John Ellerthorpe - Hero of the Humber
Michael G Free
John Ellerthorpe in later years.
In the forty years between 1820 and 1861 John Ellerthorpe is recorded as having saved the lives of thirty-nine people, including those of his father and his son. All of these souls were saved from a watery grave, some in the Humber and others as far away as Quebec. Several of these rescues took place around Hessle. The rescues he performed earned for Ellerthorpe the Title Hero of the Humber and a reputation as a strong, kind and gentle man though only being 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighing 10 stones.
John Ellerthorpe was born in Rawcliffe near Goole in 1806. He was the son of another John Ellerthorpe. John would often accompany his father on the long journeys between South Yorkshire and Hull. John’s mother was a fine, honest and intelligent woman who coped admirably with her situation. John spent much of his early years with his grandmother who kept the Anchor public house in Rawcliffe.
In 1816 the Ellerthorpe family moved to Hessle, where John’s father became a ferryman, transporting people across the Humber to Barton in Lincolnshire. A job he continued for over forty years. The young boy spent much of his time in and around Hessle watching the boats sailing up and down the Humber and no doubt taking a keen interest in the activities around the Haven. It may have been around this time that his life long love of the water began. Indeed, it was at Hessle that John’s first recorded experience of swimming took place. This was in 1817 when he was twelve. He describes the experience thus, “My first attempt at swimming took place at Hessle when I was about twelve years of age. There was a large drain used for the purposes of receiving the water from the sea and also from the land. My father managed the sluice which was used for the purposes of excluding, retaining and regulating the flow of water into this drain. It was a first rate place for lads to bathe.” He dared not, however, venture into the Haven itself at this stage, but one day he accidentally set his wet and dirty feet upon the shirt of a boy who was much older and bigger than he … and was thrown into the harbour. He felt safe and did not leave the harbour till he had crossed and re-crossed it thirty two times.”
Later he ventured out into the Humber often swimming with the tide for several miles and walking back to Hessle. On one occasion, during a gale, when a keel came ashore at Hessle he swam to her and brought a rope on shore, by which, two men, a woman and two children escaped from the vessel.
The young Ellerthorpe was to have several bathing adventures, playing truant from school on many occasions, during one of which he rescued the eldest son, William, of Mr Earnshaw of Hessle from the Humber.
At the age of 14 John began a seafaring career that took him across the world. First he worked the coastal trade to London, then to Quebec and then the Baltic trade before returning home to work the on Humber ferries.
On 27th July 1828 he married Betsy Lancaster and they had fourteen children! Only four of them survived their parents.
In 1844 he entered service of the Hull Dock Company, became a visitor of the sick and converted to Christianity, taking the pledge of abstinence in 1851. He later became the President of the Band of Hope, Great Thornton Street Primitive Methodist Sabbath School, which had 300 members. As Master of the Hull Swimming Club and College Youth Swimming Club he was keen to teach all to swim for it was estimated that only 1 in 10 of those who went to sea could swim.
On 15th July 1868 Ellerthorpe died and was interred at the General Cemetery, Spring Bank West, Hull. A huge crowd attended his funeral.
John Ellerthorpe – the Rescues
Date Name Place
1 1820* John Ellerthorpe (father) Hessle – Barton Ferry
2 1820* William Earnshaw (of Hessle) off Hessle
3 1822* Robert Pinchbeck Hessle Harbour
4 1824* Henry Ibbotson Hessle Harbour
5 1825 George Booth Hessle Drain
6 1825 Robert Clegg Moreton – on – Bite
7 1826* Unknown Irongate Wharf, London
8 1828* Charles Himsworth Battle Bridge, London
9 1828* John Kent Diamond Harbour, Quebec
10 1830* George Williams
11 1833* Mary Ann Day New Holland
12 1833* Heinrich Jensen Humber Dock Basin
13 1833* Ashley Taylor Hull
14 1834* Richard Chapman Hull Dock Pier
15 1834* Robert Leeson New Holland
16 1834* Joseph Crabtree Hull
17 1835* Wilson Humber Dock Basin
18 1835* Sarah Horland Hull
19 1835* Robert Brown Hull, near Victoria Hotel
20 1836* Robert Tether Hull, Humber Bank, shipyard
21 1836* George Emerson and Hull
22 Ann Wise
23 1836* John Bailey Hull Ferry Dock
24 1836* Richard Lison Junction Dock
25 1836* George Pickering East Pier, Hull
26 1836 Miss Hill New Hull
27 1837* Hannah Webster Ferry Boat Dock, Hull
28 1837* Miss Ellgard Toronto Bay
29 1843* Jane Gough Hessle Harbour
30 1844 William Turner Flamborough
31 1846 John Ellerthorpe (son) Stoneferry Baths
32 1846* Thomas Robinson Junction Dock
33 1846 Watson Humber Bank
34 1850* Samuel Davis (6th November) Hull Harbour
35 1850* A boy Humber, off Hull
36 1852* George Pepper Hull
37 1854* Robert Woodman Victoria Dock
38 1860* Ann Motine Humber Dock
39 1861 John Eaby (30th July) Humber Dock Basin
* Denotes those rescues for which he was cited by the Royal Humane Society.
Free, M G, The Life of John Ellerthorpe, 2006.
Woodcock, H, The Hero of The Humber, 1880.
For a fuller account of the life of John Ellerthorpe go to: