During more than half a century of service to the RNLI Peter Barker has been responsible for helping to save scores of lives from the seas around Margate Lifeboat station.
Yet at this festive time of year, when thoughts turn to family and Christmas celebrations, Peter is thinking back more than 15 years to an unknown man whose life he was unable to save and whose passing left behind a mystery which may never be solved.
Peter has had an illustrious service with the RNLI since officially joining at 17 years old. He has crewed both Margate’s inshore and all-weather lifeboats and served as the station’s coxswain/mechanic from 1987 to 2005. Now aged 71, Peter remains a crew member, being the station’s Lifeboat Press Officer.
During his time as coxswain/mechanic of the Rother and Mersey class lifeboats Peter led numerous rescues, but one incident still plays on his mind – and particularly at this time of year.
The lifeboat crew had been called to recover a body spotted by a passing ship around six miles off Margate. Despite widespread enquiries, including overseas, the police were not able to identify the man, or the cause of his death.
When Peter gave a statement at the man’s inquest he asked what would happen to him. He was told since he was unidentified he would be buried in an unmarked grave at the local cemetery.
Peter said: “I asked who would be there and was told probably no one other than the cemetery staff as no one knew him. I replied that we knew him and would like to attend and asked to be told when it would be. After hearing nothing further I learned that the burial had since taken place.
“The cemetery staff pointed out the plot and I laid a simple bunch of flowers and a note from the lifeboat crew saying: ‘no one knew him – but we did’. I repeated this on the anniversary of the call each year until I retired.”
More than 15 years on, particularly at Christmas when families come together, Peter thinks back on this man and of a family, possibly in another country, who are still wondering why he never came home.
“Christmas is the time of year when you think of these sort of things,” said Peter.
“I have always wondered who this unfortunate chap was, did he fall overboard from a ship in distant waters, did he have an accident ashore somewhere? It is a shame that somebody somewhere is living with the unanswered question of what happened to their husband, father, son or brother.
“If only the story could at least be partly closed, if the two mysteries of what happened to him and who he was could be joined somehow. I’m sure that could bring relief and closure to a family somewhere this Christmas and for the crew it would be great to know that we were able to return him to his loved ones.”
To help the RNLI to continue its vital work Peter is calling on the public to support the charity’s lifesaving work this Christmas as he and his fellow lifeboat volunteers prepare to be on call over the holidays.
With thousands of volunteers around Ireland and the UK, each RNLI crew member signs up to save everyone from drowning – the charity’s mission since 1824. This Christmas many will leave loved ones behind to answer the call, each time hoping to reunite another family, and see those in trouble at sea safely returned. Over the past decade, RNLI lifeboats have launched over 1,200 times during the festive period.
“We know that every time our crews go out they hope for a good outcome, but sadly this sometimes isn’t the case, “ said Peter. “Through people supporting this year’s Christmas appeal, with their help we can get so much closer to our goal of saving every one.”
To make a donation to the RNLI’s Christmas Appeal visit: RNLI.org/Xmas