Those who were able to tear themselves away from live coverage of England’s opening match against Tunisia in the 2018 FIFA World Cup were well rewarded by an entertaining talk by John Martin given to the June meeting of the Alde Valley Suffolk Family History Group.
John, whose father worked at Garrett’s, is a native of Leiston and already well known to friends of the Alde Valley Suffolk Family History Group as a long serving committee member and recently retired treasurer. He is also passionate about family history and has patiently researched his wife’s ancestors, the DOWNINGS of Aldeburgh, back to the mid-eighteenth century. Along the way he has also gathered many striking photographs, a number of which were used to illuminate his talk.
John’s absorbing account balanced tragic stories of lives lost at sea with lighter moments, also drawing on some fascinating ‘snippets’ of local history.
So we learned of the terrible events of 1899 when the lifeboat ‘Aldeburgh’ capsized in treacherous seas at Aldeburgh, resulting in the deaths of seven crew members, including Herbert Downing. We were also reminded of another fatal, but less well known disaster, when the latterly named lifeboat ‘Pasco’ was lost at sea while assisting the brig ‘Unity’ on 21 December 1859. On that fateful occasion, three of the fifteen-man crew were drowned. One of those who lived was 21-year-old John Downing who, 53 years later, was an honoured guest of the annual Sprat Dinner, as the only remaining survivor.
Delving deeper into his family history, John showed us a fascinating photograph in which five members of the Downing family, spanning several generations, are captured. The picture also features a fishing boat with the registration number IH61. With this information it is possible to trace the full history of the vessel (date built, size, location and ownership) by consulting the local Register of Sea Fishing Boats held at Suffolk Record Office.
During the course of his research John has drawn material from a number of books, notably ‘A Lifeboatman’s Days’ written by the renowned, longest serving lifeboat coxswain, James Cable, and ‘The Story of the Aldeburgh Lifeboats’ by Jeff Morris. The latter reflects a number of family names other than Downing, including Ward, Pallant, Pearce, Green, Butcher, Morris, Crisp, Easter, Pead and Chatten. Interestingly, some members of the audience identified ancestral connections with these names, leading to a lively question and answer session.