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Of Wooden Ships and Iron Men

By Andrew Gorton

Today the Norfolk village of Cromer held its annual lifeboat day. I stood in the boathouse at the end of the pier and watched the vaguely Thunderbirds-style launch of the new state-of-the-art Tamar class lifeboat. I was duly impressed, along with the rest of the crowd, as, engines growling, the RNLB Lester thundered down its slipway and into the water with a dramatic splash.

I have always admired these crews, most of them ordinary people with 9-5 jobs, and often with no maritime background whatsoever, who get no financial reward for their acts.  I have recently found out about the local history of the forebears of these men and women, and have gained a much deeper appreciation of the RNLI. In April I started working at a new museum at Sheringham, a few miles north of Cromer. Sheringham is unique in the country for possessing four of its historic lifeboats.

The J.C. Madge and crew.
What particularly drew my attention was the town's last rowing lifeboat, the J.C. Madge, powered only by the strength of its 18 crew of fishermen, (or ‘Shannoks’ as the natives of Sheringham are known) or by a lug sail if need be. I found it particularly amazing that the open boat was still in service until 1936, when the town got its first motor lifeboat. The Madge would have been in service during World War One, as were most of the RNLI's rowing boats. As a lot of the younger men had been called away to fight, most of the call-outs would have been crewed by men in their 50s. Some of the most dramatic rescues involved lifeboat men who were well into their 60s and 70s, rowing for all they were worth in terrible conditions to go to the aid of complete strangers. It is very humbling!

Henry Blogg.

There is one particular Cromer man who stands out.  Henry Blogg (1876-1954), the most famous and most decorated of the lifeboat men. He joined the family crab fishing business at 11, joined the lifeboats at 18, and served until the age of 71, 11 years after the usual retiring age. In his 53 year service he and his crews saved over 870 lives.  Among other medals, he won the George Cross, as well as the RNLI Gold Medal 3 times, and the RNLI Silver Medal 4 times.  Yet for all this he was a very shy, retiring man, who nobody seemed to know well.
I don’t want to start moaning about celebrity culture, but I find people like Mr Blogg and his fellow lifeboatmen much more fascinating and inspiring.

Andrew Gorton is an Open University student, London born but now living on the north Norfolk coast.

1 comment:

Philip Reeve said...

One of my favourite books when I was a child was 'The Overland launch' by C. Walter Hodges, which tells the true story of how the crew of the Lynmouth lifeboat, in North Devon, couldn't launch into high seas at Lynmouth, so harnessed their boat to some extra horses and hauled it for miles along the coast, in darkness and foul weather, up and down steep hills, demolishing walls and widening gateways as they went, to launch at Porlock. Truly, they were made of sterner stuff in them days...

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