The Lifeboat Service is one of the only institutions in the UK that embodies the notion of the Moral Good. I talk about Margate’s Great Storm of 1897, the culture war, and a statues influence on my life.
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TO THE CREW OF THE MARGATE SURF-BOAT,
“FRIEND TO ALL NATIONS.”
ALL night the pitiless blast had swept
Out of the North-East blind as hell;
Ere dawn, the sudden signal leapt,
Death’s meteor-signal leapt and fell.
Then, as the cry for rescue rang,
With quick farewell to child and wife,
Into the roaring surf they sprang,
To yield their lives for the stranger’s life.
Friend to all Nations ! Friend at need,
Where danger sets the task to do !
Not ill they chose a name to speed,
The gallant craft of a gallant crew.
Stout hearts of Kent, that heard the call
Of man to man in the face of death!
Is this, is this the end of all
These bodies dank with the salt sea’s breath?
Nay, but their names shall stand in gold.
When the opened books of God are read,
With deeds remembered and deeds untold
That wait till the sea gives up its dead!
Text: In Cap and bells, by Sir Owen Seaman. First publication: 1900 London Lane.
Image: The Great Gale – Scene at Margate during the height of the storm – The Daily Graphic December 1 1897 – Via Margate Local History
Friend to All Nations
The Great Storm of 1897 is described in Kent Shipwrecks by Alan Bignell as ‘the worst storm‘.
For four days from 28th November though 2nd December, cyclonic winds blew at hurricane forces. Leaving the coastline strewn with the wrecks of small craft torn from their moorings. Debris from destroyed buildings littered the sands.
In the National Archives there are photos showing the devastation. One shows part of the destroyed Marine Palace and Switchback Railway.
The Victorian era roller coaster that ran along the cliffside. On what is now the site of the Turner Contemporary Gallery.
The wind and rain didn’t allow the tide to ebb from the harbour. Resulting in a tidal surge nine ft above the previous highest recorded level. Flooding most of what is now Margate old town.
In the early hours of the 2nd of December, the ship Persian Empire collided with the steamship Carlisle City. Both desperate to make it round the headland. The Persian Empire subsequently ran aground on the far side of Margate bay, dashed against the Nayland Rock. The crew fired their flares at 5a.m. But further tragedy was yet to come.
Within 30mins the surfboat Friend to All Nations was in the water alongside the RNLI lifeboat, Quiver.
The Friend to All Nations was a double-headed whale boat built in the local style. 32 feet long and 5ft 3 inches wide at its beam. Powered by oar and sail, 12 men plus – the superintendent of the Margate ambulance association – Charles Troughton heaved into the maelstrom to attempt rescue. In the 21 years since the boat had come on station, it had saved 395 lives. But none would be added to that tally today.
In the dark amidst the tempest, and the driving rain A tremendous sea struck the boat a quarter mile from shore. She capsized in about twelve feet of water, all aboard were thrown into the water.
Nine lifeboatmen lost their lives. Including the coxswain and the good doctor.
I have read the details of the inquest held the next day, but what’s more remarkable is that over 3,000 people, dressed in black, came out for the funeral. They are said to have lined the entire route from Margate Parade to the Cemetery. Shops were closed from noon till 4.
Blinds were drawn in houses and church bells tolled.
Today as you leave Margate train station you’ll still see the memorial statue to the crew who lost their lives. A young man in a cork life vest looking out to sea.
My understanding of the role of the RNLI is completely shaped by this story.
I first heard it as a child, growing up on the chalk by the sea. As an adult I’ve done loads of research about it. My WIP Solarpunk novel Smugglers Leap was, at one point, even named ‘Friend to all Nations‘.
Today, the lifeboat service in Margate is still bringing desperate people ashore. The RNLI are all volunteers who risk their lives to save others – and have been since the time of King George IV. 10 years longer I will add than the Conservative party has been in existence.
As the saying goes “A cry for help is the same in any language”. Whatever the weather. No questions asked.
The phrase Friend to All Nations for me is not just the name of a boat. It’s a phrase deeply embedded in my psyche and my politics.
The Lifeboat Service is one of the only institutions in the UK that embodies the notion of the Moral Good. Human beings who will launch to another rescue without judgement.
Heroes in other words.
This week, right wing reactionary fog horn Nigel Farage called the RNLI a Migrant Taxi Service. For rescuing desperate people at risk of drowning in the Channel. And budget British Shapiro trollalike Darren Grimes did a “British Lifeboats for British People” routine.
This latest move in culture war is backdropped by the Government’s Nationality and Borders bill. Which will see rescues at sea criminalised for “knowingly” assisting people to arrive in the UK without permission.
People like Farage and Grimes are a cancer in our culture.
What we are seeing is an attack on the very idea of compassion.
A disregard for human kindness, life, fellow feeling and humility.
I’m clearly not alone. Donations to the RNLI are up 3,000% after Farage’s migrant criticism.
This is not what we are about as a society. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted and forgiving.
Big thanks to Huw Lemmey for feedback on the script for this episode.
The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the audio due to time constraints.
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