1907: The Suevic rescue

The Suevic rescue in 1907 set the record for the largest number of people saved in a single operation in RNLI history – a record that still stands today.

The SS Suevic on the rocks at Lizard
The SS Suevic on the rocks at Lizard

On 17 March, the Suevic ran aground against the rocks of the Maenheere Reef, a quarter of a mile off Lizard Point in Cornwall. Sixty volunteer crewmen from Cadgwith, Coverack, The Lizard and Porthleven rowed back and forth for 16 hours to rescue the passengers and crew.

Their incredible courage and perseverance saved 456 lives that day, and not a single life was lost. Six of the rescuers, including two Suevic crew members, were awarded Silver Medals by the RNLI to honour their heroic actions.

2 February 1907

The Suevic left Australia on 2 February 1907, bound for Liverpool. She carried over 400 passengers and crew, as well as 12,000 tons of cargo estimated to be worth £400,000.

On 17 March, the ship approached Cornwall’s hazardous Lizard coastline. A violent gale was blowing with a rough sea, and a dense fog bank hindered their course.

The ship’s captain, Thomas Jones, used Lizard Lighthouse to navigate his way around the perilous rocks of The Lizard. Mistakenly thinking the light was at least 10 miles away, Thomas Jones powered ahead at full speed. Twenty minutes later, the ship ran aground against Maenheere Reef.

At 10.30pm, the engines were stopped and distress flares sent up, although the heavy fog made them difficult to see. Captain Jones ordered the ship’s lifeboats to be launched, but their awkward position on the rocks prevented many of them from being lowered. Only experienced local sailors would be able to navigate their passage to safety through the narrow channels between the rocks.

By 4.25am, two RNLI lifeboats had arrived and three more were on the way. The fog was so dense, the first lifeboat actually collided with the side of the Suevic, but within a few hours the sun had risen and visibility improved.

Lifeboats travelled back and forth collecting passengers for 16 hours. The crew, at the mercy of the open sea and ferocious winds in open boats, saved 456 lives, including the 70 babies onboard.

Six people were awarded Silver Medals for Gallantry by the RNLI, including two Suevic crew members and two members of the Cadgwith lifeboat crew: Edwin Rutter and Rev. Harry Vyvyan.

Rebuilding the Suevic

The wreck became a popular tourist destination, drawing 10,000 visitors in just one day.  It remained stranded on the rocks for 3 weeks before the undamaged stern was salvaged. A new bow was constructed in Belfast whilst the ship was cut in two with carefully placed charges of dynamite. The salvaged two thirds of the ship were transported to Southampton, where the new bow was built on.

By January 1908, the repaired steamliner was back on the waves. Suevic was pressed into service during the First World War, carrying British troops and provisions such as frozen meat.

The Suevic was sold in 1928 to a Norwegian company who converted her to a whaling factory ship and renamed her Skytteren. She sunk during World War Two, whilst escaping a German vessel off Sweden, where the wreck remains to this day.

Volunteers from The Lizard standing next to their lifeboat, Admiral Sir George Back, in 1907.
Volunteers from The Lizard standing next to their lifeboat, Admiral Sir George Back, in 1907