This pen picture, which appeared in 1907, shows the much-photographed Mary Wheatland, "Bognor's mermaid", (1835-1924).

She was then 72 years of age but had for years been an inspiring subject for the noted local photographer, William Pankhurst Marsh (1850-1918), who used the following lines to accompany a postcard of her: "A little old woman stands on the parade of Bognor looking out to sea.

She is clad in a rough blue serge costume on the bodice of which two lifesaving medals are pinned.

A battered sailor hat, bearing her name in gold letters, is tied under her chin with black ribbons. The weatherbeaten face is crumpled up into a network of smiles."

Many similar cards have been produced by other photographers and publishers. It was just such a card which caught my attention at a major postcard fair recently.

How, I wondered, was it possible for this frail-looking creature to be credited with saving more than 30 lives at sea?

Mary Norris was born in Aldingbourne, a village four miles east of Chichester. When only 14 years of age, she went to Bognor, three to four miles distant, to work for a Mrs Mills of Culver Cottage, Aldwick Road, who at that time was the owner of the bathing machines on the Esplanade. A Mrs Pipson was also involved in the business.

In her first summer, the youngster saved the life of one of the bathers - the first of many such achievements.

In 1857, she married George Wheatland. They had seven children.

For nearly six decades, Mary - the first woman to give swimming lessons in Bognor Regis - would operate the machines, with their distinctive red and yellow stripes, from a seafront office opposite the Beach Hotel, alongside the pier.

Competition came in the form of blue-and-white striped machines operated on the west side of the pier by one Frederick Jenkins, who built his machines at his yard in Longford Road in 1905. He also had a number at the end of West Street and at a third site at the east end of the parade opposite Clarence Road.

A newspaper article from 1864 notes, after recording Mary's early employment, that she "begs to inform the Ladies and Public generally visiting this town she is now engaged by Joseph Ragless, whose machines are situated near the Beach Inn where she will pay every attention to those who may favour her with their support".

The sea was not only the source of Mary's livelihood. It was also the source of personal pleasure and enjoyment. A keen swimmer, she relished diving off the pier and would swim for an hour and a half at a time.

Crowds would gather at the groyne to the east of the pier to watch her stand on her head in the sea, with just her feet protruding. Her fitness and health were such she could perform such antics to the age of 71.

For her lifesaving, she was awarded two certificates by the Royal Humane Society and both a bronze and silver medal. She was also presented with a medal termed a Golden Penny, this being bestowed on her by Viscount FitzAlan for a particular act of bravery when she saved six lives but nearly lost her own. One of the party clung round her neck and pulled her under the water with him. Only prompt assistance saved her from being drowned.

On her death on April 1, 1924, at her home in Ivy Lane, South Bersted, aged 89, Bognor mourned the loss of one of its oldest and most respected residents. She was taken by Bognor fishermen to her final resting-place in the graveyard of the town parish church, St Mary Magdalene.

The only memorial to Mary other than paper ephemera and, of course, her medals, is a seat provided by Bognor Regis Town Council placed on the outside of the church wall.

A ceremony to commemorate it was held in 1999 by a group of Mary's family, representing just some of her many descendants in the town.

  • With thanks to Sylvia Endacott, Bognor local historian.