3 June 2015

Henry Blogg: A lifesaving legend

The tales of Henry Blogg's courageous rescues are known all over the world. He's the most decorated lifeboatman in RNLI history and served for 53 years on Cromer's lifeboats. With the help of his brave crew, he saved over 873 lives before retiring in 1947.

Henry's Cromer

When Henry was coxswain, Cromer had been enjoying its holiday hotspot status for half a century.

It all began in 1883, when theatre critic Clement Scott visited the area. He named it 'Poppyland' and wrote a series of articles on its beautiful, natural coastline. Cromer's first railway station had recently opened and thousands flocked to visit the fashionable seaside town.

Henry Blogg with his dog MonteHenry Blogg with his dog Monte

By the 1930s, holidays were no longer just a luxury enjoyed by a privileged few. Around 15 million people went away to the British coast every year.

Cromer's beachfront was a picture-postcard scene. Waves broke upon the wide open beach, as small children sailed tin boats and netted shrimps in the shallows. Young people on the beach practised the newest trend: beach acrobatics. Men sat in striped deckchairs, surveying the scene from above their newspapers. Pristine white bathing tents lined the golden sand and grand Edwardian hotels dominated the seafront.

The air was rich with the smell of fish and chips and the famous fresh Cromer crab. Snatches of music would drift from the pier, where a jazz band prepared for the evening's entertainment.

If they were lucky, tourists may have seen the pride of Cromer on display, the H F Bailey lifeboat. She was built of English oak, mahogany and teak and painted in a patriotic red, white and blue.

Standing proudly next to the lifeboat would have been a man in a flat cap, a large dog at his side. Locals and visitors would stop to talk to him.

He was Henry Blogg, lifesaving legend.

A working education

Henry was brought up by his mother Ellen and stepfather John Davies, a second coxswain and fisherman. Henry was a bright child, but left school at 11 to work on the family crab boat. He spent the rest of his time on Cromer’s beach, supervising the bathing machines and selling bathing dresses and towels for a penny a piece.

Bathing machines on Bognor Beach, similar to those Henry supervised on Cromer Beach.Photo: Sussex PhotoHistory
Bathing machines on Bognor Beach, similar to those Henry supervised on Cromer Beach.

He mastered the skills of seamanship, learning how to use an oar and handle a sail, although he never learnt to swim. He understood the dark side to Cromer's scenic coastline: the unpredictably powerful tides, winds, currents and rock-hard sands that have claimed thousands of lives.

The sea was in his blood. And once he turned 18, he joined the lifeboat crew.

The legend begins

Henry joined the crew in 1894 and won the vote to become their coxswain 15 years later. He was coxswain for 38 years, until he retired in 1947.

In that time, he carried out 387 rescues and helped to save 873 lives.

The first of Henry's medal-winning rescues took place in 1917, when his crew launched four times in 14 hours in a terrible storm. Cromer's lifeboat, Louisa Heartwell, battled 50mph winds to rescue the 22 crew onboard the Greek vessel, Pyrin. The crew, who had an average age of over 50 and two members over 70, had to rely on 14 oars and two sails to navigate the heavy seas.

Just as they arrived back on shore, triumphant and exhausted, they were told of the Swedish ship Fernabo, which had been blown in two by a mine. They rowed out three times to rescue the sailors onboard. Henry, who was awarded his first Gold Medal for the rescue, was commended for his remarkable personality and admirable leadership. His crew were awarded Bronze Medals and praised for their 'courage and dogged tenacity'.

An oil painting of
the Monte Nevoso rescue in 1932
An oil painting of the Monte Nevoso rescue in 1932

In 1932, the Italian Monte Nevoso ran aground on the Haisborough Sands. Cromer's lifeboat launched with several tugs to refloat the ship, but after several hours, it began to break up. The crew were taken off, but her officers refused to leave. After Henry determinedly returned to the ship twice for the captain and his officers, he found the ship abandoned. Left behind were a Tyrolean mountain dog and caged birds, which were rescued.

The crew had been at sea for 52 hours by the time they arrived home. Henry was awarded a Silver Medal for the rescue and praised for his faultless seamanship, great courage and endurance. As a show of thanks, Henry was also gifted the rescued dog, who he renamed Monte.

Cromer's lifesaving record is unique, largely due to their rescues during World War Two. The fallout from mines and air attacks kept the lifeboat busy. After the war had ended and people were counting their losses, Cromer counted the lives they had saved. They had launched 150 times and saved 448 lives – more than any other lifeboat.

During his time as coxswain, Henry was awarded many honours, including three Gold and four Silver Medals from the RNLI, the George Cross for general war service and a British Empire Medal. To this day, he remains the most decorated person in RNLI history.

The man behind the legend

Although Henry became a national hero for his gallant feats, he resisted the lure of celebrity. He was a quiet, private man who rarely talked about his famous rescues. He would always praise his crew, but never speak of his own courage. A local dignitary once remarked that Henry spoke of a dangerous rescue 'as if he had merely crossed the road for a bottle of milk'.

Henry Blogg, wearing
his trademark flat cap, talks to a soldier.
Henry Blogg, wearing his trademark flat cap, talks to a soldier.

Henry was a modest man and kept his collection of medals in a sideboard drawer. They were rarely worn.

He didn't drink or smoke, and preferred the tranquillity of his cottage. After a rescue, he would go home and sit in his armchair instead of joining the rest of his crew at the pub.

Henry’s wife, Annie, was intensely proud of her husband – and was always waiting at home with a bowl of warm soup for him. They had two children: Jack, who tragically died at just 18 months and a daughter, Queenie, who died in her twenties. After Queenie's death, Henry became quieter and reserved. Those close to Henry said her death 'just about broke his heart'.

When Henry wasn't risking his life and commanding a crew, he worked as a fisherman. In the Summer he also rented out deckchairs and beach huts on the shore. He enjoyed talking with Cromer's tourists, but always kept an eye on the weather for warning signs.

It was his determination and bravery for which he was most admired. He was stubborn, once he'd started a job he refused to quit and would go to sea even when his crew was exhausted and the conditions rough.

Henry was still coxswain at 70 years old –10 years beyond statutory retirement age. Yet he asked to continue, and did so until he was 74. He served a remarkable 53 years on the lifeboat.

Even after he retired, when the maroons sounded for the lifeboat, he would be watching from the pier.

And in 1954, 4 years after retiring, he passed away.

The lifesaving continues

Cromer’s seafront hasn’t changed much since Henry passed away, but the way the beaches are used has changed dramatically. More people now take to the water for recreation and the increased incidents from sailing, diving and surfing presented the RNLI with a new set of lifesaving challenges to solve.

Cromer Pier today –
it hasn’t changed much since the days of Henry Blogg!
Cromer Pier today – it hasn’t changed much since the days of Henry Blogg!

In 2001, the RNLI expanded its rescue service to include beach lifeguarding. Today, RNLI lifeguards patrol over 220 beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. Most of their work is preventative, making sure people use the beach and sea safely. Last Summer, Cromer’s lifeguards responded to 141 incidents, including the rescue of two boys caught in a rip current.

‘Cromer has always had good boats and good crews. And it always will.’
Henry Blogg
Cromer Coxswain 1909–1947 and one of the bravest men who ever lived

Cromer’s lifeguards have been working closely with the North Norfolk Surf Life Saving Club (NNSLSC), a voluntarily-run community sports club that teaches young people first aid and lifesaving skills.

The RNLI and NNSLSC work together to provide water cover for events and educational visits to schools. It’s a crucial development for the RNLI’s service, as many young people gain lifesaving qualifications through the NNSLSC and join the lifeguarding service when they turn 16.

It’s just one of the many ways Henry’s ingenuity, courageous spirit and commitment to lifesaving has remained in Cromer. There are reminders of his heroism everywhere. The Henry Blogg Museum, which opened in 2006, teaches visitors about his daring rescues. And on the clifftop, there's a bronze bust of Henry that overlooks the sea for signs of trouble, just as he did 70 years ago.

Towards the end of his career, Henry Blogg made his first and final speech.

He said: 'Cromer has always had good boats and good crews. And it always will.'

See for yourself

Rated number 2 on TripAdvisor's things to do in Cromer, second only to Cromer Lifeboat Station, our Henry Blogg Museum honours Cromer's fascinating lifeboating history and, of course, the lifesaving legend himself.

Admission is free, although donations are welcome, and a team of dedicated heritage volunteers are always ready to welcome you through its doors.

Visit the museum