01 — Henry Blogg
Text redacted from Attention All Shipping, Charlie Connelly — Pub. Little, Brown, 2004
Most people won’t have heard of him but he wouldn’t have minded. In fact, he’d have preferred it that way. That’s probably why he never got himself sent off against Argentina, or wore a beret, pulled camp faces and reported donkeys doing whoopsies in corridors. He kept himself to himself did Henry Blogg, and rarely left Cromer other than when he town’s football team played local cup finals at Norwich City’s ground, or he was receiving the latest of his large collection of decorations in London. But Henry Blogg was a hero in every sense of the word. He was modest, self-effacing, unassuming and brave, quite startlingly brave, and he was probably the greatest lifeboatman who ever lived.
I have a great deal of time for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, given that it’s feasible that were it not for lifeboats and their repeated rescuing of my grandfather, I wouldn’t be here. Every crew member who ever put to sea in a distinctive orange-and-blue boat deserves a tip of our collective hat at the very least, but Henry Blogg was a giant among greatness. He was a member of the Cromer lifeboat crew for fifty-three years, thirty-seven of them as coxswain. He retired at the age of seventy-one, having been awarded the George Cross, the British Empire Medal, the RNLI gold medal for gallantry three times and the silver medal four times. But most importantly he helped to save 873 lives at sea, which isn’t a bad record for someone who couldn’t swim.
Lifeboats in Cromer date back to 1804, when locals, sick of watching helplessly as sailors perished in stormy seas often a matter of yards from the shore, subscribed £500 to commission a boat. Tragedy was a common theme along the Devil’s Throat: one particularly stormy night in 1693 saw two hundred ships lost off Cromer, along with more than a thousand lives. It was this sort of tale which reminded me why I was here; how important the shipping forecast is. Practically every mile of our coastline has similar tales to tell. Until FitzRoy began assembling his weather reports, lives were being needlessly lost for want of information. Cromer, and particularly the story of Henry Blogg, reminded me that behind all the talk of poetry, romance and quirky notions of Britishness, the shipping forecast is all about the thin line between life and death.
Blogg, the man destined to become the greatest lifeboatman of them all, was born into a ‘fishing family in a cottage on the-site of the Wellington Inn on February 6, 1876. His stepfather, J.J. Davies, was second coxswain of the lifeboat; J.J.’s father was the coxswain. Henry left school at eleven years old — despite having shown academic promise — to join his father’s crab boat and soon became an accomplished longshore fisherman. It was during his teens that Henry learned the seamanship and intimate knowledge of Cromer’s complicated, unpredictable waters that would help save so many lives in the following decades. He became a lifeboatman at the age of eighteen in January 1894 but had to wait a year for his first active service, a lengthy attendance to the Fair City of Gloucester four miles off the coast. The lifeboat then was an open, rowed affair and Henry under J.J. Davies’s command, was out at sea all night. That evening he got roaring drunk for the first and last time in his life, never touching another drop as long as he lived.
During the long Cromer summers Henry would supplement his fishing income by working the bathing machines on the beach, where he met his wife Ann. They were married in 1901 in Cromer’s enormous parish church, which now houses a stained-glass window featuring his image, and a year later had a son, Henry who died at two months. A daughter, Queenie, followed in 1907, by which time Henry had become second coxswain of the lifeboat. Two years later he became coxswain, voted unanimously by the crew. To list Blogg’s great rescues would be time-consuming and probably serve only to numb admiration of his and his loyal crew’s bravery Instead let’s stick to the tale of the Fernebo, which got into difficulties off Cromer one stormy night during the particularly harsh winter of 1917.
January 9 was a day of weather so ‘filthy that when a rocket went up around lunchtime ‘from a ship two miles off the coast of Cromer, it was picked out against a raging sky as black as night. Front doors flew open all over the town as the crew hit the streets running and made for the thirty-eight-foot Louisa Heartwell in the old lifeboat house on the shore near the pier. Within minutes of the distress signal the boat had been rolled out to the edge of the boiling surf and the crew began to row her into the crashing breakers. Now; bear in mind that this is during the First World War and most of the nation’s young men were either dead or embedded in swampy trenches across Europe. The youngest member of the fourteen-man lifeboat crew that night was Blogg at forty-one, the rest ranged in age from fifties to the odd septuagenarian, and they were putting to sea in in open rowing boat on the stormiest night for years. Every ounce of strength they possessed was heaved into the oars but the Louisa Heartwell was pulled towards the pier and seemed set for certain disaster. She missed by a matter of yards. It took two hours of energy-sapping hardship but eventually the lifeboat reached the distressed Pyrin, rescuing the sixteen Greek sailors on board and rowing them back 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. The rain and wind continued to batter the coast but Blogg rallied his ageing crew, the Louisa Heartwell was dragged back into the thunderous waves and the Cromer lifeboat struck out once again. The Femebo had struck a mine and the explosion had broken her back. It was only her cargo of timber that was keeping the stricken ship afloat. Six of the crew had decided to risk putting to sea in a small boat and fifty yards from shore it capsized. A human chain of onlookers ensured that every man was saved.
There were still men on board the ship, however, and Blogg and his crew represented their only hope. Fortunately the storm had blown the Femebo, 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. When the lifeboat was halfway out to the stricken ship, a vast wave washed over her, smashing five oars and washing three more overboard. Blogg had no choice but to return to the beach, locate new oars and start out yet again. 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 Femebo, knowing that they risked death by doing so. That was the kind of trust and loyalty the man inspired. Blogg led countless similar rescues, encompassing two world wars. By 1946 he was still coxswain at the age of seventy, ten years beyond the statutory retirement age for the RNLI. Even then he asked, and was allowed, to continue for another year before retiring in 1947 after fifty-three years’ service.
After his retirement, whenever the maroons sounded and the lifeboat, a new vessel that bore his name, plunged down the slipway into the surf, Blogg would be on the pier, staring after it out to sea. Ann Blogg died in 1950, and in 1953 Henry watched helpless from the shore as a fishing boat containing two of his nephews capsized. The old man helped to launch a crab boat from the shore, but it was in vain and the men were drowned. On top of that the exertion caused him to collapse, and the grief combined with a weakening heart conspired to kill him the following year. Despite a life spent cheating death and snatching others from its clutches in the most dangerous of circumstances, he had outlived his Wife, his son and his daughter.
Blogg was a quiet man. While the crew would often unwind in the pub after a rescue, the coxswain would just go home, change and park’ himself in his armchair. His modesty was legendary; he would rarely talk of his rescues, with one local dignitary once complaining that Blogg had spoken about a particularly dangerous shout ‘as if he had merely crossed the road for a bottle of milk’. The numerous medals he received were kept in a drawer and never displayed.
‘One of the bravest men who ever lived’ […] Henry Blogg and his crew had plucked 873 people; 873 husbands, wives, sets of parents and children had Blogg to thank that their loved ones were able to return home after their respective calamities. […] A rescued Dutch sailor once tried to slip the coxswain a few quid in thanks for his safe deliverance. ‘That’s not what I’m here for,’ Blogg replied, ‘spend it on letting your wife know you’re safely ashore.’