Reviewed by Ingo Heidbrink
Martyn R. Beardsley’s new book Heroes of the RNLI: The Storm Warriors tells the stories of the men of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), an institution that is not only one of the better-known maritime rescue services but also a national icon in the United Kingdom. From the 1820s up to 2006, members of the RNLI and its predecessors rescued a total of 144,000 shipwrecked persons and many of these rescues were not only extraordinary achievements but heroic actions by the men of the RNLI. Like the German Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger (DGzRS) or the Dutch Koninklijke Nederlandse Redding Maatschappij (KNRM), the RNLI was not financed by the state or taxes but exclusively by donations, and therefore represents a prime example of a successful organization of civil society.
There are only a few examples of an institution within the wider field of the maritime industries with such a rich historiography. WorldCat, one of the leading bibliographical databases for all kind of scholarly publications, lists approximately 250 books for the search term RNLI and these are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg as many publications on the subject have been published by smaller maritime museums and local history associations and do not necessarily show up in the database. Consequently, it might be asked why there is need for another book on the topic of the RNLI. While this question might be well justified, it needs to be stated that Beardsley is not trying to simply provide another book on the history of the association, and in fact assumes that the reader of his book is aware of its basic history. Instead, he stays absolutely true to the title of the book and deals exclusively with the heroes of the RNLI, meaning the men who risked their own lives to rescue shipwrecked persons in the coastal waters of the UK. The whole book is a collection of stories on individual rescue operations throughout the nearly two-hundred-year history of the RNLI. Many of the stories presented are comparably short, sometimes only two pages, but none fail to deliver on what made the men of the RNLI special and why the term hero is an appropriate term for them. Many of the stories included in the book tell the events that ultimately resulted in the award of prestigious medals to the RNLI, often the Gold Medal, but also Silver and Bronze Medals or one of the other awards. Nevertheless, it was neither the prospect of an award that made the men risk their lives nor was it the sole criterion for a story to be selected for this book. The men were simply driven by a desire to avoid any loss of life at sea wherever possible, and the selection of stories was based on the concept of exemplifying this desire as much as possible. While there is a certain focus on the early years of the RNLI when open rescue boats propelled by oars and sail were the main tools of the RNLI, it also includes stories of the use of the Manby Mortar, rockets and the Lyle Gun to deploy a breeches buoy for a rescue operation. More contemporary stories of diesel-powered rescue boats are also included and while these boats might have been safer than their predecessors, they were also used for rescue operations under conditions that would have been considered unworkable during the age of the open rowboats and thus these operations were in the end equally dangerous or heroic.
Altogether the RNLI has awarded over 2500 medals for bravery and behind each of these medals is a story well worthy of inclusion in this book. In contrast to many other maritime history books, the main challenge for the author was not unearthing stories to be told but selecting the best ones to include. Beardsley single handedly managed this challenging task elegantly, resulting in a selection of stories which together produce a meta-story of the members of the RNLI that explains how and why the institution became an icon in the UK and among seafarers all around the globe.
Heroes of the RNLI is a storybook in the best sense of the term. It is not a scholarly history of the RNLI and its members, nor does it aim to be. It would be pointless to comment on the scholarly standards of the book, the lack of references or the like, because this book is not intended to be a scholarly work for a few professional maritime historians. Rather, it is aimed at entertaining a broad audience looking to learn about the heroic actions of members of the RNLI. The reader can only conclude that he or she is lucky to have never encountered such difficult situations, whether as a shipwrecked mariner or a member of an RNLI crew.
This reviewer needs to admit that he normally becomes somewhat skeptical if an author uses the term “hero”, particularly in a book title. Far too often the term hero is directly tied to the so-called great-men approach in historical research and thus turns a blind eye to the complexities of the past. The simple fact is that it was not normally a great man that made history, but a group composed of largely ordinary people. Fortunately, Heroes of the RNLI uses the term hero not to put an individual on a pedestal but to explain how ordinary people were driven to heroic actions by their devotion to rescuing fellow human beings from the dangers of the sea in situations where the odds of survival were slim and only drastic action could result in success. Therefore, Heroes of the RNLI is among the few books where this reviewer considers the term hero to be absolutely appropriate.
Regardless of whether you are a professional sailor or mariner, yachtsman, or just sailing the coastal waters on a ferry boat, cruise ship or excursion boat, there is always the chance that your life will become dependent on the men and women of the RNLI or one of its international sister organizations. Consequently, this book can easily be recommended to anyone with the slightest interest in maritime history, the maritime industries or maritime affairs, as it tells the stories of those who have decided to train hard and always be prepared to act if there are live at risk at sea, whatever the circumstances.
Would I assign this book as mandatory reading for one of my maritime history classes? Probably not, as it is a book of stories and not a historical analysis. Nevertheless, I would strongly recommend my students read the book as additional reading since it not only tells the stories of heroic maritime rescues but also, and more importantly, the stories of people who have decided to devote themselves to rescuing lives at sea – not as a job or to fulfill a certain duty, but because of an urge to help or maybe better yet to simply do what needs to be done. As such the book is not about maritime history in the first instance but about civil society and what it means to be an active member of society. Of course, very few members of civil society will ever be exposed to situations remotely comparable to the ones described in this book, but in the end it does not matter if you ever get into a situation that demands heroic action. What really counts is the willingness to act whenever needed. Few of the men described in Beardsley’s book would have claimed the term hero for themselves and many would have rejected the term straight. Nevertheless, it is an appropriate term, and the book might make you rethink the real meaning of the term.
Heroes of the RNLI will probably be read primarily in the comfort of an armchair or while sailing a smooth ocean but it will always remind the reader that a situation can turn dangerous within a short time span, that the weather, ocean or whatsoever else can change matters to the point where your own survival is no longer in your own hands, and it is simply good to know that there are people who are willing to selflessly risk their lives for your rescue. While the stories in this book are taken from the past, they also carry the implication that comparable stories will transpire in the present and future. After all, the sea remains a dangerous environment that requires humbleness and respect but also actions that might be considered heroic upon reflection.
Ingo Heidbrink is a Professor of History at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
Heroes of the RNLI: The Storm Warriors (Martyn R. Beardsley, Pen & Sword, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Great Britain, 2020).