‘I knew everything would be alright’

Sonny Winspear at the wheel of the refurbished Progress earleir this year
Sonny Winspear at the wheel of the refurbished Progress earleir this year

EACH day Sonny Winspear strolled down to the harbour from his Normanby Terrace home to catch up on the latest news from the fishing fleet and the lifeboat.

Last Friday he passed away at Oaklands Nursing Home following a protracted illness.

The fully-refurbished Progress

The fully-refurbished Progress

83-year-old Sonny - christened Matthew Ledley - was a popular character around the harbour and in his later years he continued to make crab pots for younger fishermen while recounting tales from over 60 years at sea.

With his passing, Whitby has also lost the last surviving member of the rowing lifeboat crews.

Sonny was born into an “honest, god fearing family”. His parents had nine children, all brought up on the Cragg in Whitby. He was one of five boys, all of whom would make a living from fishing.

Although the family were not poor, they did have limited means and would eat fish six times a day, with a roast dinner on the Sabbath.

Progress, as it was when it was first constructed

Progress, as it was when it was first constructed

Aged just 12, Sonny left school and went in to the fishing industry, where he would remain all his working life, serving aboard various trawlers including Progress, Provider and Unity, his last coble.

By volunteering for the Whitby lifeboat crew he would also be following in his father’s footsteps.

Matthew Snr was awarded a bronze medal for his part in the attempted rescue of passengers during the Rohilla disaster of 1914.

Daughter Pam Hall said her father was a strong man who was a feisty character in his youth, with a wicked sense of humour, but he would not think twice about putting his life on the line to rescue other sailors.

Son Derek added: “They thought nothing of it - one of our lads is out there and we need to get them back. They took it for granted that you were part of that community and it was your duty to put something back.”

Despite serving on the lifeboat, Sonny always had one slight disability. “He always said he couldn’t swim”, said Derek. “He could swim just far enough to save himself.”

In December 1955 he achieved national fame after heading out on the lifeboat a day before his wedding to search for Progress, which was missing with his uncle, Henry Winspear, his cousins Fred and Robert, and two other crewmembers on board.

Sonny and the lifeboat crew spent 23 hours searching for the Progress, before she was found 20 miles off Whitby in heavy seas. All were brought back safely and Sonny jumped off the lifeboat just 16 hours before his wedding was due to start. “I knew everything would be alright”, he was quoted as saying at the time.

In his retirement Sonny would continue his love affair with the harbour, making crab pots for other skippers. His wife Gwen, passed away in 2006, but prior to this, Derek said she used to go “mad” with all the nets and crabs that would clutter their home.

He also became a popular sight around the harbour, as Derek explained: “He had to walk down to the harbour everyday and you would always see him stood with the Bridgenders. It was like a magnet for him, everyday at the same time. If shops saw Dad walking past they would know what time it was.”

As the years passed Sonny grew sad at the disappearance of the fishing fleet and the loss of the community spirit that went with it, and he would often tell tales of the good old days.

“It was his passion, the old fishing days and all the Whitby families,” said Pam.

Sonny fished on the Progress in his youth, the vessel was owned by his father who had it constructed in the 1930s.

The boat was sold on and grew into disrepair, before finally being purchased and refurbished in 2010 by Robin Dunn of Wisbech.

In his efforts to learn the history of the boat Robin became firm friends with Sonny. Following a stroke suffered by Sonny earlier this year, Robin brought the vessel up to Whitby so he could see it “one last time”.

Matthew “Sonny” Winspear is survived by his three children, Terry, Derek and Pam, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.