Henry Blogg: history of the legendary RNLI lifeboatman

During his long career as coxswain of Cromer’s lifeboat, Norfolk fisherman Henry Blogg braved hundreds of dangerous rescue missions to save the lives of 873 stricken seafarers. 

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The winter of 1917 was one of the worst to strike the seaside town of Cromer. High on the cliffs, lashed by hail and sleet, Henry Blogg watched a small steamer, Pyrin, struggling in a January gale. So began a 14-hour rescue that made a taciturn Norfolk fisherman the most celebrated lifeboatman in the land.

Blogg was 40 and coxswain of Cromer’s lifeboat. Young men were away at war, so his volunteer crew of 17 were mostly in their 50s and 60s. Pyrin was just two miles out but it took Blogg’s men three hours of rowing – there were no engines – into an icy north-westerly to save the lives of 16 men.

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Henry Blogg (1876 – 1954), the coxswain of the Cromer lifeboat, UK, circa 1940. He was awarded the RNLI gold medal three times/Credit: Getty

But their job was not done. As Blogg and his weary crew unpeeled their soaking oilskins, they were called to help a Swedish ship, Fernebo, struck by a mine and split in two. Blogg and his crew again launched their boat but the raging sea drove them back on to the beach. By now, half of Fernebo had been driven aground off Cromer. Despite night falling, Blogg took his boat out for a third time, lanterns swinging. This time, the sea smashed up eight of their oars, forcing him back to shore again. Blogg called for spare oars as hundreds gathered to watch from the cliffs. The rowing boat looked as if it would be wrecked against the stricken ship but Blogg eventually rescued 11 men. Great cheers greeted his return at 1am.

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25th October 1945: Coxwain Robert Cross (left) of The Humber and Coxswain Henry Blogg of Cromer attend a medal ceremony for lifeboat coxwain/Credit: Getty

For watching schoolchildren, Blogg was a hero, alongside another Norfolk sailor: Horatio Nelson. The rescue won Blogg the first of three gold medals, the RNLI’s highest award. He became Britain’s most decorated lifeboatman, a (reluctant) celebrity who gave just one public speech but carried out 387 rescues and helped save 873 lives, retiring – 11 years late – in 1947.

His most renowned rescue illustrated what his nephew, Henry ‘Shrimp’ Davies, considered his greatest quality: his stubbornness. “He’d never give in,” said Davies of his uncle in a 1962 film. “If he started a job, it had to be done.”

Blogg was not an obvious hero. Born in 1876, he endured the stigma of being illegitimate (he took his mother Ellen’s surname), was bullied at school and was described as “a spindle-shanked lad” who never took part in games. He never learned to swim.

Aged 11, he began working on his stepfather’s crab boat, also hiring out his stepfather’s bathing machines, bathing dresses, towels and deckchairs. While Cromer was popular in summer, in winter seafarers feared its old name – the Devil’s Throat. Ships plying the busy route between London, Humberside and the Tyne were often pushed by the vicious north winds into Cromer’s cliffs, while offshore sandbanks, particularly Haisborough Sands, abruptly surfaced at low tides and made currents capricious.

Blogg’s stepfather was coxswain of Cromer’s lifeboat, which Blogg joined aged 18. Aged 33, he was chosen by the crew as their new leader. He also proved adept with motorised lifeboats, which were introduced from 1923. He was a gritty survivor – washed into the sea during one abortive rescue in 1941, he returned with his crew at 3am the next day to save 44 seamen.

But his private life was tinged with tragedy. His son died as a baby and his daughter Queenie, who watched out for him when he went to sea, died aged 27. “That just about broke Henry’s heart,” said Davies, who recalled that his uncle had previously sworn, “almost every sentence” at sea, but, after his daughter’s death, never swore again.

Blogg rarely discussed his exploits, even with his wife, Annie, and kept his medals in his sideboard drawer.
But his nephew thinks he quietly enjoyed his celebrity and relished chatting with holidaymakers. He died in 1957 but the Henry Blogg Museum in Cromer remembers his heroism, and the bravery of other lifeboatmen who saved so many lives at sea.

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Main image: 25th October 1945: Seven lifeboat coxswains at the first annual meeting of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution held since 1940. They are to be decorated with gold medals for outstanding war service. From left to right: Robert Cross, Henry Blogg, William H Bennisom, John MacLean, William Gammon and Patrick Murphy. (Photo by William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)