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THE DEAL BOATMEN

Where’er in ambush lurk the fatal sands,
They claim the danger.

Ever since fleets anchored in the Downs, the requirements of the great number of men on board, as well as the needs of the vessels, would have a tendency to maintain the supply of skilled and hardy boatmen to meet those needs. Pritchard, in his History of Deal, which is a mine of interesting information, gives a sketch of events and battles in the Downs since 1063. Tostig, Godwin, and Harold are noticed; sea fights between the French and English in the Downs from 1215 are described; the battles of Van Tromp and Blake in the Downs, and many other interesting historical events, are given in his book, as well as incidents connected with the Deal boatmen.

With the decay and silting up of Sandwich Haven the Downs became still more a place of ships, and thus naturally was still more developed the race of Deal boatmen, who were, and are to the present time, daily accustomed to launch and land through the surf which runs in rough weather on their open beach; and whose avocation was to pilot the vessels anchoring in or leaving the Downs, and to help those in distress on the Goodwin Sands.

Like their descendants now, who are seen daily in crowds lounging round the capstans, the night was most frequently their time of effort. In the day they were resting ‘longshore’ fashion, unless, of course, their keen sailor sight saw anywhere even on the distant horizon a chance of a ‘hovel.’ Ever on the look-out in case of need, galleys, sharp as a shark, and luggers full of men, would rush down the beach into the sea in less time than it has taken to write this sentence.

But until the necessity for action arose a stranger, looking at the apparently idling men, with their far-away gazings seaward, would naturally say, ‘What a lazy set of fellows!’ as has actually been said to me of the very men who I knew had been all night in the lifeboat, and whose faces were tanned and salted with the ocean brine.

Justly or unjustly, in olden times the Deal boatmen were accused of rapacity. But the poor fellows knew no better Christian love and Christian charity seem to have slept in those days, and no man cared for the moral elevation of the wild daring fellows. True indeed, they were accused of lending to vessels in distress a ‘predatory succour’ more ruinous to them than the angry elements which assailed them. In 1705 a charge of this kind was made by Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, and was sternly repelled by the Mayor and Corporation of Deal; and Mr. Pritchard mentions that only one charge of plundering wrecks was made in the present century, in the year 1807; and the verdict of ‘Guilty’ was eventually and deservedly followed by the pardon of the Crown.

With the increase of the shipping of this country, and the naval wars of the early part of the nineteenth century, the numbers and fame of the Deal boatmen increased, until their skill, bravery, and humanity were celebrated all over the world. In those times, and even recently, the Deal boatmen, including in that title the men of Walmer and Kingsdown, were said to number over 1000 men; and as there were no lightships around the Goodwin Sands till the end of the eighteenth century, there were vessels lost on them almost daily, and there were daily salvage jobs or ‘hovels’ and rescues of despairing crews; and what with the trade with the men-of-war, and the piloting and berthing of ships, there were abundant employment and much salvage for all the boatmen.

The dress of the boatmen in those days, i.e. their ’longshore toggery’ and there are still among the older men a few, a very few survivals was finished off by tall hats and pumps; and in answer to my query ‘why they formerly always wore those pumps?’ I was told, ’’Cos they was always a dancin’ in them days’ doubtless with Jane and Bess and black-eyed Susan.

There was smuggling, too, of spirits and tobacco, and all kinds of devices for concealing the contraband articles. Not very many years ago boats lay on Deal beach with hollow masts to hold tea then an expensive luxury, and fitted with boxes and lockers having false bottoms, and all manner of smuggling contrivances.

It was hard to persuade those wild, daring men that there was anything wrong in smuggling the articles they had honestly purchased with their own money.

‘There’s nothing in the Bible against smuggling!’ said one of them to a clerical friend of mine, who aptly replied: ’Render therefore unto Cæsar the things that be Caesar’s, and unto God the things that be God’s.’

‘Is it so? you’re right,’ the simple-minded boatman replied; ’no more smuggling after this day for me!’ And there never was.

But that which has given the Deal boatmen a niche in the temple of fame and made them a part and parcel of our ‘rough island story,’ is their heroic rescues and their triumphs over all the terrors of the Goodwin Sands.

There was no lightship on or near the Goodwin Sands till 1795, when one was placed on the North Sand Head. In 1809 the Gull lightship, and in 1832 the South Sand Head lightships, were added, and the placing of the East Goodwin lightship in 1874 was one of the greatest boons conferred on the mariners of England in our times.

It is hard even now sometimes to avoid the deadly Goodwins, but what it must have been in the awful darkness of winter midnights which brooded over them in the early part of this century is beyond description.

Nor was there a lifeboat stationed at Deal until the year 1865. Before that time the Deal luggers attempted the work of rescue on the Goodwin Sands. In those days all Deal and Walmer beach was full of those wonderful sea-boats hauled up on the shingle, while their mizzen booms almost ran into the houses on the opposite side of the roadway. The skill and daring of those brave boatmen were beyond praise. Let me give in more detail the incident alluded to in the account of the Ganges.

Fifty-two years ago, one stormy morning, a young Deal boatman was going to be married, and the church bells were ringing for the ceremony, when suddenly there was seen away to the southward and eastward a little schooner struggling to live in the breakers, or rather on the edge of the breakers, on the Goodwins. The Mariner lugger was lying on the beach of Deal, and there being no lifeboat in those days a rush of eager men was made to get a place in the lugger, and amongst them, carried away by the desire to do and to save, was the intended bridegroom.

By the time they plunged into the awful sea on the sands the schooner had struck, and was thumping farther into the sands, sails flying wildly about and the foremast gone. The crew, over whom the sea was flying, were clustered in the main rigging. It was a service of the most awful danger, and the lugger men, well aware that it was a matter of life and death, put the question to each other, ’What do you say, my lads; shall we try it?’ ‘Yes! Yes!’ and then one and all shouted, ‘Yes! We’ll have those people out of her!’ and they ran for the drifting, drowning little Irish schooner. They did not dare to anchor a lifeboat could have done so, but for them it would have been certain death and as they approached the vessel and swept past her they shouted to the crew in distress, ‘Jump for your lives.’

They jumped for life, as the lugger rose on the snowy crest of a breaker, and not a man missed his mark. All being rescued, they again fought back through the broken water, and when they reached Deal beach they were met by hundreds of their enthusiastic fellow townsmen, who by main force dragged the great twenty-ton lugger out of the water and far up the steep beach. The interrupted marriage was very soon afterwards carried out, and the deserving pair are alive and well, by God’s mercy, to this day.

The luggers are about forty feet long and thirteen feet beam, more or less. The smaller luggers are called ‘cats.’ There is a forecastle or ‘forepeak’ in the luggers where you can comfortably sleep that is, if you are able to sleep in such surroundings, and if the anguish of sea-sickness is absent. I once visited in one of these luggers, lost at sea with two of her crew on November 11, 1891, the distant Royal Sovereign and Varne lightships, and had a most happy three days’ cruise.

There is a movable ‘caboose’ in the ‘cats’ right amidships, in which three or four men packed close side by side can lie; but if you want to turn you must wake up the rest of the company and turn all together so visitors to Deal are informed. These large boats are lugger-rigged, carrying the foremast well forward, and sometimes, but very rarely, like the French châsse-marées, a mainmast also, with a maintopsail, as well, of course, as the mizzen behind. The mainmast is now hardly ever used, being inconvenient for getting alongside the shipping, and therefore there only survive the foremast and mizzen, the mainmast being developed out of existence.

The luggers are splendid sea-boats, and it is a fine sight to see one of them crowded with men and close-reefed cruising about the Downs ‘hovelling’ or ‘on the look out’ for a job in a great gale. While ships are parting their anchors and flying signals of distress, the luggers, supplying their wants or putting pilots on board, wheel and sweep round them like sea-birds on the wing.

As I write these lines, a great gale of wind from the S.S.W. is blowing, and it was a thrilling sight this morning at 11 a.m. to watch the Albert Victor lugger launched with twenty-three men on board, in the tremendous sea breaking over the Downs. Coming ashore later, on a giant roller, the wave burst into awful masses of towering foam, so high above and around the lugger that for an instant she was out of sight, overwhelmed, and the crowds cried, ‘She’s lost!’ but upwards she rose again on the crest of the following billow, and with the speed of an arrow flew to the land on this mighty shooting sea.

Just at the same moment as the lugger came ashore the bold coxswain of the North Deal lifeboat launched with a gallant crew to the rescue of a despairing vessel, the details of which service are found below.

There is no harbour at Deal, and all boats are heaved up the steep shingly beach, fifty or sixty yards from the water’s edge, by a capstan and capstan bars, which, when a lugger is hove up, are manned by twenty or thirty men. When hauled up thus to their position the boats are held fast on the inclined plane on which they rest by a stern chain rove through a hole in the keel called the ‘ruffles.’ This chain is fastened by a ‘trigger,’ and when next the lugger is to be launched great flat blocks of wood called ‘skids,’ which are always well greased, are laid down in front of her stem, her crew climb on board, the mizzen is set, and the trigger is let go. By her own impetus the lugger rushes down the steep slope on the slippery skids into the sea. Even when a heavy sea is beating right on shore, the force acquired by the rush is sufficient to drive her safely into deep water. Lest too heavy a surf or any unforeseen accident should prevent this, a cable called a ‘haul-off warp’ is made fast to an anchor moored out far, by which the lugger men, if need arise, haul their boat out beyond the shallow water. The arrangements above described are exactly those adopted by the lifeboats, which are also lugger-rigged, and being almost identical in their rig are singularly familiar to Deal men. The introduction of steam has diminished greatly the number of the luggers, as fewer vessels than formerly wait in the Downs, and there is less demand for the services of the boatmen.

There was formerly another class of Deal boats, the forty-feet smuggling boats of sixty or seventy years ago. The length, flat floor, and sharpness of those open boats, together with the enormous press of sail they carried, enabled them often to escape the revenue vessels by sheer speed, and to land their casks of brandy or to float them up Sandwich River in the darkness, and then run back empty to France for more. In the ‘good old times’ those piratical-looking craft would pick up a long thirty-feet baulk of timber at sea timber vessels from the Baltic or coming across the Atlantic often lose some of their deck-load and when engaged in towing it ashore would be pounced upon by the revenue officers, who would only find, to their own discomfiture, amidst the hearty ‘guffaws’ of the boatmen, that the latter were merely trying to earn ‘salvage’ by towing the timber ashore.

A little closer search would have revealed that the innocent-looking baulk of timber was hollow from end to end, and was full of lace, tobacco, cases of schnapps, ‘square face,’ brandy, and silks. There is little or no smuggling now, and the little that there is, is almost forced on the men by foreign vessels.

Perhaps four boatmen have been out all night looking for a job in their galley punt. At morning dawn they find a captain who employs them to get his ship a good berth, or to take him to the Ness. Perhaps the captain says and this is an actual case in imperfect English, ’I have no money to pay you, but I have forty pounds of tobacco, vill you take dat? Or vill you have it in ze part payment?’ The boatmen consult; hungry children and sometimes reproachful wives wait at home for money to purchase the morning meal. ‘Shall we chance it?’ say they. They take the tobacco, and the first coastguardsman ashore takes them, tobacco and all, before the magistrates, and I sometimes have been sent for to the ‘lock-up,’ to find three or four misguided fellows in the grasp of the law of their country, which poverty and opportunity and temptation have led them to violate.

At present a large number of galley punts lie on Deal beach. These boats carry one lugsail on a mast shipped well amidships. These boats vary in size from twenty-one feet to thirty feet in length, and seven feet beam, and as the Mission boat which I have steered for thirteen years, as Missions to Seamen Chaplain for the Downs, is a small galley punt, I take a peculiar interest in their rig and behaviour.

The galley punts are powerful seaboats; when close reefed can stand a great deal of heavy weather, and are the marvel of the vessels in distress which they succour.

All the Deal boats, the lifeboats of course excepted, are clinker built and of yellow colour, the natural elm being only varnished. And it is fine to see on a stormy day the splendid way in which they are handled, visible one moment on the crest and the next hidden in the trough of a wave, or launched or beached on the open shingle in some towering sea.

I have been breathless with anxiety as I have watched the launch of these boats into a heavy sea with a long dreadful recoil, but the landing is still more dangerous.

If you wait long enough when launching, you can get a smooth, or a comparatively smooth, sea. I have sometimes waited ten minutes and then the command is given ‘Let her go,’ and the boat is hurled into the racing curl of some green sea.

Sometimes the sea is too heavy for landing, and the galley punts lie off skimming about for hours. Sometimes if the weather looks threatening it is best to come at once, and then, supposing a heavy easterly sea, you must clap on a press of sail to drive the boat. You get ready a bow painter and a stern rope, and the boat, like a bolt set free, flies to the land. Very probably she takes a ‘shooter,’ that is, gets her nose down and her stern and rudder high into the air, and, all hands sitting aft, she is carried along amidst the hiss and burst of the very crest of the galloping billow. Fortunate are they if this wave holds the boat till she is thrown high up the beach, broadside on, for at the last minute the helm must be put up or down, to get the boat to lie along the shore, but only at the very last minute otherwise danger for the crew! I have known a boat landing, to capsize and catch the men underneath, and I have been myself tolerably near the same danger.

Three or four men man these galley punts, and the hardships and perils they encounter in the earning of their livelihood are great. The men are sometimes, even in winter time, three days away in these open boats, sleeping on the bare boards or ballast bags and wrapped in a sail.

They cruise to the west to put one of their number on board some homeward-bound vessel as ‘North Sea pilot,’ or they cruise to the north and up the Thames as far as Gravesend, a distance of eighty miles, to get hold of some outward-bound vessel with a pilot on board, which pilot is willing to pay the boatmen a sovereign for putting him ashore from the Downs, and they are towed behind the vessel, probably a fast steamer, for eighty miles to Deal and the Downs. I have done this and it is a curious experience in summer, but to be towed in the teeth of a north-easterly snowstorm from Gravesend to the Downs is quite another thing; but it is the common experience of the Deal boatmen. And every day in winter they hover off Deal in their splendid galley punts, rightly called ‘knock-toes,’ for the poor fellows’ hands and feet are often semi-frozen, to take a pilot out of some outward-bound steamer going at the rate of ten or fifteen knots an hour. It means at the outside about 5_s_. per man; perhaps they have earned nothing for a week, and hungry but dauntless they are determined to get hold of that steamer, if men can do it. On the steamer comes full speed right end on at them. The Deal men shoot at her under press of canvas, haul down sail, and lay their boat in the same direction as the flying steamship, which often never slackens her speed the least bit. As all this must be done in an instant, or pale death stares them in the face, it is done with wonderful speed and skill. While a man with a boat-hook, to which a long ‘towing-line’ is attached, stands in the bow of the galley punt and hooks it into anything he can catch, perhaps the bight of a rope hung over the steamer’s side, the steersman has for his own and his comrades’ lives to steer his best and to keep his boat clear of the steamer’s sides, and of her deadly propeller revolving astern, while the bowman pays out his towing-line, and others see it is all clear, and another takes a turn of it round a thwart.

The steamer is ‘hooked,’ and, fast as she flies ahead, the galley punt falls astern, this time, thank God, clear of the ‘fan,’ into the boiling wake of the steamer, and at last she feels the tremendous jerk such a jerk as would tear an oak tree from its roots of the tightening tow-rope.

Then the boat, with her stem high in the air, for so boats tow best, and all hands aft, and smothered in flying spray, is swept away with the steamer as far perhaps as Dover, where the pilot wants to land. Then the steam is eased off and the vessel stopped, but hardly ever for the Deal men.

This ‘hooking’ of steamers going at full speed is most dangerous, and often causes loss of life and poor men’s property their boats and boats’ gear their all. Sometimes a kindly disposed captain eases his speed down. I have heard the boatmen talking together, as their keen eyes discerned a steamer far off, and could even then pronounce as to the ‘line’ and individuality of the steamer: ’That’s a blue-funnelled China boat she’s bound through the Canal: he’s a gentleman, he is; he always eases down to ten knots for us Deal men.’

Even at ten-knot speed the danger is very great, and it is marvellous more accidents do not occur, in spite of the coolness and skill of the boatmen. Accidents do occur too frequently. The last fatal accident happened to a daring young fellow who had run his boat about six feet too close to a fast steamer; six feet short of where he put her would have meant safety, but as it was, the steamer cut her in two and he was drowned with his comrade, one man out of three alone being saved. Just half an hour before he had waved ‘good-bye!’ to his young wife as he ran to the beach.

Another boat has her side torn out by a blow from one of the propeller’s fans, and goes down carrying the men deep with her; one is saved after having almost crossed the border, and I shall long remember my interview with that man just after he was brought ashore, appalled with the sense of the nearness of the spirit land, and just as if he had had a revelation his gratitude, his convulsive sobs, his penitence. Another man has his leg or his arm caught by the tow-rope as it is paid out to the flying steamer; in one man’s case the keen axe is just used in time to cut the line as it smokes over the gunwale before the coil tears his leg off; in another’s case the awful pull of the rope fractured the arm lengthways and not by a cross fracture, and the bone never united after the most painful operations.

Owners and captains and officers of steamships, for God’s sake, ease down your speed when your poor sailor brethren, the gallant Deal boatmen who man the lifeboats, are struggling to hook your mighty steamships! Ease down a bit, gentlemen, and let the men earn something for the wives and children at home without having to pay for their efforts with their precious lives!

The very same men who work the galley punts I have just described are the ‘hovellers’ in the great luggers when the tempest drives the smaller boats ashore, and they also are the same men who, in times of greater and extremer need, answer so nobly to the summons of the lifeboat bell.

Pritchard’s most interesting chapter, in which the best authorities are quoted at length, is convincing that the word ‘hoveller’ is derived from hobelier (hobbe, [Greek] hippos, Gaelic coppal) and signifies ‘a coast watchman,’ or ‘look-out man,’ who, by horse (hobbe) or afoot, ran from beacon to beacon with the alarm of the enemies’ approach, when, ’with a loose rein and bloody spur rode inland many a post.’ Certainly nothing better describes the Deal boatmen’s occupation for long hours of day and night than the expression so well known in Deal, ‘on the look-out,’ and which thus appears to be equivalent to ‘hovelling.’

In 1864 the first lifeboat of the locality was placed in Walmer by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. In 1865 another lifeboat was placed in North Deal, a cotton ship with all hands having been lost on the southern part of the Goodwins in a gale from the N.N.E., which unfortunately the Walmer lifeboat, being too far to leeward, was unable to fetch in that wind with a lee tide.

This splendid lifeboat was called the Van Cook, after its donor, and was very soon afterwards summoned to the rescue for the first time.

It was blowing ‘great guns and marline-spikes’ from the S.S.W. with tremendous sea on Fe, 1865, when there was seen in the rifts of the storm a full-rigged ship on the Goodwin Sands. The lifeboat bell was rung, a crew was obtained, and the men in their new and untried lifeboat made her first, but not their first, daring attempt at rescue. A few moments before the Deal lifeboat, there launched from the south part of Deal one of the powerful luggers which lay there, owned by Mr. Spears, who himself was aboard; and the lugger was on this occasion steered by John Bailey. The Walmer lifeboat also bravely launched, and the three made for the wrecked vessel.

The lugger, being first, began the attempt, and in spite of the risk (for one really heavy sea breaking into her would have sent her to the bottom) went into the breakers. But the lugger, rightly named England’s Glory and the names of the luggers are admirably chosen, for example, The Guiding Star, Friend of All Nations, Briton’s Pride, and Seaman’s Hope seeing a powerful friend behind her in the shape of the lifeboat, stood on into the surf of the Goodwins to aid in saving life, and also for a ‘hovel,’ in the hope of saving the vessel.

It was dangerous in the extreme for the lugger, but, as the men said, ’They was that daring in them days, and they seed so much money a-staring them in the face, in a manner o’ speaking, on board that there wessel, that they was set on it.’

And when Deal boatmen are ‘set on it,’ they can do much.

When the lugger fetched to windward of the vessel she wore down on her before the wind. She did not dare to anchor; had she done so, she would have been filled and gone down in five minutes, so hauling down her foresail to slacken her speed, she shot past the vessel as close as she dared, and as she flew by, six of the crew jumped at the rigging of the wreck, and actually caught it and got on board. The Walmer lifeboat sailed at the vessel and tried to luff up to her, hauling down her foresail, but the lifeboat had not ‘way’ enough, and missed the vessel altogether, being driven helplessly to leeward, whence it was impossible to return.

In increasing storm and sea, more furious as the tide rose, on came the Deal lifeboat, the Van Cook, Wilds and Roberts (the latter now coxswain in place of Wilds) steering. They anchored, and veering out their cable drifted down to the wreck; then six of the lifeboatmen also sprang to the rigging of the heeling wreck, and the lifeboat sheered off for safety.

The wreck was lying head to the north and with a list to starboard. Heavy rollers struck her and broke, flying in blinding clouds of spray high as her foreyard, coming down in thunder on her deck, so that it seemed impossible that men could work on that wave-beaten plane. She was also lifted by each wave and hammered over the sand into shallower water, so that the drenched and buffeted lifeboatmen had to lift anchor and follow the drifting vessel in the lifeboat, and again drop anchor and veer down as before. All this time three powerful steam-tugs were waiting in deep water to help the vessel, but they dared not come into the surf where the lifeboat lay.

To stop the drift of the wrecked Iron Crown was her only chance of safety, and it would have probably ruined all had they dropped anchors from the vessel’s bows, as she would have drifted over them and forced them into her bottom. The Deal men, therefore, with seamanlike skill and resource, swung a kedge anchor clear of the vessel high up from her foreyard, and as the vessel drifted the kedge bit, and the bows of the vessel little by little came up to the sea, when her other anchors were let go, and in a few minutes held fast; then with a mighty cheer from the Deal men lifeboatmen and lugger’s crew all together the Iron Crown half an hour afterwards was floated by the rising tide on the very top of the fateful sands; her hawser was brought to the waiting tug-boats, and she was towed ship, cargo, and crew all saved into the shelter of the Downs.

The names of this the first crew of the Deal lifeboat are given below, and their gallant deed was the forerunner of a long and splendid series of rescues, no less than 358 lives having been saved, including such cases as the Iron Crown, by the North Deal lifeboat and her gallant crew, and counting 93 lives saved by the Walmer lifeboat Centurion, and 101 lives saved by the Kingsdown lifeboat Sabina, a total of 552 lives have been saved on the Goodwin Sands.

The next venture of the Deal lifeboat was not so fortunate. It was made to the schooner Peerless, wrecked in Trinity Bay, in the very heart of the Goodwins. The men were lashed in the rigging, and the sea was flying over them, or rather at them; but all managed to get into the lifeboat except one poor lad who was on his first voyage. He died while lashed on the foreyard, and was brought down thence by Ashenden, who bravely mounted the rigging and carried down the dead lad with the sea-foam on his lips. Among the rescuers of the Peerless crew were Ashenden, named above, Stephen Wilds (for many years my own comrade in the Mission Boat), brave old Robert Wilds, Horrick, Richard Roberts, and ten others.

I have told of the first rescue effected by the Deal lifeboat let me describe one of the last noble deeds of mercy done on November 11, 1891, during an awful gale then blowing. In the morning of the day two luggers launched to help vessels in distress, but such was the fury of the gale, and so mountainous was the sea, that the luggers were themselves overpowered, and had to anchor in such shelter as they could get.

At 2 p.m., tiles flying in the streets, and houses being unroofed, it was most difficult to keep one’s feet; crowds of Deal boatmen in sou’-westers and oilskins were ready round the lifeboat, and in the gaps of the driving rain and in the smoking drifts of the howling squalls which tore over the sea, they saw that a small vessel which had anchored inside the Brake Sand about two miles off the mainland had parted her anchors, and, being helpless and without sails, was drifting towards and outwards to the Brake.

Then the Deal lifeboat was off to the rescue, and with eighteen men in her, three being extra and special hands on this dangerous occasion, launched into a terrible sea, grand but furious beyond description. Hurled down Deal beach by her weight, the lifeboat was buried in a wild smother, and the next minute was left dry on the beach by the ghastly recoil. The coming breaker floated her, and she swung to her haul-off warp.

Then they set her close-reefed storm foresail and took her mizzen off. Soon after an ominous crack, loud and clear, was heard in her foremast, and such was the force of the gale that Roberts the same brave man who, having been second coxswain and in the lifeboat in the rescue of the Iron Crown above described in 1865, on this perilous day in 1891 again headed his brave comrades as coxswain, with his old friend and brother in arms, so to speak, E. Hanger, as second coxswain hauled down the foresail and set the small mizzen close-reefed on the foremast, and even then the great lifeboat was nearly blown out of the water.

With unbounded confidence in their splendid lifeboat, under this sail, and indeed they can only work their weighty lifeboat under sail, they literally flew before the blast into the terrific surf on the Brake Sand, six men being required to steer her!

By this time the little vessel named The Thistle had struck the Sand, but not heavily enough to break her in pieces, and hurled forwards by a great roller, she grated and struck, and then was hurled forwards again, seas breaking over her and her hapless crew. So thick was the air with the sea spray carried along in smoking spindrifts that the Deal men lost sight of the wreck while they raced into the surf of the Brake.

In that surf which I beheld from the end of Ramsgate Pier, being called there by imperative business, and thus deprived of the privilege of being with the men the lifeboat was apparently swallowed up. She was filled over and over again, and sometimes there was not a man of the crew visible to the coxswain, who stood aft steering in wind which amounted to a hurricane, and, according to Greenwich Observatory, representing a velocity of eighty miles an hour.

At this moment I was witness of the fine sight of the Ramsgate tug and lifeboat steaming out of Ramsgate Harbour, brave coxswain Fish steering the lifeboat, which plunged into the mad seas behind the tug, while blinding clouds of spray flew over the crew. Those splendid ’storm warriors’ also rescued the crew of the Touch Not, wrecked that day on the Ramsgate Sands; but just while they were steaming out of Ramsgate, away on the horizon as far as I could bear to look against the fury of the wind and rain, struggling alone and unaided in the surf of the Brake Sand, I beheld the Deal lifeboat engaged in the rescue of The Thistle.

There indeed before my eyes was a veritable wrestle with death for their own lives and those of the wrecked vessel’s crew. The latter had beaten over the Brake Sand, and was anchored close outside it, the British ensign hoisted ‘Union down,’ and sinking. Sinking lower and lower, and only kept afloat by her cargo of nuts, her decks level with the sea which poured over them. In the agony of despair her crew of five had taken to their own small boat, being afraid, from signs known to seamen and from the peculiar wallowing of their vessel, that she was about to make her final plunge to the bottom.

But now the great blue lifeboat rode like a messenger from heaven alongside them, and their brave preservers dragged them over her sides into safety from the very mouth of destruction.

Amidst words of gratitude and with praise on their lips to a merciful God, the utterly exhausted crew saw the Deal men set sail and fight their way again through the storm landwards.

Looking back for an instant, all hands saw the appalling sight of the vessel they had left turn on her side and sink to the bottom of the sea.

With colours flying, with proud and thankful hearts they reach Broadstairs, whence I received the coxswain’s telegram ’Crew all saved; sprung foremast. R. Roberts.’

This gallant rescue was effected under the leadership of R. Roberts and E. Hanger, the very same men who were foremost in the saving of the Iron Crown. Their names should not be passed over in silence, nor those of the brave fellows who back up with their skill, their strength, and their lives the efforts of their coxswains.

In very truth the Deal boatmen (Deal, Walmer, and Kingsdown all included) as a class of men are unique. As pilots, boatmen, and fishermen they, with the Ramsgate men, stand alone, in their perils around and on the great quicksand which guards their coast, and they must always be of deep interest to the rest of their fellow-countrymen by reason of their hardships, their skill, and their daring, and above all by reason of their generous courage, consistent with their ancient fame. Faults they have let others tell of them but it seems to me that these brave Kentish boatmen are worthy descendants of their Saxon forefathers who rallied to the banners of Earl Godwin and died at Senlac in stubborn ring round Godwin’s kingly son.

To them, the lifeboatmen and coxswains of Deal, Walmer, and Kingsdown, friends and comrades, I dedicate these true histories of splendid rescues wrought by them, the ‘Heroes of the Goodwin Sands.’