Honouring Captain Pillar and crew of fishing smack Provident

The commemorative pamphlet - The Heroes of Provident BM 291

The commemorative pamphlet - The Heroes of Provident BM 291 - Credit: Torbay Civic Society

Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, gives us the who and how each of Torbay’s blue plaques was chosen. This week: The heroes of Provident BM 291

Having been informed by the town clerk of Brixham in 2008 that her council wished to establish a heritage town trail around the town and that our blue plaques could be part of that concept, one of the names chosen was Captain William Pillar, although eventually it was agreed the crew serving on the vessel Provident BM 291 would also be named.

This was to be an interesting plaque for Torbay Civic Society, as firstly few of us knew little about the Fishermen's Mission Brixham and secondly numerous family ancestors of the original crew had already written to the town hall expressing a wish to attend any ceremony although few lived in Devon.

With the Brixham Council Community Projects Committee having agreed to commission a blue plaque at their meeting in July 2008, the Provident BM 291 and its crew would be honoured by placing a plaque on the wall of the Fishermen's Mission Brixham.

With the town's Trawler Agents Company agreeing to support the printing and publication of our pamphlet, local journalist and historian Lincoln Shaw agreed to write the biography of the fishing smack, Provident and especially its incredible story in the rescue of 70 sailors from the 15,000-ton battleship Formidable - pride of the British fleet - which sank on New Year's Day 1915 after being torpedoed by a German U-Boat.

Having met John Anderson and his assistant Superintendent of the Fishermen's Mission, arrangements were finalised for the family members to attend the unveiling while the wording, proofing and production of the plaque and pamphlet went fully ahead.

The captain, or skipper, William Pillar had been accompanied by William Carter, John Clarke and a very young apprentice, Daniel Taylor, plus an unofficial nine-year-old boy called Leonard Pillar - who, as an adult, would become the second Captain Pillar - on the fatal day in 1915  the Formidable sank.

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The Provident was fishing off the South Devon coast when her crew spotted a small cutter carrying 70 exhausted sailors who had been battling high seas for 12 hours.

With few oars left as most had been smashed or lost during this battle, the 70 men were out of 201 that survived that morning from a total crew of 790 aboard the Formidable heading for Start Bay.

Skipper Pillar and his crew, heading home away from the huge storm, knew the dangers of attempting to transfer men in high seas and yet after three attempts, the fourth was successful and a line made fast.

The risks were enormous but with disaster averted, eventually all of the 70 sailors were transported back safely back to Brixham harbour.

The official record later stated: "Success was only attained at great risk to the Provident by gybing in the severe gale and heavy sea."

The four official crew members of Provident were later awarded a Sea Gallantry Medal by King Edward V at Buckingham Palace, while the skipper and John Clarke were also given other medals. All were awarded a cash reward.

The blue plaque honouring 'The Heroes of Provident BM 291'

The blue plaque honouring 'The Heroes of Provident BM 291' - Credit: Torbay Civic Society

On January 2, 2010, more than 12 family ancestors attended the blue plaque unveiling event, some from as far afield as Edinburgh. Chichester and Cardiff, plus representatives from Plymouth and Teignmouth and, of course, members of the Pillar family still living in Brixham.

Today, as pedestrians and vehicles pass by roads like Pillar Avenue, Pillar Close and Pillar Crescent all close to the Brixham cricket ground, they may recall the famous skipper and crew and perhaps now even the famous rescue.

After the official unveiling ceremony at the mission, over 60 people moved up the road to the Brixham Royal Yacht Club on the Overgang, where the town council had laid on refreshments for everyone and where the formal thanks and numerous speeches followed and the pamphlet given out.

The commemorative pamphlet - The Heroes of Provident BM 291 - can be obtained by sending two second class stamps and a stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, Office 1, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA.