Mariners (NAPLSM) and was presented with an Honorary Medal of the Society, a Second Class Silver Medal.

In February 1841 Joseph Denny, Samuel Brock & Co met with the General Committee for the NAPLSM who awarded them 15/- for saving the crew of the “United Kingdom” wrecked at Yarmouth on 22 November 1840 and 20/- for their brave laudable conduct displayed in saving the life of the Captain of the “Active” wrecked on Scroby Sands on 7 February 1841under circumstances attended with the imminent danger of losing their own lives.

At the time of the 1841 census taken on 6th June, Samuel’s occupation was given as “Mariner” and he, his wife and the 2 children – Samuel & Hannah Mary’s address was simply given as Beach in Great Yarmouth. Sadly Hannah Mary died soon after and was buried on 1 September 1841.

The Census shows that their immediate neighbours were James Scarf and his son also James who was a Beachman. I believe these two men were Mary’s father and brother.

On 29th May 1844, the Bury & Suffolk Herald printed the full version of “The Beachman’s Tale by Rev Henry Mackenzie Vicar of Great Yarmouth in WHEN?

The ballad runs to 17 verses so I have just copied the first and last verses –

“The wind was blowing fresh
When the “Increase” put to sea,
And the crew were all so hurried
They’d no time to stay for me;
But I heard them singing out,
As her keel cut through the sand,
So I sprang from off the jetty,
As she sprung off the land.
And with one hand on the gunwale
And knee deep into the water
I sprang merrily aboard her
To dare the Beachman’s Grave.

Perhaps twill seem a marvel,
But ‘tis no less strange than true,
That the captain’s name was Christian
Who bought me to life anew;
God’s will and power upheld me,
But a Christian saved at last;
God’s love in danger screened me,
But when the danger passed,
A Christian helped me from the wave,
That else had proved the Beachman’s grave.

In December 1845 a meeting of all the Yarmouth Beachmen was held at the Town Hall for each man to be presented with a life belt from the Members of the Borough, Messrs Rumbold & Wilshere. The Hall was packed with people many of whom were women. Samuel was summoned from the multitude to occupy the foremost rack of this exciting occasion. One newspaper report wrote “The noble aspect, the modest deportment of this truly brave and generous hearted man, struck every beholder with admiration and a thrill of emotion vibrated through every heart as he received the proffered gift”. No mention is made of any of the other Beachmen when they received their gift!

Samuel & the other Beachmen did have time to relax, having said that it normally involved water! One of the highlights of the year was the Lowestoft Regatta where the Beachmen, mainly from Lowestoft and Yarmouth would compete against each other.

Samuel was often the Master of “The Reindeer” which belonged to the Denny & Brock Company. She was built in 1838 and like there other boats was a yawl but was the largest by far at 74 feet in length.

In July 1850 she was entered in the Regatta at Lowestoft with Brock at the helm. The prizes were £12 (about £1200 today) for first place, £5 for second and third place got them £3. The Reindeer came 2nd winning Brock and the Company £5.

In 1851 the prize money had increased to £15 for first which would be in the region of £1500, second place got them £10, whilst third place would receive £5. Brock came in first and carried the first prize by 7 seconds! By this time for whatever reason, the Reindeer had been reduced in size to 69 feet so whether that helped or not I do not know.

The 1851 Census gives Samuels occupation as that of fish merchant although he, Mary and Samuel Junior’s address is still “Beach”. The family would still be living there in 1861and Samuel James is now employed as a carpenter.

Mary died at South Beach in October 1869 and was buried in Yarmouth Old Cemetery, Section P Grave number 58 on 27th of the month.

In 1864 Samuel James had married Harriet Royal and by the time of the 1871 Census they had 4 children and were living in Leary’s Buildings along with his father. Samuel Junior gave his occupation as Shipwright although he was “out of employ” and his father is now retired.

Samuel Brock the man who became known as “Brock the Swimmer” died on15th December 1873 at his home in South Beach (Wellington Road) with his son at his side. He was 69 years old. On 18th December he was buried alongside his wife Mary in Yarmouth Old Cemetery.

I think the below report in the Norwich Mercury sums the man up perfectly.

Norwich Mercury

According to Samuel’s will his personal effects were under £450 (today that would be in the region of £35,600) but he also had leaseholds to various properties.

Over the years Samuel had converted his income into properties. One report I came across stated – “On the south side of the Marine Tavern in Portland Passage on the North side of which and adjoining Wellington Road was a block of small houses called Brocks Buildings, named after the man who owned them”.

We know that for many years he and his family lived in 4 Wellington Road and also 14 Marine Parade. According to the 1913 Electoral Register this property was in the possession of Samuel James Brock.

Samuel James and his wife Harriet were Executors and beneficiaries of the Estate with everything going to Samuel and upon his death to Harriet although she would pre decease her husband.

Samuel inherited all his father’s personal possessions such as household furniture, china etc. as well as several leasehold properties including a Freehold messuage or dwelling house called Marine Villa. There were also three leasehold tenements or dwelling houses in Brocks Buildings, numbers 1, 2 and 3 which were formerly a warehouse. Most importantly though was that Samuel was left “My own place in the Young Company of Beachmen in Great Yarmouth”.

Sadly Samuel James wife Harriet died in 1880 when she was only 39 leaving him with 7 children (6 girls and 1 boy) ranging in age from 14 to 3 years old. It must have been hard for Samuel trying to earn a living and looking after his children. By the time of the 1881 he was employed as a Beachman and he and the children were living in Marine Parade so it is likely he was working for the same company as his father had been with.

Samuel did not re-marry and there is no evidence in later census that he had any help with the children, so I assume that he relied on the older girls to look after their younger siblings. By 1891 census it would appear that Samuel had sufficient income to allow him to retire as occupation is given as “Living on own Means” and he is living in the family home at 4 Wellington Road where he was also living in in 1901 and 1911.

Samuel James died in February 1916 and was buried on 22 February alongside his wife Harriet in Section P grave number 59 on Yarmouth Old Cemetery, next to the grave of his parents.

He did not appear to have left a will but it would seem that the “family home” of 4 Wellington Road remained in the family for many years. Samuel and Harriet’s only son Samuel Royal Brock died there in 1919 whilst his sister Harriet was registered there in 1939.

In 1924 a portrait in oils of “Brock the swimmer” was acquired by Yarmouth Tolhouse Museum and was placed in their picture gallery. Sadly it seems to have “disappeared” and is no longer at the Tolhouse nor listed in the catalogue of artwork in the possession of Norfolk Museums.

Samuel’s knife which he considered as the means of his being saved, was preserved with great care. It was a common horn handle knife having one blade about 5 inches long. After the tragic event, a piece of silver was riveted on and covered one side on which was inscribed –

Brown, Emerson, Smith, Bray, Budds, Fenn, Rushmere, Boult: – Brock, aided by this knife was saved after being 7 1-2 hours in the sea.

 Oct 6 1835

Things could have turned out so differently for him as he recalled “It was a curious thing that I had been without a knife for some time and only purchased this two days before it became so useful to me; and having had to make some boat’s tholes, it was as sharp as a razor”.

For many years Brock’s knife was on show in the museum room of the Sailors Home in Yarmouth. At some stage it passed with the rest of the Sailor’s Home collection to the Maritime Museum for East Anglia when that was set up in the same building. It was on display for many years until it disappeared some years ago.

Hopefully both the painting and the knife have simply been “misfiled” and one day someone will come across them and wonder who this amazing man was!

Additional Information

Brig (Brigantine) – A two mast vessel square-rigged on both masts with a fully square-rigged foremast and at least two sails on the main mast: a square topsail and a gaff sail. First recorded 1705-15

Yawl – A two mast fore and aft rigged sailing vessel with the mizzen mast stepped far aft so that the mizzen boom overhangs the stern. – First recorded 1660-70

Pilot – This was a person taken on board a ship at a particular place for the purpose of conducting a ship through a river, road or channel or taking them in or out of a port. Alternatively if necessary he could “pull” the ship by way of a tugboat.

Nicholas Gat – This was the name of the old channel to Yarmouth Roads. It lay between Scroby Sands and the St Nicholas Sands’ and was from half a mile to three fourths of a mile wide and between 6 and 10 fathoms deep. It started to silt up until it was only a few feet deep. A lighthouse with a fixed light was on it but this was removed to Hewit’s Channel further north.

Messuage – A dwelling house with outbuildings and land assigned to its use.


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