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New Book Reveals the Bravery of the Women of the RNLI

Published: 12th November 2010 10:39

For many people, the image they associate with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is that of brave lifeboat men battling stormy seas, but for the length of the charity's 186-year history, women have also helped save lives at sea.

Hidden Depths book coverA new book, Hidden Depths: Women of the RNLI by Sue Hennessy, which is published this month by The History Press, reveals how women have always been at the heart of the RNLI.

Hidden Depths: Women of the RNLI explains how women have been involved with the charity from the very earliest days of the lifeboat service, when they launched and recovered lifeboats - often physically pulling the boats down beaches using ropes - to the present day, when women are found in every aspect of the charity's operations, including volunteering as lifeboat crew.

The book tells the stories of numerous brave, hardworking women, including those who waded waist-deep in freezing cold seas to help launch their local lifeboats, their own husbands and sons aboard.

For example, in 1899 there were women in Lynmouth, Devon, who formed part of a team of 28 people that dragged a wooden lifeboat up two of the steepest hills in England, in driving rain and gale-force wind, in order to launch it from Porlock - a journey that took over ten hours.

Today the RNLI has over 80 women launchers, now known as Shore Crew. The average age of these volunteers is 36 and, although they no longer have to pull the boats out on ropes, they still require specialist skills to cope with using heavy equipment in challenging coastal environments.

Women have also taken part in perilous rescues. In fact, the charity has awarded medals for bravery to 22 women. Of these, 19 were presented in the nineteenth century, when there were no female lifeboat crew members. These medals went to women like Grace Darling who used their own initiative to carry out rescues in rowing boats or helped those who had been shipwrecked.

Grace Darling was the first woman to be awarded an RNLI medal for taking part in a famous rescue off the coast of Northumberland in 1838.

More recently, Aileen Jones, a crewmember and helmsman at Porthcawl Lifeboat Station, Wales, was awarded an RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry in 2005, for her part in the rescue of two fishermen. Aileen, a mother-of-two and a nursery assistant, was the first woman in 116 years to be given such an accolade - the last medal awarded to a woman was in 1888.

Now there are not only brave women crew members, but also brave women RNLI Lifeguards, one of whom, Sophie Grant-Crookston, was awarded the RNLI's Bronze Medal for Gallantry for saving the life of a surfer stranded near Perranporth Beach, Cornwall in September 2006. Sophie was the first female lifeguard to be honoured in this way and only the second lifeguard ever to be given an RNLI medal.

It was in 1969 that the RNLI had its first female crewmember. Forty years later, in 2009, there were 374, or eight per cent of all RNLI crew. Seventy-three percent of the 235 lifeboat stations now have a woman on their crew. Ireland has the largest number of women crew followed by the West Country. And 20 per cent of all RNLI lifeguards are now female.

In 1981, Frances Glody became the first woman to join an all-weather lifeboat as a crewmember at Dunmore East Lifeboat Station in Ireland. She took over from her father, who had retired.
At the time, Frances told a curious media: "I don't feel it's different for me because I'm a woman. I know the sea and I have the qualifications to do the job." After hundreds of shouts, Frances retired after her 50th birthday.

 The book also looks at the ranks of dedicated women fundraisers - who have been at the heart of raising vital funds since the RNLI began.

Author Sue Hennessy says: "The RNLI is alive with outstanding women working alongside equally outstanding men, ensuring that as many people as possible who find themselves in trouble, either on or by the sea, live rather than drown."

Sue, who lives in Dorset, was joined by three current RNLI medallists for the launch of the book at The Lifeboat College in Poole: Aileen Jones, Dr Christine Bradshaw and Sophie Grant-Crookston (all pictured).

  • Hidden Depths: Women of the RNLI by Sue Hennessy is published by The History Press, costing £16.99 The book can be bought through the RNLI Amazon page. In addition, the publisher will pay a royality from each book sold to the RNLI.
AboutMyArea believes this would make a perfect present for - or from, anyone who supports the RNLI
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