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140 years of the Swanage lifeboat

The Robert Charles Brown is a ‘Mersey Class’ vessel, which is to be superseded by the ‘Shannon Class’

The Robert Charles Brown is a ‘Mersey Class’ vessel, which is to be superseded by the ‘Shannon Class’ (RNLI)

The English Channel has been this country’s safeguard from invasion for a thousand years. John of Gaunt, in his ‘This England’ speech in Richard II, calls it ‘a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands’. The Spanish Armada, Napoleon, Hitler – failures all; even the great Julius Caesar needed two attempts to conquer the Channel. But it is a double-edged sword: the ferocity which has kept away all invaders since the Normans has cost the lives of hundreds of seafarers. The ‘National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck’ was formed in 1824; although this was in response to the distressing loss of life around the Isle of Man witnessed by its founder, Sir William Hillary, the Institution’s first Gold Medal for bravery was awarded for a rescue attempt in the English Channel – Charles Fremantle swam out to take a line to a Swedish brig wrecked off the coast of Christchurch. (He later became a distinguished admiral in the Royal Navy, and the Australian city of Fremantle was named after him.)

Given the perilous ledges around Swanage Bay, there will always be work for the RNLI (RNLI/Swanage)

Given the perilous ledges around Swanage Bay, there will always be work for the RNLI (RNLI/Swanage)

The weather in the Channel has always been notoriously fickle, and until the 20th century almost every gale was responsible for sinking small craft and – fortunately less often – causing loss of life. The Purbeck coast is no exception, and one particular storm at the end of January 1866 wrecked three schooners in the usually peaceful Studland Bay: eighteen were drowned and there were only two survivors. Later that year, on 11 July, the French barque Georgiana was driven ashore further round the Purbeck coast at Chapman’s Pool, but on this occasion the crew and passengers were saved by a line fired to the ship by the coastguards. These were not the only instances, and the decision was taken to build a lifeboat station at Chapman’s Pool. A newspaper of the time commented that ‘the great loss of life and property on this part of the coast have at length aroused the attention of the government and we are happy to say that preparations for placing a lifeboat station in this little bay.’ The boathouse was built very close to the actual place where the Georgiana was destroyed by the sea. The lifeboat station was short-lived; it closed in 1880 because of the expense of maintaining the boathouse, and because it was too far away from any settlement for the crew to man it quickly, and also because launching was difficult in a strong wind – when in 1868 the schooner Liberty got into trouble off Broad Bench (the western end of Kimmeridge Bay), it proved impossible for the lifeboat to be launched into the teeth of the gale, and the boat was wrecked. Although the station closed over a century ago, the boathouse can still be seen, in its lonely position at the foot of Emmetts Hill.

The old lifeboat house (with red clay-tiled roof) just west of Peveril Point

The old lifeboat house (with red clay-tiled roof) just west of Peveril Point

A lifeboat station had been established at Kimmeridge in 1868, also in response to the shipping disasters of the previous years, and it was involved in the rescue of the crew of the Stralsund, a German ship which had been blown onto the dangerous Kimmeridge ledges. But in 1896 this station was also closed because of its remoteness from its crew. However, Swanage had its own lifeboat station by then, and this one, too, was the result of retrospective action. During a southerly gale in the early morning of 23 January 1875, the brigantine Wild Wave from Exeter was wrecked on Peveril Ledge. By five o’clock that morning she was on her beam ends. The coastguards were alerted and came to the scene in four-oared open boats; they eventually rescued four men and a boy after a desperate struggle. The Poole lifeboat had been summoned, but by the time it arrived, the rescue was over – because of the strength of the gale, it had had to be towed the seven miles from Poole by a steam tug. The event was seen from the shore by the distinguished Swanage resident John Charles Robinson of Newton Manor, who had been the first curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum and was later to become the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. He was dismayed by what he saw and that same day he wrote a letter to The Times. In it, he described how the coastguards had taken out two boats but had not been able to get near enough and how, at daylight ‘five dark, sodden bundles, rather than living creatures, were seen, all clustered together clinging to a mass of tangled rigging a the highest part of the ship’s hull.’ Coastguard boats were manned again and the wind moderated. ‘Soon we see a coil of rope thrown from the largest boat and caught by one of the living “bundles”… and in a few minutes (thanks be to Heaven!) all five – one a very small one, a poor little benumbed lad of 10 or 11 (who had been washed off once and caught again by the scruff of the neck like a drowning dog) – were safely stowed in the boat…I have written this account less to record the excellent, discipline, efficiency and gallantry of the Swanage Coastguard than to call the attention to the urgent needs of the district and adjacent coast. It will scarcely be believed that along all the line of the coast of Dorset and Hants, from Portland to Hurst Castle, there is not a single lighthouse nor a single harbour of refuge!’ He made a vow: ‘Swanage has hitherto had no lifeboat, but after this morning’s work we shall supply that want.’

The Mersey Class Robert Charles Brown on the slipway at the old station

The Mersey Class Robert Charles Brown on the slipway at the old station

He was as good as his word. Both he and another of the town’s celebrities, George Burt (manager of the Mowlem construction company), promised £20 each towards a new Swanage lifeboat. On reading the letter in The Times, Richard Lewis, the secretary of what was by now the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, wrote to Robinson: ‘I beg to say that have no doubt the National Lifeboat Institution will be quite prepared to organize a Lifeboat Station at Swanage should it be found desirable and practicable to carry out your suggestion.’ By September, Swanage had its lifeboat: the Charlotte Mary, provided from a bequest of Miss Margaret Ryder Wilde in memory of her two sisters, Charlotte and Mary. The station was built at a cost of £350 on land given by the Earl of Eldon, who lived nearby at Encombe House.
It was the start of an enduring and illustrious history. There have been five new lifeboats since the Charlotte Mary, and countless acts of bravery, many celebrated by official Letters of Thanks, Thanks of the Institution Inscribed on Vellum, and Bronze Medals. The present lifeboat is the Mersey class Robert Charles Brown, which has a junior companion, the D class lifeboat Phyl & Jack, for inshore waters.

The D-class lifeboat Phyl & Jack for inshore water rescues

The D-class lifeboat Phyl & Jack for inshore water rescues

The Robert Charles Brown, however, is nearing the end of its operational life, and will be replaced by a Shannon class boat. It will be the last lifeboat to be built at Lymington before construction work moves to RNLI headquarters in Poole. The Shannon is a lifeboat for the 21st century, with water jets instead of the conventional propellers (to render it capable of speeds up to 27 knots, compared with Robert Charles Brown’s 16), computer-controlled suspension for the seats so that the shock of the boat hitting the waves is absorbed, and touch screens for each of the six crew to give them access to the radar, the radio and the engine controls. The Shannon class is also much larger than the Mersey class, and this has meant that the 140-year-old boathouse has had to be demolished. In its place is being built a completely new station, costing about £3.5m and including changing facilities and a mechanical workshop, which the old building did not have. There will also be a training room, office space and a base for the station’s D class inshore lifeboat. There will even be a souvenir stall for visitors. The new boathouse will also contain a new clubhouse for the Swanage Angling Club, who will be housed on the ground floor with the lifeboat crewroom above.

Robert Charles Brown being launched from the old Swanage lifeboat station, in which the new Shannon class boat would not fit

Robert Charles Brown being launched from the old Swanage lifeboat station, in which the new Shannon class boat would not fit (RNLI/Swanage)

The combined cost of the new boathouse and the new boat will be over £5m; the station was asked to raise £250,000 towards this and has currently raised £380,000. William Gronow Davis, the owner of the Rushmore estate in north Dorset, has given a donation of £250,000, having become a committed supporter of the Swanage lifeboat after a visit to meet the crew and see the team in action. This was after a golf day had been organised at the Rushmore Golf Club, which raised £25,000 for the Swanage Lifeboat Station Appeal.
It is hoped that the new boathouse, the new boat and the new slipway will all be ready within a year. The opening ceremony will be a remarkable spectacle: Swanage’s Shannon will be the only one in Britain to be launched from a slipway – all the others are afloat or tractor-launched. Definitely a date for the diary. ◗

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