When you think of the emergency services it’s probably the police, fire and ambulance that spring to mind. But before the first municipal fire brigade, before the Peelers and before paramedics there was the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck - now known simply as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).
The RNLI was founded in 1824 to save lives around the coast of Britain at a time when sea travel was still the only way to bring goods and people in and out of our island nation, and shipwrecks were all too common. From the beginning the lifeboat crews taking on these often treacherous rescues were mainly volunteers; often local people with knowledge of local waters who would be on call to respond to any emergencies. Even today 95 per cent of the RNLI’s lifeboats crews are made up of volunteers.
Of the thousands of brave crewmen and women who have served with the RNLI over the last two centuries none have left a mark quite like Henry Blogg. Henry is the most decorated lifeboatman in RNLI history, counting a George Cross and a British Empire Medal among his many awards. Along with his crews he is credited with saving 873 lives during an astonishing 53 years at sea. A quiet and unassuming person, it’s his exploits that speak volumes about this remarkable man and his dedication to duty.
Henry was born and raised in Cromer, a genteel seaside town in picturesque Norfolk. The sea was in his blood. A crab fisherman by trade, he followed in the footsteps of his stepfather John Davies by joining the crew of the Cromer lifeboat, the Benjamin Bond Cabbell, in 1894 at the age of just 18. By 1909 he was the leader, selected by his crewmates to take over as coxwain on the retirement of his predecessor. It was the beginning of an incredible 38-year stint in charge.
The first of Henry's medal-winning rescues took place in 1917 when he was in charge of the lifeboat Louisa Heartwell. A Greek vessel, Pyrin, had floundered just off Cromer in the early hours of the morning. Battling through heavy seas and 50mph winds, powered by nothing but oars, two sails and brute strength, the crew managed to reach the stricken ship and rescue all 22 men on board.
On returning to shore the crew learned that a second vessel, the Swedish ship Fernabo, had been blown in two by a mine. Sailors from one half of the broken ship had made it to the beach but others, trapped in the other half of the ship, were still out at sea. The Cromer lifeboat and its crew set out again on its second rescue of the day.
This time the power of the waves had the upper hand and threw the Louisa Heartwell back on to the beach. At least three times the crew tried to launch and row beyond the breakers and at least three times they were thrown back. Eventually the lifeboat made it to the remains of the Fernabo and, under searchlights, took the ship’s crew to safety. In all the Cromer team had been battling the seas for a solid 24 hours.
For his part in the double rescue Henry was awarded his first RNLI Gold Medal, commended for his remarkable personality and admirable leadership. His crew were awarded Bronze Medals and praised for their 'courage and dogged tenacity'.
An RNLI Silver Medal came Henry’s way in 1932, following the rescue of the Italian ship Monte Nevoso. The ship had run aground and, with efforts to refloat it having failed, it began to break up. The crew were safely taken off but the ship’s officers refused to leave. When Henry returned to get them he found that they had abandoned ship, leaving behind a dog and a number of caged birds. He wasted no time in bringing the terrified animals safely back to shore.
Henry was awarded a Silver Medal for the rescue and praised for his faultless seamanship, great courage and endurance. He was also awarded a medal by the Canine Defence League in recognition of his animal rescue. In a heartwarming end to the story, Henry adopted the dog he had saved and named him Monte; the canine remained the coxswain’s loyal companion.
When World War II broke out the crew of the Cromer lifeboat continued to find themselves at the centre of the action, as the damage caused by mines at sea and air attacks kept the lifeboat busy. One of these rescues in 1941 nearly proved catastrophic for Henry and his crew.
The merchant ship SS English Trader had become detached from a convoy and was suffering from apparent engine failure when it ran aground in gale force conditions. The lifeboat H F Bailey reached the wreck late in the morning but, in terrifying conditions, a wave struck the lifeboat and washed five men overboard including Henry, a non-swimmer. All five were hauled back into the boat but sadly signalman Edward Allen died a short while afterwards.
After seven hours attempting to rescue the crew of the English Trader the Cromer lifeboat was forced back to shore. Other crews joined the rescue efforts but without success and attempts were abandoned for the day. The following morning, in considerably calmer waters, the H F Bailey launched again and was able to reach the ship, taking off 44 surviving crew members.
Henry received another RNLI Silver Medal for his part in the rescue and in 1941 he was awarded the British Empire Medal. In the same year his Empire Gallantry Medal, awarded in 1924, was upgraded to a George Cross; the highest civilian gallantry award in Britain. In total, during World War II Henry and his crew launched 150 times and saved 448 lives – more than any other lifeboat.
Henry’s amazing exploits brought him a degree of celebrity. Visitors to Cromer would often seek him out, finding him standing proudly next to the H F Bailey, Monte at his side. His portrait was painted on several occasions and there are statues of him too. In Cromer, he is still remembered fondly as one of their own. A museum dedicated to his memory and his story was opened in the town in 2006, looking out over the seas that he helped to keep safe.
Henry was, by all accounts, a modest man. He rarely showed off his array of medals and, despite his popularity with his crews, preferred an evening in front of the fire with his wife Annie than a night in the pub. He finally retired as coxswain in 1947, aged 71, having stayed 11 years past the usual retirement age. Even after his retirement he would always respond to the emergency siren that called out the lifeboat, standing on the pier to see the crews safely out. He died in 1954 at the age of 78, gone but forever remembered as a hero of our emergency services.