Joel Merrien Grunnill MBE, 1924 – 2011: A true lifeboating legend
Friday 27 May 2011
Author: Russell Matthews
Joel was the last of a long line of Grunnills to serve as a volunteer crew member on the Skegness lifeboat. At the time of his retirement from the crew in 1984 he had served 45 years, and brought to an end almost 160 years of continuous lifeboat service by Grunnill family members.
Born in Skegness in June 1924, Joel was involved with the RNLI from a very young age. His father, Wilf Grunnill, was a crewman on the lifeboat – and the station’s first tractor driver when horses were replaced in the 1930s – and his mother, Mary, was a dedicated fundraiser.
In his teenage years, Joel would accompany his father to lifeboat launches, helping out as he grew older. Talking to the Lifeboat magazine in 2006, Joel said, ‘The Grunnills had always been on the lifeboats, so it was natural for me to get involved.’
At the start of the Second World War in 1939 many lifeboat stations found themselves short-handed as lifeboatmen left for military service. This offered Joel – then aged just 15 – the opportunity to join the Skegness lifeboat crew and follow in his father’s, grand-father’s and great-grand-father’s footsteps.
During the war, the Anne Allen lifeboat was often called upon two or three times a week to search for survivors of downed aircraft. One such incident occurred in October 1941, when an Allied bomber ditched in gale force winds and rough seas, seven miles from Skegness. An RAF rescue boat from Boston was unable to reach the five men who had managed to escape the aircraft into a dinghy.
Following their rescue by Joel and the crew of the Anne Allen, and a short recovery in an RAF hospital, the rescued airmen presented the lifeboat crew with an oar from the dinghy, inscribed with their names. The oar is still on display in Skegness lifeboat station, seventy years later.
Joel also recalled a particularly cold rescue in early 1947 when the lifeboat launched into a partially-frozen North Sea. Speaking in 2006, he told the Lifeboat, ‘We were going out to a ship, and had to weave through the ice and fend it off with boat hooks. The lifeboat couldn’t go very fast and the ship was quite far out to sea. I’ve never been so cold!’
In 1951, Joel was appointed Second Coxswain – a position he held for 33 years until his retirement in 1984. He served on three Skegness lifeboats – the Anne Allen, The Cuttle and Charles Fred Grantham. During his time as crew the lifeboats launched hundreds of times and rescued 197 people.
Joel continued his dedicated support of the RNLI in Skegness during his retirement, first as Station Honorary Secretary (equivalent to Lifeboat Operations Manager now) from 1992 to 1994, and as Station Chairman from 1994 until his death on Monday. He also spent many hours each week assisting April in her role as Box Secretary, emptying and counting the donations from some 200 RNLI collection boxes around the Skegness area, raising tens-of-thousands of pounds for the charity each year.
Coxswain of Skegness lifeboat, John Irving, said: ‘It was typical of Joel’s modesty that he insisted his MBE was presented to him in Skegness, saying it was recognition of the entire station, not just himself.’
He added: ‘Joel was a true friend, not only to myself but to everyone at Skegness lifeboat station and his service record will never be equalled. He had a smile for everyone and always made new recruits – myself included, a long time ago – feel very welcome. He will be greatly missed by us all.’
Paul Boissier, Chief Executive of the RNLI said: ‘I have only had the privilege of meeting Joel Grunnill on one occasion, during a recent visit to Skegness, but I found him to be one of the most impressive and dedicated lifeboatmen that I have ever met.
‘Coming from a long line of Skegness lifeboatmen, and having supported the Skegness lifeboat himself for over 80 years, there was nothing that Joel didn't know about the waters on the Lincolnshire coast, and he was held in the highest respect at the station.
‘Joel was the true embodiment of the great British tradition of lifeboating: men and women who selflessly give up their time to go out in small boats to rescue strangers in distress upon the sea. There will be many people in Skegness, in the wider RNLI community, and around the UK who will be saddened by the passing of such an accomplished but modest man.’
In line with his modesty during his life, Joel’s wishes were for a small and private funeral, and for his ashes to be scattered at sea by the Skegness lifeboat. Donations in his memory can be made to the RNLI, via Parker's Funeral Directors of Wainfleet.