" Blakeney lifeboat Hettie donated to the History Centre of the (BAHS)
The Blakeney Area Historical Society (BAHS) in North Norfolk

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Blakeney Lifeboat Hettie

An historic lifeboat - or at least an “exceptional” model of it - has returned to the Norfolk village which was home to the lifeboat Hettie for 18 years. The History Centre was recently presented with a detailed model of the Blakeney lifeboat Hettie by Constance Firth, grandaughter of George Firth, the man who donated money to build the real 'Hettie' lifeboat.

Model of Lifeboat Hettie

John and Pam Peake from The Blakeney Area Historical Society (BAHS) with the model.

The presentation model of the Hettie, the Blakeney lifeboat between 1873 and 1891, was given to the prosperous Bradford Stuff Merchant and philanthropist George Firth in 1873 from the RNLI.

Mr Firth donated £412 to the charity - worth about £45,000 in today’s money - which paid for the Hettie and its annual maintenance.

And 140 years later, the 3ft-long model has been given back to Blakeney by the granddaughter of George, Constance Firth, just days before her death.

Constance Firth, Granddaughter of George Firth

Constance, 94, lived in Sandgate, Kent, where she died on March 1 and had inherited the model from her father.

Husband and wife John and Pam Peake, from Blakeney, picked up the model the Saturday before her death after a close friend of the 94-year-old rang the village.

Pam, who helps run the History Centre in Blakeney, said: “We thought it was absolutely urgent to get it. It was lucky we did because Constance’s house was locked up after she died. She treasured the model and was very emotionally attached to it. It was her last wish for it to come back to Blakeney. During the last few days of her life all she talked about was that her boat was going back to Blakeney.”

Constance, who never had children, also gave the history centre a small collection of family photographs along with a portrait of her grandfather.

She only visited Blakeney once in her lifetime with a friend when she was younger and apparently asked where the lifeboat house was, which had closed by the time of her trip.

The Hettie was kept in the original black-tarred wooden lifeboat house on Blakeney Point, built in 1862, which was moved along the point by 1898 because of encroaching sand.

In 1898 the second iconic blue RNLI lifeboat house was built on the site of the first lifeboat base, but it closed in 1935.

The building which previously held the Hettie, a pulling and sailing lifeboat, remains next to the blue building and is used as a university science research base.

Pam said: “Obviously no expense was spared when the model was made. It is virtually complete. It is incredibly detailed and it makes you wonder it if was made by somebody who worked in the boatyard where the Hettie was made.”

The vessel, which could hold a crew of about 14 people, was built by T. Woolfe and Son at Shadwell on the River Thames.

Other Norfolk lifeboats built by T Woolfe and Son included the Recompense in 1865 for Bacton; the Huddersfield in 1866 for Happisburgh; the Grocers in 1867 for Mundesley; the Licensed Victualler in 1867 for Hunstanton; the Benjamin Bond Cabbell in 1868 for Cromer; the Eliza Adams in 1869 for Wells; the Lily Bird in 1874 for Brancaster; and the Heyland in 1882 for Sea Palling.

The only element missing from the Hettie is an anchor, but it includes blue and white oars and the relieving pumps and valves.

“This is the only model of a T Woolfe and Son boat that we know of. We’d like to know who the model maker was because it is a very skilled piece of work,” Pam added.

Presentation models were given to anyone who donated money so a lifeboat could be made and some have recently sold for thousands of pounds.

The exact reason why the Blakeney boat was called the Hettie is unknown but one theory is George’s first wife, who died in 1872 aged 35, was called Martha Hester.

There are no pictures of the boat in action but service boards on the Blakeney church walls reveal the Hettie saved 12 lives and was launched four times. It would have included 12 oars and was 37 inches long.

One of the rescues was on February 21 1877 for a boat called the Aid from Hull and her final rescue was when she helped the HMS Beaver in 1885.

Pam said: “The lifeboat is totally iconic for Blakeney. The granddaughter of one of the village coxswains was in tears when she saw the model. There is a strong emotional link between lifeboats and the village.”

Other lifeboats based in Blakeney were the Brightwell between 1862 and 1873; the Zaccheus Burroughes between 1891 and 1908; and the Caroline between 1908 and 1935.

The presentation model of the Hettie will be on show at the History Centre Blakeney, at the back of the village hall on Langham Road, during the summer. Click here for opening hours.

If anyone has any information about the Hettie or any other Blakeney lifeboats please contact Pam on 01263 740388.

To read the article in the EDP please click here