Lifeboat at West Yorkshire Playhouse: Moving story about friendship and a wartime tragedy

Lifeboat, based on real-life events,  is currently at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.
Lifeboat, based on real-life events, is currently at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.
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Audrey Brown knows exactly how close she came to being at the heart of one of the most tragic maritime disasters of the Second World War.

It was 12 hours and it was only a bout of chickenpox which saved her.

Now 84, she was seven years old in the September of 1940 and along with her older sister Margaret had been one of 90 evacuee children booked on the City of Benares which was due to sail from Liverpool to Canada with a further 300 passengers on board.

“We were living in Middlesex at the time and as the bombing raids intensified our parents thought we would be safer in Canada,” says Audrey, who later moved to Rothwell in Leeds.

“We already had family out there who had agreed to look after us and the idea of getting on a great big ship seemed like a wonderful adventure,” she says.

“In fact we were quite disappointed when the spots appeared and we were told that we wouldn’t be able to travel because of the risk of infection.”

However, far from heading to safety, the City of Benares was in fact heading straight into the path of a German U-boat.

At 10.30pm on September 14, the boat was struck by a torpedo and an emergency evacuation began. Among those who found themselves being lowered into the pitch black waters on lifeboat number five were Bess Walder and Beth Cummings.

The teenagers, just a year apart in age, didn’t know each other, but by the following day 
they would have sealed a friendship which would last the rest of their lives.

“Amid the swell, the lifeboat overturned and yet somehow the two of them managed to grab hold of the ropes,” says director Gill Robertson, who has now turned the story of that night into a play which opened at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds this week.

“They were wearing their pyjamas and dressing gowns, the water was freezing and yet somehow they managed to cling onto that upturned lifeboat for more than 20 hours.”

Not all were so fortunate or 
so resilient. Talking later, the friends reckoned that there had initially been 20 or so passengers holding onto the raft, but one 
by one they slipped beneath the waves.

So too did the City of Benares which was completely submerged just half an hour after being hit. In all just 13 children survived the disaster and 258 lives were lost, making it at the time the worst maritime disaster of the war.

Robertson says she first became aware of the story of lifeboat number five when she read a newspaper interview with Bess and Beth, and 
she worked closely with 
them on the production.

“Beth was more reticent about talking about what happened that night than Bess, but they both really helped in bringing it to the stage,” she says.

“Initially I thought it would be unstageable not least because there is a giant ship and a lifeboat the size of a double-decker bus. But then I realised that actually the story is about their friendship and how they supported each other throughout it all.

“These were two ordinary girls who found themselves in truly extraordinary circumstances and it’s that which makes I hope for compelling drama.”

Audrey is hoping to be in the audience during the play’s run and she knows it is likely to be emotional.

“I think we all thought that there would be another boat, another chance to go to Canada, but when my parents heard that the ship had been torpedoed that was it.

“They decided that we would be just as safe staying with them at home and sleeping in the bomb shelter our father had dug in the garden.

“I was so young at the time that I’m not sure it really registered just how close Margaret and I were to being those two little girls hanging on for dear life. Our war, thankfully took a different path.”

Lifeboat is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds until May 13. Tickets from the box office on 0113 213 7700 or book online at www. wyp.org.uk

Following Lifeboat’s run in the Barber Studio, it tours to community venues in Middleton, Gipton, Armley, Burmantofts, Seacroft, Chapeltown, Hawksworth Wood and Rothwell.

Police are appealing for information.

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