Lifeboats of The Downs on the big screen

Having found an old black and white photograph several years ago I didn’t get very far with my research to try and discover that was occurring and taking place in the image. The photograph was taken of a crowd of people gathered at Walmer lifeboat station, and details written on the rear of the photograph stated that it was possibly taken during the filming of a film production possibly called ‘Heroes of the Goodwin Sands’.

It wasn’t until a few months ago that someone had commented on one of the Deal heritage Facebook pages that a film had been produced at Walmer lifeboat called ‘The Lady From The Sea’ which had been shot on location at Walmer lifeboat station. Produced as a British International Pictures Limited, it was a story written by Joseph Grossman, and made and recorded at the Elstree Studios in London.

The 57 minute film distributed by the Famous Lasky Film Service, which was directed by Castleton Knight, depicts the events of when handsome young fisherman, Tom Roberts, who is among the crew of a lifeboat that rescues Frenchwoman, Claire le Grange, the sole survivor of a shipwreck on the treacherous Goodwin Sands. Tom’s marriage to his own sweetheart, Mary is postponed owing to his injuries he sustained in the dramatic rescue, and during his convalescence he falls for the charms of the flirtatious Claire. Members of the cast are listed as Old Roberts and there is even a Dick Roberts, who is possibly named after Coxswain Richard Robert, Coxswain of the North Deal lifeboat, who was one of the Heroes of the Goodwin Sands.

During the film there are several scenes that show the Walmer lifeboat, which at the time was the ‘Barbara Fleming’ that had originally been stationed on its arrival to Kingsdown lifeboat station in 1926, until its departure from Kingsdown and being stationed at Walmer following the closure of Kingsdown lifeboat station in 1927. During its service at Kingsdown the Barbara Fleming did not save any lives, but following its transfer to Walmer lifeboat station on January 8, 1927, she would go on to launch on 11 services and save 3 lives.

The first appearance of the Barbara Fleming occurs when the lifeboat crew assemble to launch the lifeboat. Volunteer members of the lifeboat crew can be seen making their way into the lifeboat station and each man taking a Kapok lifejacket from a drier hanging in the boathouse. The lifeboatmen then make their way into the darkness and prepare to launch the lifeboat in torrential rain before heading out to sea.

A later scene was taken at Walmer lifeboat when actress Mona Goya, playing the part of Claire, visits Walmer lifeboat station to speak with actor Raymond Milland, who is lifeboatman Tom. Further on in the film the lifeboat is seen being launched again to the aid of a wreck, with the lifeboatmen seen rowing the vessel out into another dark storm out at sea. The lifeboat crew successfully rescue a group of people, before the Barbara Fleming is seen being rowed back to shore at Walmer beach in a much calmer sea during the early morning.

Other film footage does exist of the old lifeboats that were once stationed in the Downs, which can be seen  and viewed on the internet. One of the most remarkable videos was taken by the Pathe News in 1926, when Coxswain William ‘Bill’ Adams was retiring from his position on the North Deal lifeboat. Film footage shows members of the volunteer crew pulling up the sails on the lifeboat and then putting on their lifejackets, before the lifeboat is then seen speeding down the beach sliding over the greased wooden planks that have been really placed down the shingle beach in readiness. The lifeboat is then seen sailing along out at sea with Coxswain Bill Adams at the helm for the last time, as he is stood at the wheel steering the lifeboat ‘Charles Dibden’.

Bill Adams had spent 50 years as a lifeboatman until this point in time, and had helped to save 793, with thirteen of those years as Coxswain of the lifeboat at North Deal. Once the lifeboat has been winched back up the beach Bill is seen stood next to the new lifeboat Coxswain, former Second Coxswain William Hoile, who would continue to be Coxswain until the North Deal lifeboat station officially closed in 1933. Both of the Coxswains are then seen smiling and shaking hands in congratulations of each others achievement. Bill Adams is later shown with his granddaughter, who is being shown a watch that had been presented to him by an American President for saving 30 lives from the ship Piave in January 1919.

A further short Pathe News film was taken at Walmer lifeboat station in 1948, which opens with the lifeboat station bell being run to summon the volunteers, who in the next clip can be seen receiving their lifejackets, while other volunteers are making their way down the beach to pull the greased wooden skids into place. The Walmer lifeboat Charles Dibden (Civil Service No.2) is then seen making it way down the beach and into the sea, with Coxswain Frederick Upton at the helm and Percy Cavell to his assistance as the lifeboat mechanic.

Colin Varrall