John Dyer, Mortehoe Coast-watcher (1852-1941)

I didn’t know my great-great-Grandfather John Dyer (known as Granfer Dyer both inside and outside the family), but I’m very proud of him. He was born in Georgeham in 1852, but by 1871 had moved to Woolacombe and was working as a servant at Barton Farm – as was Mary Ann Pugsley, also from Georgeham. John and Mary Ann married that year, and went to live at Rockham Cottages, Mortehoe, and later at Culver Park Lodge. They had a son, William John, in 1873, and a daughter, Martha, who died in infancy, in 1876. The couple both worked hard all their lives: Mary Ann took in lodgers, and also worked as a laundress, while John was employed as an agricultural labourer, and later as a gardener, working for the Vicar of Mortehoe.

Like a number of other Mortehoe men, John also volunteered for the Lifesaving Rocket Apparatus Brigade, watching the coast on stormy nights for ships in trouble, and helping to save many lives. The Brigade, which was under the direction of the Board of Trade, worked initially with the coastguard – but the coastguard station was closed in 1907, leaving responsibility for coast-watching entirely in the hands of volunteers. John was head of the Mortehoe Brigade, and attended all of the wrecks around the coast from the late 1800s to around 1920 – including the SS Priestfield in 1912, the Newtown in 1915, and the Collier in 1916. He was public-spirited, serving on the newly-formed Parish Council, and he performed numerous acts of kindness – for example providing floral tributes for the bodies of shipwreck victims and drowned holidaymakers that lay in the mortuary he had campaigned to have built in Mortehoe, and sometimes organising collections for their families.

In 1908 the local MP, Ernest Soares, used a Board of Trade inquiry into the wreck of the SS Phyllis Gray to draw attention to the lack of coastguards around the North Devon coast. Although the wreck happened at Saunton, and thus was not the responsibility of the Mortehoe Brigade, Mr Soares chose to use Mortehoe (which had recently lost its coastguard) as an example. His motives may have been honourable, but his methods weren’t: he made disparaging remarks about the fact that such an important job should be left to volunteers, raising a laugh at the Brigade’s expense by referring to them as “a bunch of farm labourers”, and implying they were only doing it for the small stipend they received. Stung by this, John wrote a long letter to the North Devon Journal in defence of the Brigade. He wasn’t an educated man, but he wrote from the heart, and his pride in the work he did, and in the brave men who served with him, shines through.

North Devon Journal 3 December 1908

Coast watching at Mortehoe Letter written by John Dyer Sir

As a senior member of the Mortehoe Life Saving Brigade, I shall be grateful if you will permit me to clear the air a little with reference to Mr Soares’ remarks at the enquiry held at Barnstaple respecting the loss of the “Phyllis Gray” on Saunton Sands. As the enquiry had really nothing whatever to do with the watching of the coast at Mortehoe, we, the Brigade, are at a loss to know why Mr Soares should go out of his way to make the disparaging remark he did about farm labourers. My experience is that farm labourers are as reliable men as any others when common sense and grit are required – but as a matter of fact there is only one in the whole Brigade who can claim to be a farm labourer, and this man, having had a severe illness some time ago, does not undertake a watch in any circumstances. But there are always plenty of volunteers ready on a dirty night – and not, as the member for North-West Devon says, “for the half crown”, but for the good name of the Brigade, which has carried the laurels of the Division for many years. There is not one of the men that would not willingly spend the half-dollar on a bottle of cordial if they thought it would be a comfort and help to a shipwrecked crew. I quite understand that Mr Soares is anxious to be of service if possible for the further protection of life, but he certainly ought to make sure of his facts before publicly sneering at a body of men who have to do the watching through no seeking of their own, but through Mr Soares’ own party in power removing the coastguards.

We especially resent being spoken of as an inferior class of men to his usual constituents of North West Devon. We often read of men being too old at forty, but several members of the Brigade, including myself, have seen nearly forty years’ service. I can fire the rocket as straight as ever, and am proud to say that as a Division we give to no other: every man is thoroughly up to his work, and as nimble and quick as rabbits over the highest and most dangerous cliffs. We have lived here all our days, get to know lots of ships by their continual passing, take note of every indication of weather, know every turn of the tide, and understand the lights of different craft at night as well as an ordinary seaman. During the many years we have been connected with the Brigade I could give a list of very many wrecks we have attended, too numerous to mention here, and have suffered many bitter experiences which the mere money consideration we receive would not be a tithe of its value. I sincerely wish Mr Soares could have been with us on some of those winter nights, when it would have shown him that even farm labourers have the souls of men and the heroism of Britishers, the quality of which is not ruled by a man’s social position. In addition to being smart at drills, which are always marked by the inspecting naval officer as excellent, we have men whom it is hard to beat with lifelines, having seen them up to their necks in surf and bleeding from wounds got on the rocks; but no thought of reward enters their heads when trying to save a sailor. They are quick, daring and as hard as nails, and know every rock and creek between Baggy and the Bull on a dark winter’s night. Then who, I ask, are fit for night watchmen if these are not?

Although not farm labourers they work as hard, and yet have the public weal at heart sufficiently to get up out of a warm bed at midnight and parade from each vantage point of the Morte and Rockham Bays for four hours on a wild night, with a keen Nor-Wester, and not shelter enough to cover a dog the whole time. I wonder how many of the Trades Unionists whom the Government nurses so much would tackle the job at the princely sum of 2s 6d – although, remember, it is the sum allowed by Government, and therefore no more disgraceful to accept than the thousands received by Cabinet Ministers.

In 1912 John Dyer, together with John Yeo, Samuel Yeo, Harry Ashford, John Parker, Harry Watts and Robert Easterbrook, received a long service medal from the Board of Trade in recognition of more than 20 years’ service. He finally retired from the service in 1923, when he was 70 years old, and was presented with £40.10s raised through a local collection. According to a report in the North Devon Journal: “Col. R. Longstaff, DSO, in making the presentation, said that “he had much pleasure in handing Mr Dyer the tribute of appreciation by 169 subscribers of his services for a long series of years in all weathers and circumstances. It was felt that as he was retiring without any allowance or gratuity from the Board of Trade, [a] public recognition of his untiring services should be made.” After John’s wife Mary Ann died in 1921, he went to live with his grand-daughter Elsie Phillips at Whin Bay Hotel in Woolacombe. He died there in 1941 and is buried with Mary Ann in Mortehoe Cemetery, which he tended so well during his lifetime.

One Comment on “John Dyer, Mortehoe Coast-watcher (1852-1941)

  1. Hi – Woolacombe Barton existed (as Barton Farm) until at least the mid-1960s, and there are quite a few photos of it around (eg in Two Villages, by R.F. Bidgood who taught at Woolacombe school in the 1950s). Lady Chichester had a suite of rooms there, built for her use when she visited Woolacombe – this would have been at the same time John Stanbury was the farmer.


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