The greatest RNLI rescues and tragedies described in a new book

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mounts-bay-1888 union-star-penlee-1981

Scenes of lifeboat operations clockwise from the
top: Fraserburgh; Penlee and Mount’s Bay

Lifeboat Heroes by Edward Wake-Walker is a new book that tells the stories of 16 of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s most dramatic rescues from its distinguished 185-year history.

Anyone sitting safe from a storm by their fireside when their local crew races to the station is bound to wonder how it must be on board their local lifeboat; this book should give them a clear picture.

The stories of triumph and disaster at sea are packed with personal recollections of crewmen, other emergency services, survivors, and local families who waited at home for their loved ones to return.

Newspaper articles from the time also report the devastating scenes. This is a quotation from the Daily Telegraph, 6th January 1881:

‘As the last man came I held my breath; he was alive when taken from the wreck, but had died in the boat. Four men bore him on their shoulders, and a flag flung over the face mercifully concealed what was most shocking of the dreadful sight; but they had removed his boots and socks to chafe his feet before he died, and had slipped a pair of mittens over the toes which left the ankles naked. This was the body of Howard Primrose Fraser, the second mate of the lost ship and her drowned captain’s brother.’

The earliest story is that of Sir William Hillary, founder of the RNLI, who rescued all 17 crew and passengers from the Fortroendet, which went aground in 1827. A more recent account concerns the valiant attempt at rescue in 1981, when brave Trevelyan Richards, coxswain of Penlee lifeboat was lost with his seven-man crew and all those he was attempting to save from the coaster Union Star.

Many of the incidents of outstanding bravery recounted here proved to be turning points in the history of the RNLI and the business of sea rescue in general. The wreck of the Mexico in the Ribble Estuary in 1886, when 27 crewmen from two lifeboats lost their lives, hastened the quest for powered lifeboats and gave rise to flag days and street collections. The loss of the Penlee lifeboat and her crew accelerated the development of today’s powerful lifeboats and reminded the public of the ultimate invincibility of the sea.

Edward Wake-Walker worked for 28 years with the RNLI, the final 16 as public relations director. His other books on the RNLI and its history are Gold Medal Rescues (1992), Lost Photographs of the RNLI (2004) and The Lifeboats Story (2007), and he is an honorary adviser to the RNLI Heritage Trust. He lives in Dorset.

The RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea. It provides, on call, a 24-hour lifeboat search and rescue service to 100 nautical miles out from the coast of the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. It is is largely a volunteer organisation – its volunteers include 4,500 crew members, 2,900 shore helpers and station mangers, and 35,000 fundraisers. The charity is independent from government and relies on voluntary contributions and legacies for its income. The lifeboat crews and lifeguards of the RNLI have saved over 137,000 lives at sea since 1824. For every copy of this book sold, the publishers Haynes will donate £1 to RNLI funds.

Three score and ten – the greatest fishing disaster ballad


The chilling engraving The Storm by William Miller after Van de Velde,
published in 1858, taken from the Wikimedia. They’re not English East Coast
fishing smacks, but sadly I haven’t been able to find a suitable engraving
from the correct era

‘As day after day passes and no tidings arrive of the missing Grimsby smacks, it is beginning to be realised that the gale of the 9th ult. will prove one of the most disastrous to the Grimsby fishing trade on record. altogether nearly a dozen fishing vessels, carrying between 60 and 70 hands, are missing.

‘Most of the vessels were provisioned for eight or nine days, and many of them have been out for over a month. Of the safety of seven of them all hope has now been abandoned.’

Report from: The Hull Times, 2nd March 1889

Most people of my generation with a long-standing interest in traditional music have probably sung this song at one time or another, particularly those who like me come from nearby one of the the East Coast major fishing ports.

It’s a big favourite with a magnificent, anthemic chorus, and a powerful theme, and it’s also a song that some of us connect with some remarks  made by old Sam Larner in relation to a storm he remembered from his childhood. Back in the 1950s, he told Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl that the big East Coast storm that people remembered was in 1884, and that there was a saying: ‘Oh dear, oh Lor – the dreadful fishing of 1884.’

Well, Jim Potter has been digging around and has discovered that the song actually refers to a storm in 1889, and that  some 70 hands from Grimsby – three score and ten – really did die that February night, as the newspaper quotation above shows.

This is February 2009, almost 120 years to the day since those brave and unfortunate fishermen met their deaths. As many sailed from Grimsby, we can assume that quite a few were orphans or had been abandoned by their parents and were often treated pretty badly by their employers and surrogate guardians, as Anson makes clear in his book British Sea Fishermen.

Anyway, you can read all about Jim’s research at Folk Leads, find the original fisherman’s poem from which the song developed and read about the Three Score and Ten fishermen’s gravestone that he has identified .

I haven’t been able to make the link to his recording of the song work, so if you want to hear how this one goes, you’ll have to make do with my recording of this great old song.

For more songs at, click here.

Photos from the Inishkea Islands

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Deserted village on the Inishkea south island. As usual, click on
the thumbnails for much larger images


Barnacle geese in flight

A couple of days ago, I found this very welcome message from reader Duncan Sclare in my inbox. It has got me thinking that it’s more than high time I made a return trip to the West of Ireland to see some more of its wondrful remote Atlantic islands.

‘Hi Gavin,

‘Having read and enjoyed reading intheboatshed for some time now I thought I ought to add a little bit for others to hopefully enjoy.

‘One of my family’s favourite boating destinations is the Inishkea Islands, three miles off the west coast of Co Mayo, where we live.

‘The islands have an interesting history. They were inhabited up to the mid 1930s, but the community never really recovered from the great storm of 1927 when about 45 men mostly fishing from curraghs were drowned off the Mayo and Galway coast, ten of them from the Inishkea Islands.

‘The islanders moved to the nearby mainland and continued to graze animals and fish around the islands, as their descendants still do today.

‘Further back in time around 1900 there was a Norwegian whaling station on the south island. There are many myths and storys including tales of piracy and civil war, and stone-throwing incidents between north and south islands and, of course, various legends about poitín brewing.

The two villages on the one on each island are now slowly being reclaimed by nature, as can be seen in the photos.

‘I had the pleasure of meeting one of the last surviving people born on the island this summer. Her daughter and son in law had spent a couple of years doing up her old home, and brought her out on a beautiful August day to see it close up for the first time in almost 70 years.

‘There is a wide variety of wildlife including many grey seals that come ashore in the late autumn to have their pups. Barnacle geese, which give the islands their name, still come down from their breeding sites high up in Greenland to over-winter on the islands.

Mayo County Council are now putting together a long over due Conservation and Management Plan that will hopefully secure the islands future for all to enjoy and appreciate without damaging the rather delicate eco-system.

‘An excellent information site can be found here: Insihkea Islands.

‘Doing a bit of boat building myself will mail you if I have anything of substance to report. Keep up the good work

‘Regards, Duncan Sclare’

Many thanks for this Duncan – I’m most grateful you have taken the time to write in with your photos. I’m sure the image of the derelict cottages in particular will be very powerful for many people. Do let us know how your project goes!

For more posts about currachs including information about building the boats, click here.


Seal pup photographed on Inishkea