Grave Stories

Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Thomas Cook and the World’s First Package Tour

At last, the sun is out, the days are warmer and longer, and the holiday season beckons. Nothing raises my spirits so much as a packed suitcase, and the prospect of a journey. Ideally an eager lover should meet me at an exotic train station or airport, but a local guide with my name spelled out on a handheld sign will do. Indeed, I will happily descend into the bowels of an unknown metro or abandon myself to the hustling taxi drivers who swarm like locusts awaiting disorientated travellers. The destination and the transport do not even have to be glamorous: bags in the back of the car, the bossy lady from Google Maps issuing terse directions as I miss the correct exit from the roundabout for the third time, I will advance on the most unprepossessing of English towns, firm in my conviction that there are at least Ten Interesting Things to See in any previously unexplored location. Hearing me say this, a friend once challenged me with her hometown of Middlesbrough; honestly, it could not have been easier.

No surprise then that one of my heroes is Thomas Cook (1808-1892), the man who established the world’s first package tour. Born in Derbyshire, he moved to Leicester in his twenties and established a business as a bookseller and printer. He joined the Temperance Movement and organised his first excursion in 1841, hiring a train and carriages from the newly established Midlands Counties Railway to transport temperance campaigners from Leicester to a rally in Loughborough. Four hundred and eighty-five people made the round trip of twenty-two miles in third class open tub cars. They paid one shilling each which also covered the cost of a meal and the services of the band which accompanied them. Over the next four summers Thomas Cook coordinated similar expeditions to Nottingham, Derby, Birmingham, and Liverpool for members of Temperance Societies and Sunday Schools.

In 1846, expanding to include trips for the general public, he inaugurated his first tour of Scotland, a little blighted by the absence of restaurant and lavatory facilities on the train. Then followed tours of Wales and Ireland. Joseph Paxton, the architect of the Crystal Palace, encouraged him to arrange day trips from Yorkshire and the Midlands to the Great Exhibition in London, and in the course of 1851 he transported 150,000 people to the event in Hyde Park.

Cook opened his Temperance Hall and Hotel in Leicester in 1853. The hotel incorporated his tourism office and his family accommodation. The Temperance Hall offered entertainment to rival the ubiquitous public houses, with concerts, lectures, magic lantern shows and readings, the latter on occasion performed by Charles Dickens.

In 1855 came the first excursion abroad with a “grand circular tour” through Belgium, Germany, and France. Cook negotiated reduced rates and customised schedules with railway companies in return for block bookings. He provided a package of travel, accommodation, and food, personally planning the routes and escorting the trips.

By 1868 Cook had introduced “hotel coupons” which independent travellers could exchange for meals and accommodation at any hotel on “Cook’s List”. In 1874 came “circular notes”, a popular form of traveller’s cheque, the first ones specifically exchangeable for Italian lira at a predetermined rate.

Having brought mass tourism to Italy, for which present day Venice may not thank him, he moved on to America where his “circular tickets” facilitated travel on 4,000 miles of railways.

Cook’s travel office began to sell guidebooks, luggage, telescopes, and suitable footwear for more ambitious expeditions. By 1869 he had hired two steamers to transport his tourists up the Nile. So popular were these tours that the Nile was dubbed “Cook’s Canal.”

His experimental Round the World Tour of 1872 was so successful that it became an annual event. Cook had taken the Grand Tour out of the hands of the very wealthy, opening the world to an ever-widening demographic.

The Cook family grave lies in Welford Road cemetery, Leicester.

Cook Family grave

It incorporates individual tablets remembering: Cook’s daughter, Annie Elizabeth Cook, who unfortunately died in a bath in 1880 having inhaled poisonous fumes from a water boiler; his wife Marianne Cook, died 1884; and Cook himself who died in 1892.

Annie Elizabeth, Marianne and Thomas Cook

Above the tablets it bears a conventional epitaph from Isaiah 40, 6-8,

“All Flesh is Grass,

The Grass Withereth

The Flower Fadeth

But the Word of our God shall stand Forever.”

All Flesh is Grass

But far more arresting is the lichen covered open book at the foot of the upright stone:

Thomas Cook

Pioneer of Travel, Founder of the

World’s Largest Travel Organisation.

First Excursion

Leicester to Loughborough 1841

Round the World 1872

He Brought Travel to the Millions.

Elsewhere in the cemetery is the grave of John Jason Cook who took over the firm from his father.

John Jason Cook, son of Thomas Cook, who took over the family firm

But as the growth of online booking rendered their high street travel agents redundant, and low-cost airlines undercut their prices, Thomas Cook’s agency went into liquidation in 2019 after 178 years of trading. The repatriation of the 155,000 people on Thomas Cook holidays abroad was described by one newspaper, with technical accuracy but more than an element of hyperbole, as “Britain’s biggest peacetime repatriation.”

RIP Thomas Cook

Yet travel and tourism live on and embracing my suitcase and the spirit of Thomas Cook I am taking a holiday. The blog will be back on 24th of June. And if you have free time over the summer, Leicester, The Birthplace of Tourism, merits a visit… and it has more than Ten Interesting Things to See.

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The Titanic: a Gold Pocket Watch, Contentious Commemorations, and Graves

Last week at an auction room in a small Wiltshire town a watch was sold for £1.175 million.

Henry Aldridge & Son in Devizes hold biannual sales of Titanic memorabilia and, at six times the expected figure, this represented the highest price ever paid for a single item.

The gold pocket watch was once the property of John Jacob Astor, but its value lay not in the gold nor in its ownership, but in the fact that it was found when Astor’s body was recovered from the Atlantic seven days after the sinking of the Titanic.

In April 1912 the RMS Titanic set out on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. Built in the Harland and Woolf shipyard in Belfast, and registered in Liverpool, the headquarters of the White Star Line, it was the largest and the most luxurious ship ever to sail. The opulence of the First-Class accommodation and public rooms was not extended to the hundreds of emigrants who travelled steerage, but even there the quality of the cabins was superior to the open dormitories common on most liners. The ship was described as unsinkable having sixteen watertight compartments on its underside which could be electronically closed if water entered them. Even if four of the compartments were flooded by a head on collision the liner was expected to remain afloat.

On the late evening of 14 April, the Titanic collided with an iceberg which damaged the ship’s plates below the waterline and five of the watertight compartments were breached. The ship began to founder and two hours and forty minutes later it sank. There would only have been enough lifeboats to accommodate one third of the passengers and crew had the ship held its full complement. As it was there were only places for half of them and in the disorganised evacuation the boats were launched barely half full. Of 2,240 people on board,1,517 people died from drowning or hypothermia.

The official inquiry into the disaster found that regulations on numbers of lifeboats that ships had to carry were out of date and inadequate; the captain had failed to heed ice warnings; the lifeboats had not been properly filled; the collision resulted from the ship steaming at too high a speed in a dangerous area. But it concluded that since all these were standard practice and not previously shown to be unsafe, the incident was an Act of God. New safety measures were recommended but no negligence was found.

The sinking of the Titanic has commanded extraordinary and enduring fascination. Immediately there were novels, poems, songs, art works, postcards, commemorative plates, and a silent film Saved from the Titanic starred the actress Dorothy Gibson who had in reality been one of the surviving passengers. Other badly flawed but high grossing films which followed in 1953 and 1997 served to increase the Titanic obsession.

The discovery of the wreck on the ocean bed in 1985 led to exhibitions of recovered artifacts and expeditions in submersibles for tourists to view the wreckage. One of those submersibles, Titan, itself imploded in 2023 killing everyone on board.

There are at least five Titanic museums and experiences in the USA, others in Canada, Ireland, and Britain. In South Africa, the businessman Sarel Gaus, and in Australia the billionaire Clive Palmer, abandoned grotesque plans to build full sized replicas of the Titanic when faced with prohibitive costs. In Sichuan in China a rusting hulk is all that remains of a similar project designed to be a floating hotel.

The centenary of the disaster in 2012 was commemorated with radio programmes, postage stamps and, with questionable taste, restaurants offering Titanic Themed Dining Experiences recreating the final dinner served in the first-class restaurant.

The Titanic Experience in Belfast, located on the site where the ship was built, also opened in 2012.

The Titanic Experience, Belfast
Located in the Harland and Woolf shipyard
The site where the ship was built, seen from the windows of the museum

Whether spawned by nostalgia for an age of luxury, the wealth of social history provided by the extensive reportage and collected artefacts, or by a degree of schadenfreude in the face of arrogance and hubris, Titanic mania shows no sign of abating.

But what of the victims and survivors? Only three hundred and thirty-seven bodies were recovered. One hundred and nineteen, mainly third-class passengers and crew, were buried at sea, and a further one hundred and fifty in Halifax, Canada. Only fifty-nine bodies were claimed and repatriated.

Most of the lost crew came from Southampton where seven hundred red dots marked on a floor map of the city in the museum identify the addresses of those who died. None of their bodies were brought back because White Star wanted to charge freight fees which families could not afford. At Southampton Old Cemetery there are sixty graves with Titanic associations, but all the names were added retrospectively when widows or other family members were buried.

Similarly, Ernest Thomas Barker, a saloon steward, buried at sea, is named on a family grave in   Highgate East.

In Romsey Abbey, a memorial remembers Bob Ward, engineer.

A memorial in Romsey Abbey

In Belfast, a memorial outside the City Hall commemorates twenty-two men from Belfast who died in the disaster.

Memorial to Titanic victims from Belfast: an allegorical representation with Death holding a laurel wreath above the head of a drowned sailor

A memorial garden established around the sculpture at the centenary houses bronze plaques naming all the victims.

Liverpool has a handsome memorial to the ship’s engineers at the Pierhead, and in the Philharmonic Hall a plaque to the ship’s orchestra.

Memorial to Titanic stokers and engineers, Pierhead, Liverpool
Lifesize sculptures on the memorial

In Eastbourne in 1914 the opera singer Clara Butt unveiled a tablet opposite the bandstand on the seafront commemorating John Lesley Woodward, the cellist in the orchestra. Woodward, whose body was not recovered, had previously played at The Grand Hotel in Eastbourne.

St. Giles Hill Cemetery in Winchester houses the grave of William Arthur Lucas, a seaman who survived the sinking, served in the First World War, but shot himself in 1921 on a train from Leeds to Kings Cross. He died in the Royal Free Hospital, the coroner returning a verdict of suicide while insane. Also remembered on the stone is his brother-in-law Montague Vincent Mathias, another seaman who perished on the Titanic and whose body was never identified. Gertrude Mathias (nee Lucas) commissioned the stone for her brother and husband.

Grave of brothers in law, Lucas and Mathias, who respectively survived and drowned when the Titanic sank. St. Giles Hill Cemetery, Winchester.
It is hard to distinguish the names for the grave is worn and covered in lichen

It is not uncommon to find graves where people are defined by their association with the Titanic, either as victims or less commonly survivors. But Albert Titanic Chadwick buried in Sherston, Wiltshire is neither. When I first saw his grave, I thought that he must have been born, and possibly christened, on the Titanic on the very day before it sank. But there were no Chadwicks on the ship, and the strange middle name remains a mystery. For all the bizarre souvenirs on sale in the aftermath of the disaster, it still seems extraordinary that anyone would name their child after such an event.

“Calm After Storm, Sinking of the Titanic.” Albert Titanic Chadwick, Church of the Holy Cross, Sherston, Wiltshire

Two graves hold men who have been cast respectively as villain and hero of the maritime tragedy.

The chairman and managing director of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, was one of only 20% of the men on board who survived, but his reputation suffered. He was vilified in both the American and the British press for leaving the ship when there were still women and children on board. An inquiry into the sinking concluded that he had helped other passengers before leaving himself on the last lifeboat on the starboard side twenty minutes before the ship sank and he was exonerated from blame.

Ismay kept a low profile for the rest of his life but has a conspicuous grave in Putney Vale cemetery in London. The unusual design by Alfred Gerrard, is composed of three stones representing the prow, mast, and stern of a ship.

The upright stone represents the prow of a ship and the chest tomb the mast

The upright stone representing the prow bears an inscription taken from the Epistle of James 3,4:

Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds,

yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whither so ever the governor listeth.

The chest tomb representing the mast bears scrimshaw like decoration with sailing ships and a compass.

Scrimshaw like designs on the chest tomb

On the top of the tomb is an extract from Psalm 107, verses 23-24:

They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters,

These men see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.

A stone seat carved with plants and a verse by Elizabeth Barrett Browning represents the stern of the ship.

-The little birds sang East, the little birds sang West

And I smiled to think of God’s greatness flowed around our incompleteness,

Round our restlessness, his rest.

No controversy surrounds the memory of Wallace Hartley, and in his hometown of Colne in Lancashire, his reputation could not stand higher. He led the orchestra whose members stood on deck continuing to play amongst the chaos of the evacuation, attempting to maintain calm as the lifeboats were loaded. As the ship sank, survivor accounts describe them playing the hymn “Nearer, My God, To Thee.”

None of the eight band members survived, only three of their bodies were found. Hartley’s body was not found until two weeks after the sinking, by which time news of the quiet courage and dignity of band’s last performance had spread. Wallace Hartley was returned to England and his father took the body from Liverpool to Colne where 40,000 people lined the route of the funeral procession.

In the Keighley Road Cemetery above Colne on a grey, windswept hillside a broken column symbolises a young life cut short, and above a carved violin and the music score of Nearer my God to Thee, is a simple epitaph:

Grave of Wallace Hartley in Colne

In the town centre a handsome memorial bust is flanked by a model of the Titanic planted around with blue and white flowers representing waves and icebergs.

Memorial to Wallace Hartley in Colne
Model of the Titanic

There may not be any gold pocket watches on display in Colne, but they have a romantic local hero of whom they may be justly proud.

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Grace Darling, Local Heroine: the Lady with the Oar

In the early days of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution there were no women crews, not least because of the widely held suspicion that it was bad luck to have women crewing boats. But women always provided support, working to get the lifeboats afloat, and after an anxious wait recovering them from the water and readying them for the next launch. The women who lived along the coasts knew the dangers of the sea.

Grace Darling was the daughter of a lighthouse keeper on Longstone Island, one of the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland. On the night of 6 September 1838, the merchant ship the Forfarshire was carrying sixty-two people, crew and passengers, from Hull to Dundee. When its boilers failed the captain stopped the engine, and in a storm the boat drifted and foundered on the rocky island of Big Harcar. Almost immediately the ship broke in half and one half sank. In the early hours of the morning Grace spotted the wreck and survivors on the rock.

Believing  that the weather was too rough for the lifeboat to be able to put out from the mainland at Seahouses, Grace and her father took a wooden rowing boat, a four-man Northumberland cobble, along the leeside of the islands, rowing over a mile through gale force winds and a churning sea. While her father clambered onto the rock to help the survivors on board Grace held the cobble steady, rowing backwards and forwards to prevent it being smashed on the reef. Then they made the slow, punishing journey back to the lighthouse.

The lifeboat had set out from Seahouses, Grace’s brother William Brooks Darling, a fisherman, one of the crew. Arriving after Grace and her father had rescued the nine survivors, they  found only the bodies of two young children and an adult who had died of exposure.

So severe was the weather that the lifeboat crew too returned to the lighthouse. There everyone was obliged  to remain for three days before it was safe to return to shore.

The Victorians were prone to hero worship although the cynosures of their admiration were usually pugnacious men expanding the empire and building colonies. Women generally found favour only in a passive role as “the Angel in the House,” but Grace’s courage and strength captured the popular imagination, helped no doubt  by the fact that the shy, retiring, and modest young woman did not disturb the gender stereotype of women as caregivers.

Grace became a national celebrity, by all accounts uncomfortable in the role, finding herself expected to sit for portraits and feeling obliged to answer the tsunami of letters requesting locks of her hair or scraps of material from her dress. There were also the thank you letters to write in response to the strange gifts proffered by her admirers: the Duke of Northumberland sent a silver teapot, surely of little use in the lighthouse. Boats were even hired locally to take the curious out to Longstone Island to look at her.

Four years later, having contracted tuberculosis, Grace died at the age of only twenty-six, in the place of her birth, her grandparents’ cottage in Bamburgh on the mainland. The unwelcome adulation, or exploitation, continued: soaps, chocolate bars and a rose were named after her. Wordsworth, then Poet Laureate, wrote a tribute; Grace Darling is not one of his finer works.

Grace is buried in St Aidan’s churchyard in Bamburgh, in the family grave. A few yards from the grave an elaborate canopied Victorian funerary monument was erected with a life size stone effigy of Grace holding an oar. Made of Portland Stone it quickly became weathered and was replaced as early as 1885 when the original was moved into the church. There she lies beneath a memorial stained-glass window. In the latter, again clutching an oar, she symbolises Fortitude, an unlikely tall  figure with an abundance of blond hair: Grace was small and dark. She is flanked by Charity holding a heart and Hope with an anchor.

Darling Family Grave in St. Aidan’s Churchyard, Bamburgh
Funerary monument to Grace Darling with life size figure, St. Aidan’s, Bamburgh
The original effigy, moved into the church in 1885

Charity Fortitude Hope

Grace Horsley Darling Born 24 November 1815 Died 20 October 1842

The Wreck of the Forfarshire 7 September 1838

After visiting the church and the graveyard, I crossed the road to the Grace Darling Museum established in 1938, passing her birthplace identified by a plaque. In the museum I viewed, amongst other things: the cobble; clothing which had belonged to Grace; her locket; and an account of her story in Japanese. Here too was the original family gravestone, for this had also weathered and been replaced.

Original Darling family gravestone, now in the museum, with another stained glass image of Grace

I was beginning to feel that the small village of Bamburgh was overdoing it a little, in danger of reducing itself, and Grace, to a theme park. Then a party of primary school children entered the museum, buoyed up on a wave of seamless chatter, fingers and noses pressed to the glass display cases. Finally seated on the floor, barely fidgeting and almost silent under the eye of their teacher, they waited for the museum guide to speak to them. She told them the familiar story of Grace Darling’s bravery; it was a new story to them, but local children, they knew the temper of the sea on their coast and the dangerous rocky islands which pierce it, and they grew quiet and round-eyed.

The RNLI maintains the museum believing that the values of charity and concern for others which lie at the heart of Grace’s story, are mirrored in the selfless altruism which motivates lifeboat crews today, and they hope through telling the story to inspire others to support their work.

Bamburgh is no theme park. It is an ordinary village, albeit huddled beside an extraordinary castle, located on a spectacularly beautiful part of the Northumberland coast. But for all its beauty the sea can be cruel and capricious, and Bamburgh has a very special story to tell about a very brave woman who epitomised the fortitude, tenacity, and generosity of spirit  which has inspired RNLI crews for two hundred years.

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Watery Tales from Winchester

Saint Swithun

Saint Swithun’s was the first watery tale to attach itself to Winchester Cathedral. The Anglo-Saxon bishop had putatively requested a burial outside the old church, “subject to the feet of passersby and to rain drops pouring from on high.” A century later however his body was transferred indoors, first to the Old Minster and later to the new Norman Cathedral. A heavy rainstorm on the day the body was moved supposedly lasted for forty days, and a popular myth developed  that rain on St. Swithun’s Day, 15 July, would presage rain for the next forty days: St. Swithun expressing his displeasure at the move.

Nonetheless his tomb became a popular site of pilgrimage. The monks, required to rush to the church to celebrate every miracle which  allegedly occurred, found themselves having to get up several times during the night such was the volume of these preternatural events. He remains the recommended saint for those praying for a drought.

A modern monument to St. Swithun stands on the site of his final shrine which was demolished in 1538 during the English Reformation. At this time his relics disappeared.
Prior to 1476 Swithun’s relics were displayed on a feretory platform behind the high altar and the “Holy Hole,” still visible here, allowed pilgrims to crawl beneath the platform to be closer to the curative powers emanating from the saint’s remains.

King Canute

Most of us remember only one thing about King Canute: the apocryphal aqueous anecdote which has him sitting on his throne beside the sea unsuccessfully commanding the incoming tide to halt. According to his biographers’ sympathies this indicated either humility, as he sought to illustrate the limits of his secular power to his sycophantic courtiers, or extraordinary hubris in thinking he had a god like control over nature. Rival traditions locate this thalassic legend in various places. Bosham in Sussex is one contender.

When the tide comes in at Bosham…
…the road along the foreshore disappears…
…and the turning for the church requires careful negotiation.
You can only wait

The presence of the grave of Canute’s eight year old daughter in the Bosham church lends credence to the town’s claims.

The remains of Canute’s daughter who drowned in the millstream at Bosham

Canute himself however lies in a colourful mortuary chest in Winchester Cathedral. Around him other chests contain the remains of Saxon Kings whose lands he conquered in 1016. The Saxons may be even closer to the Dane than they would have chosen, for the chests were ransacked and their contents scattered during the English Civil War. It is unlikely that the comingled bones were all replaced in the correct chests.

Mortuary chest of Canute
Canute is joined by Saxon Kings…
… their mortuary chests located on the presbytery screens.

William Walker

My third story concerns a diver held in high esteem in Winchester – and this is a true story.

In the early twentieth century Winchester Cathedral was in danger of collapse. The Cathedral was built by the Normans who demolished both the Old and the New Saxon Minsters and replaced their bishops with men more sympathetic to the new regime. In the fourteenth century William of Wykeham deployed his master mason to remodel the Norman nave in Perpendicular Gothic.

But the foundations of this great cathedral were unsound. Constructed on a floating raft of beech trees, which were rotting by the twentieth century, the cathedral was sinking into the peaty soil beneath and listing to the southeast. The walls were bulging, and stone was falling. Cracks in the  vaulted ceiling and the walls were variously described as large enough for owls to nest or a small child to crawl into. Trenches were dug under the walls to replace the rotten foundations with concrete, but the high-water table meant that they flooded before any reinforcing could be done. An attempt to pump out the groundwater accelerated the destabilisation of the foundations, and the building sank further. Collapse seemed imminent.

William Walker, a deep-sea diver, trained at Portsmouth dockyard, was called in. Between 1906-1911 he worked for six hours a day, descending into the flooded trenches and diving under the cathedral building. At a depth of six metres, in water rendered septic by the presence of bodies and graves, in complete darkness since the sediment suspended in the water rendered it impenetrable to light, Walker worked by touch. He dug out the rotten foundations and put concrete underneath the walls.

The task required 25,800 bags of cement and 114,900 concrete blocks. Walker’s diving suit weighed 91kg even when it was dry and took so long to put on and off that he removed only the helmet to eat his lunch and smoke his pipe. At the weekend he would cycle home to south London, a round trip of 150 miles.

When Walker had completed his work the groundwater was pumped out without fear of the walls collapsing, and bricklayers were able to restore the damaged walls. The highwater table still causes the Norman crypt to flood in winter, and the waters reach the knees of Anthony Gormley’s life size statue which lives down there, but the shored-up cathedral walls stand firm.

William Walker died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. There is a bust of him in the cathedral and a much more attractive one in the cathedral garden; in both he wears his diver’s suit and in the former he holds his helmet.

and a far more attractive image in the cathedral garden

Walker is buried in the cemetery at Elmer’s End near his south London home. Ironically, the cross marking his grave became unstable in recent years and has been laid flat. A new slate slab bears an engraving of the diver  and recalls his achievement.

The new slate records his achievement

WILLIAM WALKER

M.V.O.

1869-1918

The diver who with

his own hands saved

Winchester Cathedral

But, like Christopher Wren and St. Paul’s, you can see William Walker’s  real memorial if you stand in the nave of Winchester Cathedral and look around you.

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The Royal National Lifeboat Institution: Compassion, Bravery, and Tragedy

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. It was founded in the London Tavern in Bishopsgate on 4 March 1824. At this time around 1,800 ships a year were wrecked on the coasts of Britain and Ireland. Under the aegis of the RNLI, lifeboat stations were strung around the coasts like jewels, but these were not gaudy, meretricious, coloured stones, but plain shelters housing sturdy boats ready to put to sea in the worst of conditions.

Their volunteer crews have saved nearly 150,000 lives, an average of two per day since its inception. But this comes at a cost and more than six hundred people have died in the service of the RNLI. Graves and memorials in coastal towns and villages bear witness to tragedies. One story stands for them all.

The historic fishing village of Mousehole in the southwest of Cornwall is a fairytale place. Huddled cottages of Lamorna granite tumble down to the perfect little harbour once home to the great pilchard fleets. There are seals swimming off the coast and a tidal pool for wild sea swimming. The summer brings holiday makers and in winter the Mousehole Harbour Lights draw crowds from early December to the first week of January. But every year on the 19 December the lights are dimmed in memory of the crew of the Penlee lifeboat, the Solomon Browne.

On the 19 December 1981, the Union Star was sailing from Holland to Ireland with a cargo of agricultural fertiliser. On board were the captain, four crew members, the captain’s wife and their two daughters. Around 6pm the ship’s engines failed, and the fuel system became contaminated with water. As rough seas and powerful winds blew the coaster towards the dangerous shore, she lost one of her anchors. The Penlee lifeboat launched in a hurricane, ploughing against ninety knot winds and 18m waves as it struggled to came alongside the coaster. Once in position, the crew of the Solomon Browne waited to catch people as they jumped for the lifeboat. They radioed to the coastguard that they had rescued four of the eight people, but as they made a final desperate attempt to save the others, radio contact was lost. Ten minutes later the lights of the Solomon Browne disappeared. In the morning wreck debris from both boats washed ashore.  (“The 1981 Penlee Lifeboat Disaster – RNLI History”)

The sea beyond Mousehole harbour may look unthreatening,
but a memorial in the church above the village recalls the tragedy of the Solomon Browne

For all its charm and beauty there is a sadness about Mousehole as in all those towns and villages which have lost brave crews to the sea. The compassion and selfless courage which has led generations of volunteers, often from the same families, to risk their own lives to help others, inspires a measure of love and admiration for the RNLI which is seldom equalled by any other institution.

So, it was sickening  when in 2021 Nigel Farage condemned the RNLI for  rescuing asylum seekers trying to reach the UK in small boats, claiming that the lifeboats were providing “a taxi service” for illegal migrants. Influenced by his demagoguery and the moral panic about migration stirred up by the right-wing press, some members of the public verbally abused rescuers bringing people to safety, others tried to prevent the RNLI launching a rescue boat in Hastings just days before twenty-seven people drowned in the Channel.

Priti Patel, then Home Secretary, and sharing Farage’s views, introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill which sought not only to make it illegal for asylum seekers to enter the UK without permission, but also to make it a criminal offence “to facilitate the entry of asylum seekers” by taking them ashore – an offence which was to carry a maximum sentence of 14 years.

But reaction was swift. The RNLI released harrowing footage of a sea rescue and volunteers detailed the desperate state of asylum seekers in overcrowded boats at risk of drowning in the Channel.

The RNLI chief executive, Mark Dowie, said that the lifeboat service had always rescued whoever needed their help: “We were pulling German airmen out of the Channel in the Second World War.” The RNLI, he emphasised, exists to save lives at sea without judgment. They do not question why people get into trouble, do not ask who they are or where they are from.

Subsequently, the RNLI’s fund raising, with money coming from one off payments, new supporters, and increases in regular contributions, reached £200,000 in a single day, thirty times the usual average, and a record year of donations followed.

Some quirky fundraising campaigns ensued. Partly in jest, Simon Harris sought to raise money for a new RNLI hovercraft to be called the Flying Farage. Donations reached £238,130 of its target £250,000 this Easter weekend. Harris has made clear that the specific proposal was tongue in cheek and that all money raised will go directly to the RNLI to be spent at their discretion.

Recently the local shop owner on the island of Sanday in the Orkneys accidentally ordered eighty cases of Easter eggs instead of eighty eggs. He organised a raffle in aid of the RNLI to get rid of some of the 640 excess eggs. By Maundy Thursday this had raised over £3,000, and the food company producing  the eggs has agreed to match the final total.

Meanwhile,under pressure, and with bad grace, the government accepted an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill in December 2021. The RNLI was exempted, if people’s lives were in danger, from laws criminalising anyone helping asylum seekers to enter the UK.

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