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St. Andrews - John Honey

A short biographical account of John Honey by Ron Thompson; first published in The Courier, January 19th, 2000 in "Ron Thompson Writes", his weekly column, and used by permission. (Another article from the university is located here)


Wishing to escape from all the brouhaha of the Mike Tyson affair, I took myself over to St Andrews to investigate the actions of another man exactly 200 years ago in rather different circumstances; and as I stood on the East Sands, being whipped by a wind driving in over white-capped waves, I saw in my mind's eye an act of extraordinary heroism which had unfolded on that very spot on January 3, 1800.

It was then that John Honey, a 19-year-old university student, single-handedly and "without any ostentation, but with silent magnanimity", saved the lives of five seamen trapped on their wrecked cargo boat 300 yards offshore at the height of a fierce winter storm. This tale of courage, although recorded in the annals of the ancient town, is little known in wider circles and it was a reader's tip-off which sent me from the comfort of my armchair to absorb the atmosphere of that high drama two centuries before.

John Honey was attending Sunday morning service in the university chapel when word reached the congregation that men were in peril upon the sea just east of the harbour. The strapping six-footer left immediately to join a throng of townsfolk already surging down Kirkhill towards the water's edge.

The scene that met their gaze resembled something out of Dante's Inferno. The sloop Janet of Macduff had run ashore and was breaking up in heavy seas. The crew were clinging to the rigging, their screams for help filtering through the shrieking gale force wind.

George Bruce, in his excellent book Wrecks and Reminisinces of St Andrews Bay published in 1884, described what happened next: "There were many brave and daring men in that sympathising crowd, but although their hearts beat quicker, and their dilated eyes were riveted to these ill-fated seamen crying through the storm, sometimes frantically waving an arm for help, and again clinging for life when a heavier breaker than usual dashed over them, none could - at least none dared to - face that mocking surge which, as in triumph, rolled up to their feet in grim defiance.

"Suddenly a murmur of applause ran through that excited sea of human beings, as eager to save as the foaming breakers were to clutch their prey. 'He will go! He will go! He has offered!' resounded from a knot of students one of them crying 'Bring me a rope; I will try and save them', and there, pressing
forward, was that stalwart young student John Honey, tearing off his clothes, heedless of the onlookers, preparing to battle with the angry sea".

Tying a rope round his waist, and with a knife stuck between his teeth, Honey struck out through a curtain of sleet and snow for the sinking vessel. But his progress was so painfully slow in the heaving water that his friends on the beach, despairing of his own life, decided to pull him back to the shore. But the young hero was determined to accomplish his task. He cut the rope and then "with the strength of young Hercules and the skill of a Leander" he reached the vessel and clambered aboard.

Fastening another rope to his body he sprang back into the sea and fought his way to the beach where he secured a lifeline for the crew. But the men were so numbed by cold and exhaustion they were unable to leave the boat unaided. Without hesitation Honey plunged again into the raging surf and over the next hour made five return trips to the sloop to bring each of the stranded seamen to safety before collapsing on the crowded sands.

Bell again describes his valour in typical Victorian style: "No deed of war, few acts of chivalry, ever rose to a loftier pinnacle of moral grandeur than this young student's gallant rescue of these benumbed sailors from that little sloop...It towered above the reach of self-interest, egotism or love of approbation; it shone, like the genial sun, beyond the clutch of Cavil, Criticism or Envy, and was indeed, and in humble minded Christ's truth,
heroism of the highest type."

Honey, who would surely have been awarded the George Cross had this highest civilian honour for bravery existed at the time, was given the Freedom of St Andrews along with that of Perth, Forfar and Auchtermuchty.

He also received the silver award of the Royal Humane Society. Today he is commemorated in the name of the university's Computational Science Block on the North Haugh and the traditional Sunday Pier walk by students after chapel service was also said to be in his memory.

At the time of his rescue, Honey was studying philosophy but shortly after switched to divinity, married a minister's daughter, and later took over the pulpit at Bendochy in Perthshire where he died in ill health at the age of 32. He had paid a high price for his courage. On his last trip to the sinking sloop he had been struck across the chest by a collapsing mast and "the seeds of a wasting consumption had been sown within him".

Today his great-great-grand-daughter, Miss Margaret Honey, a retired primary school teacher, lives in Perth. She and other members of the family are rightly proud of their ancestor's valour and continue to visit his grave at Old Scone Cemetry. There, upon the weathered headstone, there is no sign of
an epitath to fit his deed. But this is one story which will surely never go away.

In a followup article Mr Thomson explains that there was no lifeboat stationed at St. Andrews at that time ...

"But the loss of the 'Janet of Macduff' soon put that matter right. As the result of a public subscription, a 30-foot rescue craft was purchased. To give her extra bouyancy the hull was covered with thick cork, kept in place by copper strapping, and the boat soon became known as the 'Cork Lifeboat'.

"It appears, however, that she saw little action and soon fell into disrepair, along with its stone-built house. At that point, thieves stripped the vessel of its valuable cork and copper before breaking up the wooden hull. Vandalism, it seems, was rife even then. The cork was used as marker bouys for lobster creels in St Andrews Bay. But that lifeboat was replaced with another in 1824, this time under the management of the RNLI who maintained this service until the last St Andrews lifeboat sailed in
1938. Today this part of the coast is covered by the lifeboats stationed at Broughty Ferry and Anstruther."

Copyright © 2000, Ron Thompson, All Rights Reserved.

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