The coast of West Sussex is beautiful, but also deadly. The sea, with its unpredictable swells and lack of shelter from squally storms, has claimed many lives and countless vessels. Although the United Kingdom is an island with a deep connection with the sea, measures for maritime safety were not prevalent until the 18th century. The first lifeboat station (in Merseyside) was not established until 1776. Lifeboats were, and still are, crucial fixtures of maritime life.
Read on to dip your toes into the history of the lifeboat service in West Sussex.
Lifeboats on film
Images should not be reproduced without permission from West Sussex Record Office.
Establishing a lifeboat service
Whether or not a town would have a lifeboat service was heavily dependent on one or more local donors, many of who were wealthy people keen to support their community. Yet the availability and effectiveness of the service was influenced by the location and level of funding; standards were not prevalent as they are today.
In contrast to the donors, the men (this was, historically, a man’s realm) who actually crewed the lifeboats were usually long-serving and highly skilled mariners; those who knew first-hand the dangers of the sea. Often only equipped with rudimentary life jackets and burdened with relatively cumbersome equipment, coxswains and their team could never be sure of surviving a difficult rescue operation.
Article from the West Sussex Gazette, 12th March 1925, describing the legacy of Admiral Hargood, and his son Harry, who raised funds for a properly equipped and purpose-built lifeboat. Harry recalled the perilous rescue of the ‘Lallah Rookh’ in 1850. This was a desperately sad incident, where the lifeboat sent to assist it capsized drowning eleven crew members.
A news article in the West Sussex Gazette, from 15th October 1853, reports on a violent storm which was preventing seventeen merchant ships from entering Littlehampton harbour. The lifeboat crew were, somehow, able to guide them one-by-one to safety, saving lives and valuable cargo – the sinking of which would have been disastrous for many families.
For centuries, shipwrecks were a fact of life for residents of West Sussex, not least for families who relied upon the sea as their livelihood. Chichester is home to the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society. The charity, established in 1839, still provides financial support for those in the “Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets and their dependants”.
Worthing seafront bears the scars of a particularly dramatic wreck. In December 1896 the Norwegian barque ‘Ophir’ sank off the coast of the town. Large crowds gathered whilst the coastguards fought bitter conditions to save two men; one of them was reported as being “out of his mind” from the dreadful ordeal. Ophir Road and Ophir villa (now 226 Brighton Road) were named after the ship.
Sketches [not of Ophir] by Claude Henry Mason Buckle, 1849-1856, Buckle Ms 505.
West Sussex Gazette, 2nd October 1856, reports on a shipwreck, the ‘Elizabeth’, off the coast of Shoreham. One of her crew had died. The local lifeboat crew, alongside a tug boat, brought her into the harbour through gales and “incessant rain”.
Another troubling story from the West Sussex Gazette, 13th March 1958. Shoreham’s lifeboat crew faced especially dangerous conditions when they saved the lives of two men in a blizzard. One man, a Mr Upton, normally unwavering when faced with the sea’s temper, admitted that on this occasion he was “glad to see the collier”.
Royal National Lifeboat Institution
In 1824 the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) was founded and remains the largest charity for saving lives at sea in the UK. Many West Sussex residents have memories of fundraising, attending anniversary launches, and apprehensively watching rescue operations. Records in the archive reflect many aspects and experiences of the RNLI, be they administrative, celebratory, or commemorative.
After coping with a rescue service on an ad-hoc basis, Selsey gained its first full lifeboat service with the establishment of a station in 1861. An especially busy stretch of water, there was also a station positioned on the Western side of Selsey Bill called “Thorney Station” – not to be confused with Thorney Island. Selsey’s lifeboat experienced many call-outs during the Second World War, rescuing countless jettisoned pilots.
From the 1960s, Selsey benefitted from two fully equipped lifeboats, one kept in an all-weather boathouse on the shore, and another inshore. The presence of two lifeboats is testament to the frequency with which they were required, and the lives saved.
An amusing story from the West Sussex Gazette, 27th December 1956, recounting Selsey coxswain William Arnell’s wedding day. Just fifteen minutes prior to the service, William reported for duty when a small boat had become stuck in Chichester harbour. He did, fortunately for Kay, the bride, make it to the church just a few minutes late.
Littlehampton opened its first RNLI station in 1884 and since then has undergone three incarnations. For many years it was located close to the shore, as you can see in the image of an Ordnance Survey map below. Today it is located in Fishermans Quay, further inland.
Article from the West Sussex Gazette from 4th January 1934 recounting the annual Lifeboat Dance in Littlehampton, in support of the RNLI. The band played from inside a model lifeboat. The Littlehampton RNLI’s secretary, Miss Hope Wallace, was awarded a statuette of a lifeboatman for her continuing service.
Image from the British Newspaper Library (the copy held by WSRO is damaged and unreadable)
From Shoreham to Dunkirk
As part of the Government’s call for ‘little ships’ to assist in the evacuation of Dunkirk, on the 30th May 1940 nineteen lifeboats from across the UK joined around 850 private boats in the operation. One of these lifeboats was the RNLB Rosa Woodd and Phyllis Lunn from Shoreham harbour, named after her two donors. Manned by Royal Army personnel (the ‘little boats’ were rarely piloted by civilians), she made three trips between Dover and Dunkirk.