Friday, 4 June 2010


In 1862 Charles Dickens was in these parts. He heard tales of death at sea for the want of lifeboats along the coast. At Exmouth he found one. He wrote in his weekly periodical “Household Words”:

“I walked sadly by the ripple of a placid sea and came by accident upon the lifeboat house. It was a neat stone building with some show of architecture in it, with a verandah east and west sheltering forms upon which pilots and others might sit under cover in foul weather. I had been told that , at this town, boathouse and boat were the gift of a lady of fortune and it was evident that she was one who did not give with two fingers.”

After 1860 Exmouth was one of the most complete lifeboat stations in the kingdom and the town was justly proud of the fact. The ‘lady of fortune’ ‘who did not give with two fingers” was the sixty six year old Lady Rolle. Lady Rolle was formidable. 'There had been no such woman in England since the famous Duchess of Marlborough' said that reactionary toady Bishop Henry Phillpotts of Exeter. She had been the Honourable Louisa Trefusis, Baron Clinton’s daughter and was trained to benevolent despotism from an early age. When she was twenty eight she married a fat and wealthy slaveowning parliamentarian forty years her senior of whom it was written “Nature had denied him of all pretension to grace or elegance.” Lord Rolle’s most famous role was at the coronation of 1838 when he, in all his finery, fell backwards and rolled down the steps to the throne away from the young Queen Victoria. Thus R.H. Barham:

Then the trumpets braying and the organ playing
And the sweet trombones, with their silvery tones;
But Lord Rolle was rolling; - t’was mighty consoling
To think his Lordship did not break his bones!

After his death in 1842, Lady Rolle had fun spending her husband’s revenue of seventy thousand a year for another forty three years mostly on unworthy causes such as the Anti Reform party and the Church of England but she also gave Exmouth its lifeboat and lifeboat house and thereby saved sailors' lives and for that may we be truly grateful.

I hope Lady Rolle deigned to pick up “Household Words”, it was considered somewhat low, perhaps though with two fingers, and to read Charles Dickens’ tribute to her. I hope it warmed her aristocratic old heart

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