At Dungeness Lifeboat Station, we are justifiably proud of our heritage and our history, which dates back to 1826 – only two years after the foundation of the RNLI as the ‘National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwrecks’. (Title change to The Royal National Lifeboat Institute in 1854.)
Actually classified by the Meteorological Office as ‘Britain’s only Desert’, due to its dryness and lack of vegetation, Dungeness is situated on one of the largest expanses of shingle beach in Europe and lies at the southernmost point of the Romney Marsh, the easily identifiable large triangular section of land jutting out into the English Channel to the south west of Dover and Folkestone. Located a mere 27 miles from the French coast, Dungeness is in fact considerably closer to the French ports of Boulogne and Calais than it is to central London and on a fine day, many miles of the French coast can clearly be seen. With very strong tides and dangerous currents and very little shelter from the surrounding flat, treeless land, (which means that winds can whip up to ‘gale force’ in no time at all), Dungeness, with both its deepwater areas and its shallow, sandy beaches, has always been a very dangerous area for shipping and many, many ships have foundered here over the centuries.
A very important part of our station’s history belongs to an amazing group of ladies, known as ‘The Dungeness Lady Launchers’. Much has already been written by professional writers about the Lady Launchers, but for the purposes of this article, I will explain their origins briefly, as follows:
Dungeness has always been (and to some extent – still is), a very remote place, open to the elements and with just a scattering of fishermen’s houses and converted railway carriages spread out liberally across the shingle beach. In fact, it was well into the twentieth century before a proper road was built connecting the inhabitants with the nearest town of Lydd. With no proper roads, the favoured way of inhabitants crossing this great expanse of bone-jarring shingle was by wearing ‘Backstays’ (pronounced Baxters) on their feet, These were flat wooden boards with a leather strap across to hold them on. They may still be seen occasionally, today.
In the early days the lifeboat was manned by a mixture of Coastguard officers and fishermen. Later on, it was manned solely by the fishermen and because so few men were available when an emergency went up for a lifeboat launch, it fell to the fishermen’s wives and daughters to launch and recover the boat. These ladies were a tough breed indeed – not only did they have to pull the extremely heavy ‘woods’ made from solid oak (also known as ‘skids’) into position beneath the lifeboat’s keel in order to launch and recover the boat but furthermore, upon launching from off the shingle beach in typical ‘Dungeness severely adverse weather conditions’, they gave piggy-backs to their men onto the lifeboat, in order to prevent them from getting wet and themselves suffering from hypothermia before they even reached the casualty vessel. All this, and no protective or waterproof clothing for the ladies, other than their own greatcoats and scarves!
The tradition of Lady Launchers continued at Dungeness for over one hundred years and only ended in 1979 when the station operated its first lifeboat launched from a carriage (RNLB ‘Alice Upjohn’) and operations moved to the station’s current location on the beach.
Two of our Lady Launchers, Miss Madge Tart and her sister-in-law, Mrs Ellen Tart, members of one of the families whose men folk and women folk have helped to man and launch the Dungeness lifeboat for more than a century were each awarded the Institution’s Gold Badge in 1953. In 1979 when the ‘Lady Launchers’ were finally and formally stood down, Mrs Tart's daughter Doris, and Mrs Joan Bates, (another surname synonymous with Dungeness Lifeboat history), were each awarded Gold Badges in recognition of 44 years' and 37 years' service respectively as Shore Helpers.
Both ladies have sadly since passed on. Doris’ funeral of only a few years ago was a very large affair and attracted a lot of media attention.
Until recently, I was under the impression that Doris was the very last of the Lady Launchers. However, looking rather closely one day at one of the two large pictures of the Lady Launchers which hold pride of place on the wall of our Crew Room, I was rather surprised when I thought I recognised two of the young ladies in the photograph dated 1970 and therefore a full nine years before the Lady Launchers’ days actually came to an end in 1979. It transpired that those two young ladies are, as I thought, our very own current Press Officer Mrs Judith Richardson and our past Fundraising Committee Chairman (and still on the Committee), Mrs Betty Paine. I thought this needed investigating further and discovered that both ladies had indeed also been members of the Dungeness Lady Launchers for a number of years until they were disbanded in 1979. I wanted to know more.
A meeting was subsequently set up at the boathouse and it was my pleasure to spend a couple of hours plus a lot of laughs over cups of tea and some chocolate biscuits with Judith, Betty and Betty’s daughter Sheila Bunney (who is also Judith’s niece!).
One of the first things I realised, to my absolute amazement, is that these two ladies, who both came to the station in the 1960’s have remained at the heart and soul of Dungeness Lifeboat station for an amazing combined total of almost one hundred years! (And I would (immediately!) add here that both ladies display a very young and modern day attitude, both physically and mentally, and so it is extremely hard to comprehend this last fact.)
Betty Paine (nee Richardson) is descended from a long line of Dungeness inhabitants but she was actually born in wartime London (Clapham), where her mother who was carrying her at the time had gone to look after her own sick mother. As the war came to an end, they returned to Dungeness, where she grew up and eventually married a young farmer, Frank Paine. In 1962 Frank decided upon the need for a change of career and joined the Dungeness Lifeboat crew as the station’s ‘full-time’ mechanic. (Only the mechanics were ‘full-timers’, in those days.) Frank sadly passed away in the year 2000. Betty joined the Lady Launchers team in 1963 and remained with them until they were stood down in 1979. However, that was far from the end of her involvement with the lifeboat station because since first joining the station in 1963 and right up to and including the present day, Betty has continued to play a key role on the station’s Fundraising Committee (An amazing 51 years, so far!), including having served a substantial period as Chairperson. Betty was also on the station’s Management Committee as Press Officer until she retired from that role in 2006.
And as if that were not already sufficient contribution to have made to the station, Betty added that, apart from her husband Frank and her brother William Richardson (Judith’s late husband), her family has also provided our lifeboat crew for various periods with her two sons Andrew and Matthew, her Grandson Craig Bunney (a current crew member), and two of her nephews. Betty’s daughter Sheila also very much longed to join the lifeboat crew along with her brothers and would have done anything to have been able to do so, however, she was sadly prevented from achieving her personal ambition because at that particular time, many people from within the fishing industry still clung on to the ancient superstition that “A woman on a lifeboat would be unlucky.” (How modern day thinking - certainly within the RNLI, anyway - has thankfully changed since for the better, eh?)
Note: Since the terrible ‘Penlee Lifeboat Tragedy of 1981’, when all hands on board were lost to the sea, it has been a voluntary standard practice, where possible, for RNLI crew members of the same family not to be out on the same lifeboat shout together.
Anyway, my rudimentary command of mathematics calculations tells me therefore that, from 1963 up to the present date of 2014 Betty has so far put in an amazing total of 51 years of continuous loyal service at Dungeness Lifeboat Station. Wow!
Judith is our station’s very popular Press Officer – and a lot more, besides. She is always beavering about, doing something or other on behalf of the station and often it seems that she pops in and out of the lifeboat station more often than some of the crew. I know she won’t thank me for saying this, however, to her friends, the crew she is referred to fondly as “Dungeness Royalty” and commands a lot of respect from one and all. Having said this, she is always up for a laugh and often gets her leg pulled - but then she is also perfectly capable of ‘giving back just as good as she gets’.
Judith Richardson (Nee Holmes) was born in Slough, Buckinghamshire. Her parents owned a holiday home at Greatstone-on-Sea, just three miles along the coast from Dungeness, where Judith enjoyed many happy times. When she was eighteen, the family moved there permanently. Her father was one of four founder members of the very popular Varne Boat Club at neighbouring Littlestone-on-Sea, where it is located literally next door to the RNLI Littlestone (Inshore) Lifeboat station.
It was at Littlestone Lifeboat Station, where her brother Peter was on the lifeboat crew, that Judith first met her late husband William (‘Willie’) Richardson in 1967. William had been on the Dungeness Lifeboat crew since joining as a radio operator in 1963. Judith joined the Dungeness Lady Launchers in 1967 and after a bit of a whirlwind romance, she and William were married in 1968. In 1977 William was appointed Coxswain of Dungeness Lifeboat ‘Mabel E Holland’ then followed on to new boat ‘Alice Upjohn’ in 1979 and then finally on to ‘Pride and Spirit’ from 1992 until his well-earned retirement in 1999, having earlier stepped down as Coxswain in 1997 to be replaced by our current Dungeness Lifeboat Station Coxswain, Stuart Adams. William very sadly passed away in November 2010.
As with Betty Paine, Judith’s days as a Lady Launcher came to an end in 1979 when the lifeboat station was moved to its new and present location and the boat became carriage-launched. But Judith did not remain idle in any way. Currently our Press Officer since Betty Paine’s retirement from the position in 2006, Judith has also been a long term Fundraiser (Forty five years and still on the committee!) She is on the station’s Management Committee, the Lifeboat Operations Committee and following William’s retirement in 1999, she and William spent what she can only describe as being a “Very happy six years” as a volunteer taking the RNLI Sea Safety Road Show all around the South East of England during the summer months. (And also, apparently, to many other points of the compass, that cannot really be described geographically as being in the South East.)
Judith’s son Mark is currently on our crew as Deputy Second Coxswain and other son Stuart has previously served as Deputy Second Coxswain at Dungeness, as Coxswain at Dover Lifeboat Station and as Helmsman at Tower Lifeboat Station on the River Thames.
From a personal point of view, I should just like to add that, acting as our Press Officer, I have witnessed Judith on several occasions working with astonishing energy engaged on two and sometimes even three telephones at the same time whilst answering calls and talking to RNLI Head Office, local and national newspapers, various television and radio news programmes, plus handling enquiries from ordinary members of the public - whilst at the same time ensuring that our many followers on both Facebook and Twitter are kept up to date with the present status of the current ‘Shout’! Amazing – Don’t know where she gets her energy from!
Anyway, going back to my rudimentary command of mathematics, I calculate that, having joined the Lady Launchers in 1967, Judith has therefore to date in 2014 put in an amazing total of 47 years continuous loyal service at Dungeness Lifeboat Station. Wow!
Betty and Judith as Lady Launchers:
I think the first thing to say is that thankfully, neither Betty nor Judith ever found it necessary during their time as Lady Launchers to provide piggy-backs for their husbands onto the boat in order to prevent them from getting wet before setting out on a shout!
Up until relatively recent times, boat crew and Lady Launchers would have been made aware for the need of an immediate launch by the unmistakable and extremely loud “Boom!” (A noise loudly audible, in fact, for several miles around!), as the ‘Maroon rockets’ exploded high into the air. Upon hearing the ‘maroons go up’, boat crew and Lady Launchers would rush to the lifeboat station and prepare to launch. Whilst the boat crew donned their protective clothing, the Lady Launchers would drag the heavy, solid oak skids by their attached ropes into position from the boathouse down the full length of the long and steep shingle bank slipway as far as the sea, in order for the boat to safely traverse the incline from the boathouse into the water, and then power safely away to the rescue of the casualty.
As previously mentioned – unlike today, when Shore Crews are provided with strong, weatherproof and waterproof uniforms and wear protective helmets and steel toe-capped ‘Wellington boots’ - in the Lady Launchers’ day, there was no protective uniform supplied to them at all. The only semblance of uniform provided to them was an arm band (known as a ‘Belt’) and obtained from the Mechanic’s workshop, commonly known as ‘The Belt House’. There were only a certain number of ‘belts’ available (somewhere between twelve and eighteen) and once they had been distributed to the Lady Launchers, only those particular ladies who received them then became involved in the launch or recovery and the others would stand by and watch, or return home.
As for the recovery of the lifeboat, it was once again the Lady Launchers’ task to manoeuvre the very heavy solid oak skids into the correct positioning up the shingle bank slipway so that the keel of the lifeboat could pass smoothly over the top of them, as the boat was winched back up the beach to the boathouse. At the top of the beach the boat arrived at a turntable positioned outside the boathouse which was then used to turn the lifeboat’s bow back towards the sea, and ready for the next launch.
During their time at the station, Betty and Judith have become close friends, as well as sisters-in-law and have had a lot of fun in the process. One in particular humorous time they recalled was when it was suggested to them that they should both learn to drive the station’s bulldozer. Their careers as ‘dozer drivers were short-lived however, as, during their training period, the only way they found they could get around was by one of them operating the foot pedals whilst the other one steered! (Being a retired Foreman Launcher myself, and therefore responsible for safety matters on the beach, I can quite sympathise with the ‘nightmare’ my poor predecessor of the day must thus have been put through!)
Owing to the very nature of being a lifeboat station, of course there have been many memorable occasions for both ladies - some happy and very unfortunately, some occasionally sad - dependent upon the nature and outcome of the particular rescue involved.
One of Betty’s favourite memories was on the occasion several years ago of a dance held at the boathouse, when local and popular lifeboat station supporter Doctor Paul Downie was solemnly presented by the crew with a toilet chain to wear around his neck, in commemoration of his previously having become accidentally entangled with the local Mayor’s Chain of Office at the Mayor’s Ball.
Judith also has many happy memories – certainly most recently, were the celebrations held in May 2014 over the ‘Naming’ by HRH Anne, Princess Royal, of our brand-new ‘Shannon Class’ lifeboat, “The Morrell”.
Naturally, most memorable of all for both ladies were the occasions of the funerals for Frank (Betty’s husband) and for William (Judith’s husband and Betty’s brother.) Both funerals were held at the magnificent and historical Lydd Church (known locally because of its large size as ‘The Cathedral of The Marsh’), when on each occasion standing room only remained, as in excess of three hundred mourners crowded inside to pay their respects, including many dignitaries from the RNLI and other Emergency Services, local Councillors and local townsfolk – and of course – with a grieving but immensely proud Guard of Honour lining the path into the church door formed by the Dungeness Lifeboat Crew.
Other Surviving Lady Launchers:
Betty and Judith advised me that apart from themselves, there are, in fact, a further five Lady Launchers still surviving. They are:
Mrs Dilys Oiller
Mrs Sylvia Oiller
Miss Janet Bates
Miss Pat Bates
Miss Kim Bates
Janet, Pat and Kim Bates have now moved away from Dungeness but Dilys and Sylvia Oiller still live locally. (Perhaps there is the possibility here for some further ‘Lady Launcher’ stories in the future? We’ll have to see.)
In just a few months’ time, the year 2015 will be upon us. Going back to my rudimentary command of mathematics calculations mentioned earlier, during that coming year Betty Paine will have completed 52 years service at Dungeness Lifeboat Station and Judith Richardson will have completed 48 years service. Now even I can manage to add those two figures together to come up with a combined total service to the station of one hundred years between these two ladies! Now to me, that is a truly amazing record of the service and dedication of two peoples’ lives to the RNLI and I sincerely believe that RNLI Head Office will feel the same way when they get to hear about it (We’re going to tell them!) and will wish to somehow suitably mark the occasion.
(I feel a party coming on!)
Meanwhile – It’s definitely ‘Hats off’ to these two fine ladies.
Retired Foreman Launcher
Dungeness Lifeboat Station