Our Finest Hours: Rescued from rigging in 1952

Disney’s The Finest Hours celebrates the heroic story of US coastguards going above and beyond to save those aboard the wrecked SS Pendleton. On this side of the Atlantic, RNLI volunteers were going above and beyond to save lives too – there were 11 Medals for Gallantry awarded in 1952. One of those medals was awarded to Coxswain Denis Price for going to the aid of a barge that ran ashore in the Thames Estuary in the dead of night.

Margate RNLI launching the lifeboat down the slipway in a storm in 1952

In bleak midwinter conditions and almost total darkness, the barge Vera ran ashore in the Thames Estuary. It was 7 November, 1952. Vera was taking on water fast and, in heavy seas and 50mph winds, the crew sent up two flares in a desperate call for help.

Reacting immediately to the two blazes of red in the night sky, Her Majesty’s Coastguard called the closest lifeboat station to the sinking barge – Southend-on-Sea. But they were already out on another rescue. Conscious of the terrible conditions, the Coastguard rang the next closest stations, Clacton-on-Sea and Walton-on-the-Naze, but found that they were both also out on shouts. Considering the darkness and the violent seas, the situation was looking bleak for Vera’s crew.

In desperation, the Coastguard called Margate Lifeboat Station, over 20 miles away from the sinking barge. At 3.10am, over the sound of the storm, the crew at Margate heard the call. Despite the distance to travel, the conditions and heading into unfamiliar waters – the crew didn’t hesitate to jump into the lifeboat.

Launching into 50mph gales, the North Foreland, Civil Service No. XI, Margate’s lifeboat, began its 20-mile journey to get to the sinking barge. Despite the rain, squalls of sleet and large waves bringing visibility to almost zero, the crew pushed forward as fast as they could, reaching the Thames Estuary in just over 2½ hours.

However, despite making good time, the crew had little luck finding the barge in the darkness of the night. For an hour, they patrolled up and down the estuary, searching for signs of the barge, to no avail. At 7am, their luck changed.

As day broke, a crew member spotted the mast of a submerged boat on the horizon 2 miles away. Speeding towards it, the volunteers could make out two shapes high up the mast. The barge’s crew had climbed up the mast and were holding desperately onto the ropes. They had been clinging there for almost 5 hours, beaten by the wind and rain.

Arriving at the sinking barge, the crew saw the enormity of the challenge they faced. With vicious 1½m waves breaking over the nearly submerged vessel, getting the two crew members down safely – from 5m up in the rigging – was going to be difficult.

Coxswain Denis Price was left with no option but to attempt an extremely bold manoeuvre, as he writes in the original Return of Service report:

‘There was too much wind and such a heavy sea to think about going alongside the rigging, and the weight of the lifeboat might have jarred the men into the water, and if I had let go the anchor and veered down to them there were a lot of stray ropes and wires about I might have picked some of them up in the propellers. So I drove the lifeboat over the barge itself and got her bow between the rigging and the mast so that the men could slide down the wires into the boat.’

However, with the lifeboat taking a beating from the sea, Coxswain Denis’s attempts to position the lifeboat under the two men were constantly thwarted by the waves. Driving the bow of the lifeboat between the rigging and the mast, Denis narrowly missed the barge’s davits (crane-like devices used on a ship for supporting, raising, and lowering objects), which appeared suddenly within a trough of sea. With the lifeboat being held steady underneath the rigging, one of the men slid down a wire but missed the lifeboat, landing in the violent sea. Grabbing him before he could be thrown into the wreck of the barge, the crew pulled him aboard and to safety.

With the other man climbing down the rigging, the crew could see that he was also going to miss the boat. Reacting quickly, Denis moved the lifeboat out stern first, circled around and brought her over the bow of the barge once more, stopping directly underneath the second man as he made his way down the rigging. The lifeboat crew passed a line around the mast and held the lifeboat in place until he was safely on deck.

Both men stood on the deck of the boat, shivering with the cold and exhausted after 5 terrifying hours in the rigging. Realising one of them was on the verge of collapse, the crew wrapped them in blankets and gave them food and – as was RNLI custom back in 1952 – a hearty tot of rum.

Despite the crew’s best efforts to perk them up, the two were suffering from exhaustion and needed to be brought ashore as quickly as possible. Instead of returning to Margate, Coxswain Denis made the decision to head for Brightlingsea, 17 miles away from the wreck, but over 37 miles away from Margate.

At 9.45am, the North Foreland, Civil Service No. XI arrived at Brightlingsea and transferred the two very weary crew members to the Shipwrecked Mariners Society, who took care of them from there.

And finally, at 4.45pm, the crew returned to Margate tired and exhausted, 14 hours after they had left. Their lifeboat, North Foreland, Civil Service No. XI, also bore testimony to the conditions they’d faced on the long shout – her searchlight and loud hailer had been torn away by the sea, a piece of the gunwale capping had been torn off and the end of the port bilge-keel had been displaced.

In recognition of their service, Coxswain Denis Richard Price was awarded the Silver Medal for Gallantry, while Second Coxswain Edward James Parker and Motor Mechanic, Alfred William Lacey were awarded the Thanks Of The Institution Inscribed On Vellum.