Hero who saved scores of lives

Local historian Keith Johnson recalls a remarkable everyday hero who saved the lives of scores of people from the treacherous waters of the Ribble

Friday, 8th June 2018, 2:46 pm
Updated Tuesday, 19th June 2018, 11:28 am
John Crook jr pictured with his sons Ernest, left, and Thomas, centre, carried on the family tradition of life-saving on the Ribble

The phrase ‘by hook or by crook’ is of 14th century origins and suggests the use of any means necessary to achieve your goal.

Yet it also had particular significance and an alternative meaning in Preston and along the Ribble in Victorian times.

The treacherous waters of the river were often the scene of drownings and heroic rescues. Should a tragedy occur in the Preston area it was often John Crook, a skilled boatman who was the patron of the Pleasure Boat Inn boatyard close to the North Union railway bridge, who was called to assist.

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Crook & Sons Pleasure Boat Inn, on the banks of the Ribble in Preston

Often it was a case of using the grappling iron to hook lifeless victims out of the waters, but on many occasions it was Crook to the rescue – so if you were fortunate it was rescue from the river not by hook, but by Crook. John Crook, who came from Samlesbury, along with his wife Margaret, took possession of his boat yard in 1859 and the years which followed saw his business develop. He was ever keen to attract the public to his inn, be it with the porpoise on view he caught in the river in 1862, or the collection of foreign and British birds he acquired in 1864 and displayed in cases.

There is no doubt the stretch of river which flows through Preston was and still is a treasured part of the local scenery. Indeed the 19th century dwellers made much use of it and the formation of the first Ribble Navigation Company in 1806 assured that the waterway was maintained not only for vessels carrying goods but for pleasure purposes also.

The sight of paddle steamers and sailing vessels was not uncommon and on long summer days and public holidays locals rushed to hire rowing boats. The pleasure boat station of John Crook was a popular place and his landing stage launched many a vessel each day. The great flood of November 1866 brought Mr Crook into the public eye as the Ribble burst its banks from Penwortham bridge through to Walton-le-Dale and beyond. The front walls of the Pleasure Boat Inn were laid bare to the very foundations as the river bank was swept away.

The water flooded the inn to a depth of 30ins on the ground floor and barrels and bottles of ale, porter, wine and liquors floated out of the cellar and into the fields or out towards the sea. Twenty of his boats floated away and he had to give up half of them as lost.

Banks of the Ribble adjacent to Crook & Sons Pleasure Boat Inn

When the storm subsided, Mr Crook was praised for having saved a flock of 40 sheep from peril and he

recounted how he had, despite being a strong swimmer, almost lost his life when an embankment slipped and upset his boat, leaving him to swim against a torrent of water.

Recognition of John Crook’s bravery was to come to light in May 1873 when he travelled to the Ivy Inn in Blackburn to receive an award. Just a few weeks earlier a boat containing four gentlemen from Blackburn was upset on the Ribble, and they were all thrown into the deep water. Another boat containing three more Blackburn folk rushed to their aid, but while attempting to pull one of those in peril out of the

water, their boat capsized.

John Crooks medals on display in the Harris Museum

Fortunately, Mr Crook had observed their plight and he rushed to the rescue, hauling five of them to safety, with another one paddling to the river bank. Unfortunately, one of the party, William Proctor, could not be saved and drowned.

Blackburn was keen to honour Mr Crook and presented him with a silver medal inscribed with his achievement of saving 23 lives in the Ribble in a 14-year spell. On the reverse was an engraving of a drowning person, headed with the phrase ‘Amori Humanatas’.

Mr Crook’s health was then toasted and a china tea service was presented to Mrs Crook.

Eventually, in September 1873, Preston also acknowledged Mr Crook’s achievements with a presentation in the Town Hall. A number of his heroic rescues were noted, including the rescue of the Fulwood watchmaker Jeremiah Nicholas, a son of the Chief Constable of Blackburn and a couple of drunken louts who had swum out of their depths.

A subscription in town had raised £71 (the equivalent of £5,300 today) and a gold watch, Albert chain and medallion had been purchased from Mr Bennett, of Lune Street, suitably inscribed. It was remarked that the Royal Humane Society had been approached on numerous

occasions, but their complicated procedures had not yet led to recognition with a silver medal.

It would be another decade and further rescues before the Royal Humane Society finally acknowledged any of John Crook Senior’s achievements.

In October 1884 he was presented with a testimonial for rescuing a boy called Alfred Buckles from drowning. Then in 1885 the heroic rescue of a little girl called Elizabeth Ferguson from drowning in the Ribble led to true recognition.

In July 1885 the business of the Preston Police Court was temporarily suspended and the Mayor of Preston, John Forshaw, presented Mr Crook, then aged 54, with a silver medal and a parchment certificate for conspicuous gallantry in saving the child despite danger to himself.

On that occasion his son John had assisted in the recovery, rowing out to bring his father and the child back to safety. The Mayor further remarked that Mr Crook had officially saved at least 29 lives from a watery grave, although he believed the figure was probably more like 100.

The remarkable rescues by the Crook family would continue and in September 1893, on ‘Lifeboat Saturday’, John Crook sr and William Crook, another of his sons, were presented with a diploma from the Royal Humane Society for saving the life of a boy named William Holderness a few weeks earlier.

It was stated Mr Crook could now claim to having officially saved 33 lives, although many more had in truth been rescued.

Unfortunately, the Crooks were not always on hand to rescue drowning folk and he and his sons were often needed to attend the aftermath of tragedies and to rescue bodies from the deep. The hooks and the grappling irons often necessary.

John Crook jr was also a capable swimmer and

talented oarsman and often took part in races on the Ribble at gala events held there, and he was one of the founders of the Ribble Rowing Club in 1874.

Great crowds would gather on the stretch between Penwortham Bridge and the East Lancashire railway bridge to observe the contests, often won by him. Like his father, he also became noted for his bravery and his willingness to save those in difficulty.

The diverting of the river with the excavation of the Preston Dock, opened in 1892, did have an effect on the river’s flow and, as a consequence, it became less dangerous. The Crook family certainly left a 19th century legacy of outstanding bravery and Preston folk were forever grateful for the gallantry of the occupants of the Pleasure Boat Inn down by the riverside.