On Saturday the 15th of January 1881 Whitby was beset by a northern gale, bringing with it blinding snow showers and heavy seas. At around 10.30pm a ship was spotted struggling against the crashing waves. It was the brig Lumley of South Shields with her cargo of coal and a crew of ten men. The signal gun was fired from the battery and hundreds of Whitby folk left the warmth of their houses and cottages to watch the unfolding drama.
At that time there was a lifeboat station at Upgang, and from there the Joseph Sykes was launched into the teeth of the storm. By this time the Lumley had struck the dangerous rocks at Upgang and was beginning to break up. The voices of the crew could be heard distinctly over the tempest, their anguished cries carried on the wind as they lashed themselves to the rigging of the doomed vessel.
Despite endeavouring to throw a line to the crew on the stricken brig (some witnesses claim at least thirteen attempts were made, each one resulting in the Joseph Sykes being hurled back by the terrific swell) no progress toward securing the lives of the battered sailors was forthcoming. Having persevered in the worst of conditions for at least two hours, the attempt was called off, the lifeboatmen utterly exhausted.
The Whitby lifeboat, the Robert Whitworth was also launched by coxwain Henry Freeman, the legendary sole survivor of the Whitby lifeboat disaster of 1861. As she approached the Lumley, the red light on board the brig was suddenly extinguished. At the same time a blue light became apparent on the shore at Upgang. This was assumed to mean that the entire crew had been rescued and the last man, on leaving the vessel, had put out the so called danger lights.
The Robert Whitworth duly put back to shore, only to learn the terrible truth that their bravery had come to nothing. At midnight the Lumley was rent asunder like matchwood on the Upgang rocks, the crew's expiring cries being clearly heard on shore. On Sunday morning only a few vestiges of the wreck were visible to stand monument to that terrible night. Of the ten strong crew of the brig Lumley, every last soul perished.