“O hear us when we cry to thee,
For those in peril on the sea.”
William Whiting ‘Eternal Father, Strong To Save’ (English hymn 1869)
The wind is rattling the windows as I light the gaslight and candles this evening. Yes, once again I’m on Lundy. I’ve been coming for the last 3 years to this former coastguard house, Tibbetts, and Spartan living – bottled gas and no electricity. Only one thing has changed since my last visit…..the shower! It’s been beefed up so there’s hot as well as lukewarm and cold!
I see the sea – where the Atlantic meets the Bristol Channel out of the windows on every side. Occasionally ships pass as do, regular as a heartbeat, beams of light from the lighthouses of North Devon, Lundy and Wales. It reminds me how vulnerable we are here to the weather. Indeed, the last time we were here, we had to be helicoptered off the island because it was too rough for the ferry, the Oldenburg to sail. It connects me starkly to the shipping forecast….Sole, Lundy, Fastnet….. that steady incantation that to those who listen to BBC Radio 4, lulls us to sleep in bed at night.
I’ve been reading “Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round The Shipping Forecast”, an extremely funny and inspiring account of a visit to every area mentioned in the British shipping forecast. Charlie Connelly gives snapshots of each area and of the people and events of note. In the chapter “German Bight, Humber, Thames” he gives an account of one, Henry Blogg, an utterly exemplary man who dedicated his life to saving others. Since I have been examining the nature of courage, I thought it a good idea to share it here.
Henry Blogg left school at 11 to join his father fishing off the coast of North Norfolk. He volunteered to became a lifeboatman like many of his relatives when he was 18 in January 1894 and for the next fifty-three years, went on to serve most of that time as coxswain.
The sea is treacherous and unpredictable off the North Norfolk coast – on one particularly stormy night in 1693 for instance, two hundred ships were lost off Cromer taking with them more than 1000 lives. In 1804 locals subscribed to commission a boat to protect that part of the coast. It eventually was incorporated into the Royal National Lifeboat Institute.
The RNLI has never received any money from the government. For at least two centuries it has been entirely funded by donation and every man is a volunteer. And to this day, there is no lack of volunteers to man the lifeboats.
Charlie Connelly chooses to tell the story of one particular rescue that still takes my breath away as an account of tenacity, courage and gallantry.
It was a stormy January 9th 1917 and most of the young men of Cromer were either dead or in the trenches of the First World War. Henry Blogg the coxswain was the youngest man at 41 on the fourteen-man lifeboat crew. The others were aged between fifty up to and including those in their seventies.
At lunchtime a rocket went up and the men launched the Louisa Heartwell, their heavy wooden lifeboat and for 2 backbreaking hours rowed through the worst storm in years towards the stricken Pyrin. They rescued the sixteen Greek sailors and managed to return to shore.
“Before the tired crew had even stripped off their drenched oilskins, however, the Fernebo sent up distress signals four miles out to sea. She was twice as far out as the Pyrin had been and now, with the tide higher, the conditions were twice as bad…….Blogg rallied his aged crew, the Louisa Heartwell was dragged back into the thunderous waves and the Cromer lifeboat struck out once again.
Fortunately the storm had blown the Fernebo, now broken in two, closer to the shore but the conditions were so bad that it took half an hour even to launch the Louisa Heartwell.”
Halfway to the Fernebo, the lifeboat had to turn back since a great wave had smashed 5 oars and swept another 2 overboard. Undaunted, Blogg and his men returned to shore, located more oars and re-launched.
“Eventually the Louisa Heartwell reached the Fernebo, rescued eleven men and returned to shore at one o’clock in the morning. Blogg and his motley crew of near-pensioners had battled the roughest seas and worst conditions in living memory for fourteen hours and saved twenty-seven lives….It was typical of Blogg’s bravery and determination that he refused to accede to the elements and insisted on putting to sea when he and his men were already exhausted. It also says everything about him that the crew was prepared to follow him out to the Fernebo, knowing they risked death by doing so. That was the kind of trust and loyalty the man inspired.”
When the tide is out at Cromer, protruding over the waves you may still see a black lump of timber, the keel of the Fernebo still visible nearly 100 years after the Louisa Heartwell brought it’s crew to safety.
Over the fifty-seven years of voluntary service, Blogg and his men saved the lives of 873 people.
In a small public garden looking out to sea, there stands a bust of Henry Blogg. On the plaque beneath it lists his awards and statistics and at the bottom in large letters, it reads, “One of the bravest men who ever lived.”