b. 01/01/1865 Gorleston, Norfolk. d. 30/09/1954 Gorleston, Norfolk.
DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 19 - 22/10/1922 Great Yarmouth.
William George “Pingo” or “Jumbo” Fleming (1865-1954) was born on New Years Day 1865 in Mutford, near Gorleston, Norfolk. He was baptised in St Andrew’s Church in Gorleston on 10th September 1865. He was the eldest of nine children born to William Garwood Fleming and Harriet (nee Ames). William attended the local primary school, but at the age of 12, he went to sea for the first time, as a cabin boy on a fishing boat. By the time of the 1881 Census, he was described as a 16 year-old Ordinary Seaman, and he became a lifeboat coxswain in 1886.
In 1888, he became 2nd Coxswain on the No 2 Gorleston Lifeboat and its Coxswain from 1890 to 1902 and of the No 1 Lifeboat by 1903. His first two boats were sailing boats whereas by 1903 he was in a steam lifeboat. In 1906, he married Annie Frances Hickman in Great Yarmouth, though the couple sadly had no children.
William was 57 years old, and an experienced lifeboatman when on the 19th October 1922, off the coast of Great Yarmouth, the SS Hopelyn's steering failed and was blown by a fierce storm onto Scroby Sands. The Caister lifeboat attempted to set out but without success, so at 11pm the Gorleston no. 1 pulling and sailing lifeboat Kentwell was towed out to sea by the tug George Jewson.
By now the Hopelyn was breaking up, the ship was in darkness and the engine room was flooded, the crew taking shelter in the cabin. When Fleming's boat reached the ship there was no sign of life. While keeping a safe distance to prevent being smashed against the wreck, she remained nearby until 7am, returning to harbour assuming all the crew to be dead. However, within 3 hours a flag was spotted on the Hopelyn, and at 10.15am Fleming and his crew set out again. Again the tug towed them out and when the tow rope was cast off the crew hoisted the Kentwell's sail. By now the tide had turned and the lack of draught forced the lifeboatmen to pump out the ballast. Fleming told his crew to row but huge waves picked them up and tossed them down first onto the sand, then against the Hopelyn, whereupon the lifeboat's mizzen outrigger was swept away and the broken plates of the Hopelyn tore into her hull. It was a hopeless situation.
As soon as they were able to refloat on the tide, the tug towed the Kentwell back in. Meanwhile the Eastern District Inspector of the Lifeboats, Captain Carver, had called up the motor lifeboat Agnes Cross and it met up with Fleming, who changed boats and returned to the wreck, but again the heavy seas thwarted their attempts and the Agnes Cross was forced to return. The next morning at 4.30am the Agnes Cross set to sea once again. By now the wreck was in a parlous state. But then the sea came to the rescue; a huge wave lifted the lifeboat up almost on to the after deck and the 24 men aboard, realising this would the only chance, scrambled into the lifeboat despite the massive waves breaking over them. By 7am they were back on dry land.
William remained Coxswain of the Kentwell Lifeboat until 1924, and on the 30th June that year, it was announced in the London Gazette that he was to be awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal. He was one of two lifeboatmen on the list alongside Henry Blogg of Cromer. In the winter of 1924, William became Coxswain of the John & Mary Meiklam, a position he held until 1934. While in command of the various lifeboats he and his crew saved 1,188 lives. For 40 years, he also held the title of Honorary Secretary of the Storm Company, a local lifeboatman’s society. He retired from the lifeboats in 1934, and spent his later years taking holidaymakers out in his rowing boat. In September 1940, the creation of the George Cross saw William’s EGM to be exchanged for the new decoration. His wife passed away in 1942, and he was often seen walking the parade from early morning.
Despite being the eldest of his family, he outlived all of his siblings by three years. He passed away on 30th September 1954 in Northgate Hospital, Great Yarmouth, and he was buried on the 5th October in St Andrew’s Churchyard, Gorleston. William’s medals including his GC, 1953 Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal, RNLI Gold Medal 1922, RNLI Bronze Medal 1925, RNLI Silver Medal 1927, and a silver watch and chain from the Queen of Holland. His medals were owned by his nephew Percy Burrage, who was brought up by his uncle and aunt, who bequeathed them to the RNLI Heritage Trust, Poole, Dorset.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: THE RNLI HERITAGE TRUST, POOLE, DORSET.
BURIAL PLACE: GORLESTON OLD GROUND, GORLESTON, NORFOLK.
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