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Blue plaque will honour Gorleston lifeboat George Cross hero William Fleming

PUBLISHED: 09:46 17 October 2017 | UPDATED: 09:48 17 October 2017

Retired long-serving Gorleston lifeboat coxswain William Fleming on his 84th birthday, five years before his death. Pictures: CLIFFORD TEMPLE

Retired long-serving Gorleston lifeboat coxswain William Fleming on his 84th birthday, five years before his death. Pictures: CLIFFORD TEMPLE

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A blue plaque is to be placed on the former home of a Gorleston lifeboat hero - and holder of the George Cross for bravery.

It was on one of those mercy missions that his bravery and seamanship earned him the top civilian honour.

The service to the stricken collier Hopelyn resulted in Coxswain Fleming being presented in 1923 with not only the George Cross but also the RNLI’s own version of the VC, its coveted gold medal.

In a howling gale and 40ft high waves he took the Gorleston lifeboat no fewer than four times out to the Hopelyn which was stuck hard and fast on Scroby Sands, her crew of 24 and the ship’s pet cat, in peril as they huddled for shelter from the raging seas that persistently swept over them.

But the lifeboat was only a pulling and sailing craft and after several rescue attempts, the lifeboatmen were exhausted and their boat damaged.

Undaunted, Fleming and some of his colleagues volunteered to join the Lowestoft motor powered lifeboat as she launched to continue the rescue, aware their expert knowledge of conditions on Scroby and the waters around it could be invaluable.

The mission was a success with everybody plucked to safety – even the cat. It became one of the greatest rescues in the history of the RNLI and 18 Gorleston and Lowestoft lifeboatmen were decorated for their bravery by the RNLI.

Fleming did not become the recipient of the George Cross in the wake of this 1922 Hopelyn drama; he was originally awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal but 17 years later that was changed by the royal command of King George VI during the second world war to the George Cross to honour civilian bravery.

Fleming had been in his late 50s when he became coxswain in 1922, a post he held until 1934. Over his 49 years of service he helped to rescue 1,188 people.

He lived to the age of 89 and even in his twilight years did not turn his back on the sea, for he was regularly seen, rowing his small skiff off Gorleston. Fleming died in 1954.

The blue heritage plaque will be unveiled on 11 Pavilion Road, Gorleston, where he lived whilst serving as coxswain, on Monday, October 23, at 11am.

Organisers Gorleston-on-Sea Heritage group would love descendants of his and of other lifeboatmen of the time to attend.

Group[ chairman Les Cockrill said: “It is quite probable there are, in the area, descendants of his and of other lifeboatmen who were crew on some of the exceptional rescues he carried out.

“We would love them to be with us on this occasion rather than to read about it after the event.”

If anyone has relevant photographs or memorabilia that could be copied or loaned for a mini-exhibition in connection with William Fleming on the day of the unveiling of the plaque please contact Les Cockrill on 01493 667709 in advance of the event.

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