Lady Haig

Boat Specification
Boat Name: 
Lady Haig
Boat Type: 
Deal Hoveller
Boat Length: 
27ft
Boat Beam: 
7ft 6ins
Boat Draft: 
2ft
Boat Displacement: 
Not known
Boat Engine: 
2.2L BMC Diesel
Boat Construction: 
Clionker, elm and oak
Boat Builder: 
Dan Trott, North Deal
Boat Year: 
1928

Saving lives at sea had long been every-day work for Lady Haig when she was towed across the Channel by the Skoot (schuit) Hilda on Friday 31st May 1940. She was commanded and manned by the Royal Navy, but also on board as First Engineer was Reginald Walter, who was mentioned in despatches. Lady Haig was badly damaged during her work on the beaches, but luckily survived to be towed back to her home port.

She was a lifeboat with a difference. Only 27ft long, a clinker-built open boat, she was a 'hoveller' - a name given to unlicenced, privately owned pilot- and life- boats, which went out to wrecks in the olden days, (often to plunder them!). Lady Haig was built for Harry Meakins, the Landlord of the Port Arms public house in Deal and she was always kept ready for launching off the beach. The notorious Goodwin Sands and the Downs, on the approach to the narrowest part of the English Channel, have claimed thousands of ships over the years. Harry Meakins then aged 63, and his crew, Dick Brown with his son Jim, his cousins Charles and Dave Pritchard, both in their 70's, Edward Griggs, Thomas and George Baker, both younger men - would turn out at a moment's notice to render assistance. Their lifeboat received no subsidy or grant. They relied for payment on bounties alone. Sometimes they were told in clear terms that their help was not required because, for the ship owners, it incurred a liability.

1939 had been a busy year for Lady Haig and other Deal boats. When war was declared, the Downs became a contraband control station and there were often 200 ships at anchor there. Inevitably, some collisions occurred and when air raids started, the Deal ships were kept busy rendering assistance, taking out stores and medical supplies and landing survivors.

Jim Brown, the last of her pre-war crew surviving in 1989, took part in one of Lady Haig's most famous rescues not long before Dunkirk, that of the 6,000 ton steamship Mahratta. Mahratta went ashore on Goodwin Fork during the early evening of 11th October 1939. Fifty years later Jim, a retired Trinity House Captain with 42 years' service, recalled how they received a telegram from the owners authorising them to go out and take charge of salvage operations. After four days, the efforts of six tugs to refloat the Mahratta failed, the weather worsened and as the tide scooped out the sands under her keel, the Mahratta's back broke with rivets going off like rifle shots! Wide cracks opened in her hull until finally her boilers exploded while Lady Haig was lying alongside with Jim's father on board. It was then a race against time to get the crew off in a full South-westerly gale, with a heavy sea running. The tugs had left her to anchor off Deal and Lady Haig ferried the crew from the wreck to the steamer Challenge in four runs. On their third run, they took the ship's lifeboat in tow with luggage they had saved. As they cleared the bow of the Mahratta, they were hit by a big wave and almost capsized. So they slipped the lifeboat, but only after they had rescued ten men from it.

Lady Haig had been built for Meakins by Dan Trott and was launched from his North Deal yard in January 1928. When she was not saving lives, she took holiday-makers for pleasure trips round the bay and engaged in light haulage.

Jim Brown started in the Trinity House service as a seaman and retired forty-two years later as one of their most respected Masters who also earned fame for the superb and intricate model ships he constructed during his time off.

By a strange coincidence, two of Jim Brown's cousins, who served in the Grenadier Guards, were rescued from the beaches in Lady Haig.

After her part in the Evacuation of Dunkirk, Lady Haig went back to her peaceful occupation of fishing. She was eventually converted to a cabin cruiser and kept on the River Stour near Sandwich, Kent. On one occasion, she nearly came to grief when she crashed against one of the winches on Deal beach in a severe storm. She was badly holed on the port side and was left to rot ashore. This is where John Burbridge found her in 1979. They had intended burning her on the beach where she lay. Instead, John Burbridge repaired her, moored her in Margate Harbour and used her for fishing and trawling round Sandwich Bay. Now the old lady has been pensioned off.

Source: 2, 3, 4, 5, 11 & 19

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