Tim Koch writes:
HTBS probably has some readers who are young enough to think that in 1957 dinosaurs ruled the earth. However, as I was born in the aforementioned year, I did not regard the late 1950s as an especially primitive time – until I discovered the postcard reproduced above. I was surprised to find that the last British ‘pulling’ (i.e. rowing) lifeboat used for rescues at sea from land was still operational in my lifetime. I presume that by this time it was only used for in-shore work but it seems that as late as the early 1930s, rescues both in-shore and off-shore were routinely performed by craft powered by oar and sail. While lifeboats undertake many life saving operations in calm weather, for most of us the idea of putting to sea in storm conditions (even in a sophisticated modern craft) is a terrifying thought, but to voluntarily launch an open rowing boat into a raging ocean seems madness.
It is a peculiarly British state of affairs that, since 1824, rescue at sea in the waters around the UK and Ireland has been the responsibility of a voluntary body that receives no government money: the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). As a charity it is separate from, but works alongside, the government-controlled and funded Coastguard, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. In its 191 years, the RNLI has saved 139,000 lives. There are currently 444 RNLI boats and 95% of the men who crew them are unpaid, part-time volunteers, all motivated simply by the unwritten law of the sea that says mariners will always assist other mariners in distress.
There is film of the Robert and Ellen Robson and a brief history of the early days of the lifeboat service in Britain in the second part of a wonderful 1952 documentary about the RNLI posted on YouTube:
I should confess that I have a somewhat emotional connection to the lifeboat service. Partly this is due to the fact that I am a Cornishman by birth and by maternal descent. For those that do not know, the county of Cornwall forms the tip of the south-west peninsula of Britain and it is a place where you can never be much more than 20 miles from the sea. This, coupled with Cornwall’s fishing and seafaring traditions, means that the lifeboats and the men who crew them are held in the highest esteem. When an in-shore lifeboat was first stationed on the Thames at Chiswick in West London in 2002, some rowers complained when it created washes during practice or even when it produced bow waves on the way to a rescue. This shocked me as, in my native county, to criticise the lifeboat is akin to blasphemy. There were, however, no complaints from these scullers or from the 2015 Oxford Women’s Blue Boat or from any of the rowers that have been rescued by one of the four RNLI boats based on the Thames in the last thirteen years.
I also have a more personal connection to the service as my great-granduncle, John ‘Janner’ Snell, was a longtime crew member of the lifeboat stationed in the Cornish port of Falmouth and he was coxswain (i.e. captain) between 1930 and 1947. In 1940, he was awarded the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Silver Medal for his part in the rescue of 35 men from a stricken steamer.
Falmouth had ‘pulling and sailing’ lifeboats from its first craft in 1867 until it got a motor powered boat in 1931. This would have been fairly typical of other lifeboat stations run by the RNLI as in 1865 the Institution commissioned a pulling-sailing design of boat which was built for the next sixty years. These lifeboats had no navigational aids but relied simply on the local knowledge and seamanship of the crew. They were narrow beamed, initially about 35 feet long with high end-boxes containing air cases to help them self-right when capsized. The hull contained significant amounts of cork. They could be rowed facing either way and their double-ended designs could operate a rudder from either end, so there was no need to turn them when conditions would have made this manoeuvre dangerous.
In the days of sail, storms would often blow ships onto land and rescues frequently took place in-shore. By the 1880s however, the rise of steam powered ships meant the beach rescues were less common. Faced with more off-shore rescues, from 1890 the RNLI experimented with steam and, from 1904, with motors – but it was only in the early 1930s that production of lifeboats powered by oar and sail ceased totally.
As the two pictures above indicate, many of the pulling – sailing lifeboats were launched by horses or people pulling them into the sea on a carriage. In 1899, the lifeboat based in Lynmouth in Devon was famously pulled by men, women and horses for 15 miles/24 km over a climb of 1,423 feet/434 metres to a suitable launch spot when a storm prevented her from leaving her own harbour to answer a distress call. The boat and its carriage weighed ten tons and the route included going up and down a 1 in 4 hill. At the end of the eleven-hour journey the crew boated immediately and then rowed an hour into the storm. When they reached the rudderless ship they had been called out to, they ‘stood by’, rowing continuously to hold a safe position until two tugs arrived and managed to get a line on board. Incredibly, some of the lifeboatmen went on board the stricken vessel to help raise the anchors as the crew were ‘too tired to do it themselves’. The Lynmouth crew then rowed with the rescued ship and the tugs pulling it to the nearest port in case they were needed again. By the time they reached land, they had been rowing for almost 24 hours. This was a time when men were truly men.
While the story of the lifeboats is one of bravery, inevitably it is also one of tragedy. I was in Cornwall when the Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981 occurred and I remember it well. The entire crew of the lifeboat Solomon Browne out of the Cornish fishing village of Mousehole was lost while attempting a rescue in 100 mph/170 kmh winds which produced 60 foot/18 metre waves. However, in the tradition of those who live by and from the sea, within a day of the disaster enough people from Mousehole had volunteered for the village to form a new lifeboat crew. I initially chose the pictures in this post as they all presented a strong image. It is only when I researched them further that I found that the ones below were associated with great lifeboat disasters. These are only three of them, the history of the RNLI contains many, many more.
The Nora Royds pictured above was a replacement for one of two lifeboats lost in the greatest of the RNLI’s tragedies, the Southport and St Anne’s lifeboat disasters of 1886 when 27 crew, mostly local fishermen, were lost.
During a great storm on 9 February 1861, the Whitby lifeboat had been attempting to save the crew of a stricken collier. They had already rowed out to sea six times that day (fortified by rum between rescues) and the coxswain had given Freeman, then the youngest member of the crew, the experimental cork life jacket that he had been sent by the RNLI in an attempt to persuade the stubborn local rescue station that they would be better off coming under the control of the national body. The prototype life jacket almost certainly saved Freeman’s life while his comrades perished.
On a rescue in April 1900, Arab was struck by a tremendous wave which buried the lifeboat, washed eight of her crew overboard and broke ten of her oars. The men overboard were recovered but Arab was helpless as her crew could not row. However, the coxswain used all his skills of seamanship and successfully steered the boat back to the shore. She was wrecked on the rocks but the all the crew managed to get onto land safely. Padstow’s steam lifeboat had also been launched but, caught by a heavy swell on leaving the harbour, she capsized and eight of her eleven crew were drowned.
*The crews pictured above were all, no doubt, God-fearing men and would have been very familiar with the hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”, popularly known as “For Those in Peril on the Sea”, or “The Navy Hymn”. Whatever one’s views on the existence of a Supreme Being, it is a very moving work. This is the first verse:
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm doth bind the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
YouTube has many different performances of this hymn, click here for a favourite of mine. The person who uploaded it added this comment:
Without any doubt, the highest of human altruistic endeavours is the risking of ones own life to save others, all of which is personified by the RNLI.