Launching the Lifeboat
When Flora's flowers saved the day
It was only a few weeks after Christmas 1898 and life in the sleepy Devon village was getting back to normal now all the festivities were at an end.
At any time of year Flora's cottage garden was her pride and joy; it always boasted a wide variety of delicately scented blooms, more pleasing to the nostrils than any expensive perfume. They provided a vivid display for any passer-by, easily worthy of entry at the local agricultural show. Some plants grew wildly, having free rein in their garden domain, while others entwined themselves round willing trellises. Flora was especially proud of the ones she had painstakingly grown from seed, planting them out in the fine terracotta flowerpots she had painted her own unique designs upon.
Most of Flora's flowerpots contained fuchsias, which were hardy enough to remain outside during the mild Devon Winter but if there was any hint of a frost developing she would not hesitate to take them in to decorate the wide, oaken window sills and flagged hearths of her cosy Exmoor cottage.
Old lady I might be, she mused, but I'm not going to let my bad back prevent me from having a garden to be proud of. She would tend her blooms with nothing less than real loving devotion.
It came as a great shock therefore, when one January morning she was awoken from a sound slumber by the din and dust of her garden wall being purposely demolished and the sight of her prize-blooms as they were decimated and scattered in all directions, some unfortunate specimens soon to be buried beneath the debris.
It was particularly windy that morning, that was true but surely the wind wouldn't have blown the whole wall over, Flora thought. And then she saw them.
"What are you doing in my garden at five o'clock in the morning?" she demanded, peering out of her open window in utter disbelief.
Coxswain Jack Crocome stood before her, along with his crew of eleven and over the other side of what remained of Flora's garden wall was their Lifeboat, The Louisa, mounted on its special horse-drawn carriage ready to flatten everything and anything in its path.
Still dumbfounded and in her night clothes, Flora patiently listened to Jack's explanation and satisfied that the sacrifice of her garden would be for a worthy cause she donned warm clothing and made her way down the hill and into the village of Porlock to offer any assistance she could. "I've never seen a lifeboat in my life," she declared as she divulged her tale to the villagers, "and certainly never expected to see one in my garden on Porlock Hill!"
And how did the Lynmouth lifeboat find itself amongst Flora's blooms? It was an amazing a tale as Noah's ark coming to rest on Mount Ararat.
The story began in the early afternoon of January 12th 1899 when the Lynmouth lifeboat received a telegraph message that a vessel was in distress in Porlock Bay; it was The Forest Hall.
With a force eight gale blowing, the sea wall submerged and the launching ramp for the lifeboat unapproachable, the Coxswain made a decision that was to herald the greatest lifeboat rescue ever."We'll launch from Porlock."
Everyone thought him mad. It would mean a fifteen mile journey, in a gale predicted to increase to force ten, all the way to the top of Countisbury Hill (which has a gradient of one-in four) and down the other side.
The Coxswain realised it was a challenge that was nigh impossible to overcome, but he remained undeterred.
Modern West Country roads which can now be used in relative safety were mere dirt-tracks in 1899 when there were no mirrors placed at strategic points to help negotiate treacherous u-bends. In those days to haul and manoeuvre a thirty-four-foot long boat, weighing some 28 tonnes up and over one of the most notorious hills in England should surely have been an insurmountable problem.
But against all odds, the crew of the Lynmouth lifeboat managed to complete their brave task, arriving at the scene of the wreck at seven in the morning. Fortunately Flora's garden, an elm tree and several hedges which stood in their way were the only casualties. A wheel came off the lifeboat carriage and had to be re-instated and a detour needed to be taken across the moorland when the carriage proved too wide for the narrow lanes, but eventually the job was done.
The crew of the Forest hall lived to sail another day although their vessel eventually met its nemesis off the coast of New Zealand where it ran aground.
Although this is clearly a tale of triumph over adversity there was very little reward or recognition for this outstanding feat, apart from a brief mention in the daily newspaper and a payment of five pounds for each of the hero's who had battled bravely through the night to save their fellow men.
And was Flora reimbursed for the damage to her garden wall? No one really knows but it is known that the owners of The Forest Hall contributed the sum of seventy five pounds which was to cover a "Mason's bill for repairs."
Lifeboats of today have come a long way since the Louisa. They can now be launched in three ways: on a carriage launch where the beach is sandy and flat, on a slipway launch straight into the water or a mooring launch where another vessel is used to reach a permanently moored lifeboat. Rescues are certainly easier for life boatmen nowadays but the sheer courage and determination of the Lynmouth crew of 1899 remains unchallenged.
© 2015 Stella Kaye