Richard Hoodless: The 19th-Century Horse Swimmer

Besides Grace Horsley Darling being considered a hero in the nineteenth-century there was also a farmer named Richard Hoodless who lived near the Grainthorpe coast of Lincolnshire. When he was not farming, he was “said to devote himself to saving of mariners from drowning, ad this [was accomplished] without any of the usual apparatus for succouring ships in distress.[1] Rather, Hoodless accomplished his remarkable missions using nothing but courage and his horse.

A Swimming Horse and Richard Hoodless

A swimming horse. Author’s collection.

Hoodless lived on a small piece of land that had been “rescued from the sea, and almost cut off from the adjacent country by the badness of the roads.”[2] When stormy weather approached, it was a call for Hoodless to go to the top of his dwelling and peer through his telescope. There, whether it be night or day, he would watch approaching vessels, and when lifeboats could not be launched, he would come to the aid of those struggling at sea. 

Just when all aboard a struggling vessel thought themselves lost, something would leave the shore and head towards them. More than once sea-going travelers thought, “Can it be possible? A man on horseback! Yes, it [was] Richard Hoodless coming to the rescue, seated on his old nag, an animal accustomed to these salt-water excursions!”[3] Moreover, it was no easy task to reach those in danger.

Although the horse appeared to be trained for this hazardous enterprise, in reality it had no training. In fact, the success of the horse depended “on the skill and firmness of the rider.”[4] Hoodless’ method involved repeatedly plunging forward and turning only temporarily as a wave crashed. A description of his method follows:

“[W]hen meeting a particularly angry surf or swell, [he would] … turn his horse’s head, bend forward, and allow the wave to roll over them. Were the horse to face the larger billows, and attempt to pierce them, the water would enter his nostrils, and render him breathless, by which he would soon be exhausted.”[5]

Sometimes Hoodless swam to the struggling vessels by himself. Usually, however, he went by horseback to preserve his strength, and he was said to be “seldom unsuccessful” when on horseback. When at last Hoodless reached the endangered vessel, he would place “two or three mariner’s en croupe [onto the horse],”[6] take them to dry land, and bravely return for the “next installment.”

The danger was constant, particularly if a vessel was laying on its side as rigging and ropes could easily be concealed by the water. Once, after Hoodless had secured two seaman atop his horse and was attempting to leave, he discovered the horse could not move. Upon further investigation, he discovered the “animal was entangled in a rope under water.”[6] Fortunately, Hoodless was able to pull the rope up with his foot and cut it with his pocket knife. This freed the horse and allowed them to make it to shore.

Hoodless’s rescues became legendary. Once, it was reported he “saved the captain of a vessel and his wife and ten seamen — some on the back of the horse, and others hanging on by the stirrups.”[7] But Hoodless’s real fame did not come from that rescue, it came from a rescue made in 1833, when he and his horse swam “through a stormy sea to the wreck of the Hermione.”[8]

The Hermione was a brig, a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts popular because of its maneuverability and captained by Stephen Walton. It was laden with coal and got into trouble off the Lincolnshire coast close to Donna Nook where a submerged neck of land, called Haile Sand Flat, existed. Four crew members were lost, but, fortunately, according to the London Evening Standard, the remaining four crew members were saved by “the active exertions of … Hoodless.”[9]

For Hoodless’s bravery, he received from the British and Foreign Sailor’s Society “a 10l. note, as a mark of their especial estimation of his brave philanthropy.”[10] He also received a hearty testimonial from the Royal Humane Society who resolved unanimously the following:

“[T]he noble courage and humanity displayed by Richard Hoodless for the preservation of the crew of the ‘Hermione’ from drowning, when the vessel was wrecked near [Donna Nook], on the coast of Lincolnshire, on the 31st of August 1833, and the praiseworthy manner in which he risked his life on that occasion, by swimming his horse through a heavy sea to the wreck … called forth the lively admiration of the special general court, and justly entitles him to the honorary medallion of the institution, which is hereby unanimously adjudged to be presented to him at the ensuing anniversary festival.”[11]


  • [1] Literature, in King’s County Chronicle, 14 February 1849, p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] “Richard Hoodless, the Horse-Swimmer,” in Nairnshire Mirror, and General Advertiser, 10 March 1849, p. 1. 
  • [7] “Richard Hoodless, The Horse-Swimmer,” Leicestershire Mercury, 10 February 1849, p. 4.
  • [8} Literature, in King’s County Chronicle, p. 4.
  • [9] “To the Editor of the Standard,” in London Evening Standard, 7 September 1833, p. 3.
  • [10] “Hoodless, the Horse-Swimmer of Lincolnshire,” in Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 4 June 1849, p. 6.
  • [11] Ibid.

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