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28 October 2014

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The Suevic

Remembering The Suevic

This year marks the centenary of the RNLI's biggest ever rescue of human life, and what’s more it all happened off the Cornish coast in March 1907. Hear a two part report, and see the pictures of the rescue, and the re-enactment...

The RNLI in Cornwall has been involved in countless heroic rescues around our coastline.

Since the charity was founded in 1824, its lifeboats have saved more than 137,000 lives. In 2005 RNLI lifeboats rescued 8,104 people - an average of 22 people per day. RNLI Lifeguards assisted 9,930 people.

RNLI Lifeboat Crew
The heroic lifeboat crew

The charity's biggest ever rescue happened 100 years ago off the Cornish coast.

In March 1907 the White Star Liner Suevic hit rocks just off The Lizard. She was en route from Australia to Plymouth with 456 people onboard, including more than 70 babies, when she went aground within site of the then Lizard Lifeboat Station.

It was dark, there was a gale blowing, and a heavy swell was running – but it didn't stop the local lifeboat crews successfully rescuing everyone onboard.

Over a 12 hour period RNLI volunteers from The Lizard, Cadgwith, Coverack and Porthleven brought all the passengers and crew ashore. No one was lost and the rescue resulted in the awarding of six RNLI silver medals for gallantry.

BBC Radio Cornwall's Hannah Stacey took part in a film reconstruction of the dramatic event. She has compiled two radio reports. Click on the links below to hear them:

'The pluck displayed by the women, many of whom carried babies in their arms – there were no fewer than eighty-five children aboard – was simply grand,'  stated The West Briton on 21 March 1907.

Back on dry land
The Suevic Crew come ashore at Polpeor Cove

The success of the rescue was due to several factors; the calm that was maintained onboard the Suevic, the work of the RNLI lifeboats and their volunteer crews, the actions of two of the ships crew, and the reaction of the local communities in welcoming the casualties. Local newspaper articles illustrate this:

'Was there any suggestion of a panic? None whatever. I have never seen better behaviour in my life.'

It was a most efficient and professional rescue and still stands as the biggest ever rescue of human life in one incident by the volunteer crews of the RNLI.

Much was quite rightly made at the time, of the medal presentations, but it is clear that many other people deserved to be acknowledged for their bravery and commitment throughout the event. 

Volunteers taking part in the reconstruction

After nine days on the rocks Suevic was salvaged in an unusual operation. Her bow was blown away from her stern by dynamite. The bow was left to break up where the ship went aground, but the stern section was towed to Southampton for repair.

Meanwhile at the Harland and Wolff yard in Belfast, ship builders constructed a new bow. With the two sections so far apart, Suevic became known as the longest ship in the world.

What became of the RNLI lifeboats in the area is a matter of record, and now the famous stretch of coastline is covered by the Tyne class all weather lifeboat that is based at Kilcobben Cove.

But what of Suevic? She was renamed the Skytteren and eventually ended her days in Norway where her crew scuttled her when she was trapped by the German Navy.

last updated: 09/03/07
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