When the BBC ran a poll a few years ago to find the 100 Greatest Britons, the list was filled with a rich (and at times depressingly banal) cast of characters. Everyone from Winston Churchill and Horatio Nelson, to Boy George and Guy Fawkes made the final cut. Even King Arthur made it to number 51, and he probably didn’t even exist! Now, there are many reasons I am sure why the likes of Johnny Rotten, Bono and Dame Julie Andrews made the list; the latter doubtless for her unflagging cheerfulness in the face of Dick Van Dyke’s appalling cockney accent in “Mary Poppins”. But where, I ask myself, was Henry George Blogg?!
I’ll admit, Henry’s is not the first name that comes to mind when most people are asked to compile their list of favourites. He never circumnavigated the globe or captained the 1966 England World Cup winning football team. And to the best of my knowledge he fell someway short of reaching either of the polar ice caps. What Henry did though was save 873 lives, in a selfless career that spanned over five decades.
Henry Blogg was, and indeed remains, the greatest lifeboatman ever to put to sea. The most decorated volunteer in the charity’s history, Henry was awarded three Gold and four Silver medals for bravery, as well as the George Cross and the British Empire Medal. Not bad for a lad who never even learned to swim! Born in Cromer in 1876, he joined the crew in January 1894, aged 18. Over the next 53 years (38 of them as coxswain) Henry was involved in no fewer than 387 rescues, amongst coastal waters that remain, even today, amongst the most dangerous anywhere along the British coast.
The first of his gold medal rescues occurred in 1917, whilst Europe’s youth was entrenched in the mud and mire of Flanders. Over the course of some 14 hours, Henry and the crew of the Cromer lifeboat braved some of the worst weather of one of the worst winters on record to rescue 33 men from two stricken ships. No mean feat by itself, but when you take in the conditions that they had to battle against and the fact that the average age of the crew that night was over 50 years old (two of the crew were nearing 70), the rescue takes on almost Herculean proportions.
They launched their boat four times that day, into gale force winds that exceeded 50 miles an hour and seas that threatened to smash them like eggshells against the north Norfolk coast. All they had to rely on was brute strength, dogged determination and 14 oars as they fought against stinging hail, icy spray and great walls of water that threatened to pitch them into the sea at any moment. It took them three hours of back-breaking effort to reach the small Greek steamer, the Pyrin, but reach it they did and 22 men (and doubtless their countless descendants) were very grateful that they had.
It was, as you can imagine, with some relief that they returned to the safety of the shore. However, the relief was short-lived. No sooner had they swapped sodden oilskins for dry clothes than news came through of a second ship in trouble. The Swedish vessel, Fernebo had struck a mine which had split her in half and the Cromer boat was the only one within reach of her that could be launched into the foaming maelstrom.
This was the dilemma facing Henry Blogg. Both he and his crew were exhausted and the conditions were by now even worse than they had been earlier. But what was the option? He pulled on wet oilskins and cork lifejacket and headed back out into a howling gale. Henry’s career as a coxswain was filled with acts of incredible selflessness, but no rescue better displayed the spirit and loyalty of the Cromer crew than this night. Battered and bruised, but unbowed, these ageing heroes followed Henry out to face down the wild North Sea for the second time in just a few hours.
Mountainous seas drove the lifeboat back against the shore as the crew struggled to row the boat out past the breakers, and their first attempt ended with them being unceremoniously dumped back on the beach. By now the sea was screaming and darkness had fallen as they began their second attempt. For half an hour they struggled to get clear of the surf and into the deeper water, but each time the sea threw them back into the shallows. Finally, to the cheers of those gathered along the shores watching, the Louisa Heartwell broke through the crest of a huge wave. But the sea hadn’t finished with them yet. Just as they thought they had made it a huge wave smashed into them, shattering five of the oars and washing another three overboard.
Defeated the crew had to head back to shore yet again.
Now, it would be at this point in a Hollywood blockbuster that the script would call for some heart-wrenching speech and an implausible plot-line that would probably involve a small child and a dog. Henry however just called for new oars. And so, for the fourth time that day, the boat was launched back into the surf. This time they made it and, as the spectators watched from the shore, the Louisa Heartwell reached the Fernebo and returned triumphantly home, bearing 11 total strangers to safety. It was by now nearly one o’clock in the morning. The crew had battled the weather on and off for nearly 14 hours and Henry Blogg had brought them all back safely.
The Cromer station won 14 RNLI medals that day. A gold for Henry, a silver for his second coxswain and bronze medals for 12 of the remaining crew. And that was just the first of Henry’s medals. Over the coming years his courage, seamanship and leadership would inspire generations to come and earn the respect and thanks of many a grateful seaman, as well as a collection of caged birds and a Tyrolean Mountain dog called Monte.
Henry Blogg continued as coxswain of the Cromer boat until he was 74 – 14 years beyond the statutory retirement age. He died in 1954, having outlived his wife, his son and his daughter. He was once asked how he would describe himself, to which he replied “I’m a crab fisherman”.
Now that my friends is a Great Briton!…