IN THE BEGINNING: The Lifeboat Story

IN THE BEGINNING: The Lifeboat Story

Upon the death of the third Baron Crewe in the year 1721 the ‘Crewe Trust’ was established, and administered from Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. Amongst the many early works of this charitable trust a number of initiatives were introduced for the protection and assistance of seamen. In time the Crewe Trust evolved an elaborate organisation for preserving life from shipwreck, involving many local people in readiness to assist with the hazardous undertaking of rescue at sea. So much so that the establishment of the first Lifeboat station in the world was a further development in the Trust’s progress.
The first boat known to embody the principals of design integral to the early Lifeboat was to come from France, although it was never used as such in any rescue attempt. Experiments with the boat were carried out on the river Seine, it having been fitted with stem and stern air cases, was able to remain afloat when filled with water and could also right itself promptly when overturned. For the credit of employing these principals specifically to assist in rescue missions at sea, we must return to England.

Born in Essex, at Dunmow in 1742 Lionel Lukin became credited with the invention of the Lifeboat after some experimentation along the French lines in 1784 with his own conversion of a Norway ‘yawl’ which he tested out on the river Thames, and in 1785 having received the personal encouragement of King George IV, Lukin took out a patent. The boatmen of Ramsgate were most unfortunate in overlooking the opportunity they might have been given when Lukin’s first patented ‘unimmergible’ boat was entrusted to a Ramsgate pilot for further testing, but who regrettably used it principally, it is suspected, for the purposes of smuggling. The features that had been incorporated into Lukin’s design were a projecting gunwale some nine inches thick amidships tapering off toward stem and stern, with an hollow watertight enclosure built into the boat for increased buoyancy, as well as the watertight boxed enclosures front and stern, he also added a false iron keel for additional weight to help keep the boat upright. Lukin’s next model, made in 1786 for Dr John Sharpe, Archdeacon of Northumberland, who had asked him to convert a ‘coble’ by including in it, the principals of his patent was duly dispatched to Sharpe, in Bamburgh, to serve for a number of years as the first known purpose built Lifeboat. Lukin died at Hythe in Kent in 1834, having become a successful and well respected coach builder and inventor, on his tombstone he had inscribed with pride : ‘This Lionel Lukin was the first who built a life~boat, and was the original inventor of that principal of safety by which many lives and property have been preserved from shipwreck.’ Lukin was clearly a man ahead of his time, for despite his achievement, his appeals for the adoption of his craft, made to the then First Lord of the Admiralty and the Deputy Master of Trinity House fell resoundingly upon ‘deaf ears’.

Fortunately, ‘for those in peril on the sea’, Lukin was not alone in his ambitions, another independent inventor, a parish clerk from South Shields, William Wouldhave, also made a claim for the invention of the Lifeboat. Curiously, his tombstone, which was erected thirteen years before Lukin’s states : ‘Inventor of that invaluable blessing to mankind the Lifeboat’ Wouldhave did not succeed with the practical application of his invention until 1789, three years after Lukin’s converted coble was presented to Dr. Sharpe. In this year a competition was launched to reward any inventor that could provide a craft for the purpose of saving lives from shipwreck. Following the tragic fate of the doomed Newcastle ship the ‘Adventure’ that had gone aground near the coast, at the mouth of the river Tyne. From the shore, although clearly visible, nothing could be done to save the passenger’s and crew who were seen to be dropping from the rigging into the sea. This competition, won by Wouldhave then led to the construction of the first craft to be designed purposely to serve from the outset as a Lifeboat.15

 Henry Greathead, a Shipwright also from South Shields was entrusted with the job of developing the best of all the ideas submitted in the contest, including those of Wouldhave but with the fitting of cork into the bow and stern air cases, and along the gunwale. The result was the 30 foot life~boat named ‘Original’, which was launched in 1790, to remain in service for 40 years. The ‘Original’ was used in saving hundreds of lives near the mouth of the Tyne without any loss of life to her crew. The runaway success of this craft motivated the Duke of Northumberland to order another boat from Greathead which was stationed at North Shields in 1798 and within a few years he had built some 31 Lifeboats. The result of which led to the establishing of a number of early Lifeboat stations following the example set by the trustees of Crewe and Bamburgh.

It was however Lukin who was responsible for the construction at Lowestoft, at the request of ‘The Suffolk Humane Society’, of a boat, which was larger than the ‘Original’ of 1790, being 40 feet in length with a 10 foot beam, but significantly also the first sailing Lifeboat. This was in 1807 and was purpose built to suit the task of searching the outlying sandbanks off the east coast. Yet, again inspired by the benevolence of the Duke of Northumberland, who became First Lord of the Admiralty and a keen promoter of scientific advances, another national competition was held in 1851. Being shortly after the forth Duke had accepted the Presidency, he himself offered prize~money of one hundred Guinea’s, an action which was to have a considerable influence in the further development of Lifeboat construction. The event attracted 280 entrants, out of which James Beeching of Yarmouth was to win, on the basis of having produced the most effective ‘self righting’ craft. He went on to construct the prize winning craft for the Ramsgate Harbour Trust, who were most satisfied with the new boat. After slight modifications, and further testing the Duke himself placed an order at his own expense for the construction of a further three of Beeching’s Lifeboats. The modifications were entrusted to James Peake, and the construction carried out at Woolwich dockyard.

Sir William Hilary, a practical and experienced Boatman who was to become the founder of the Lifeboat Institution in 1824 died in 1852. During his lifetime he had personally helped in the rescue of more than 300 lives and also became president of the Isle of Man Life~boat Association. ‘The National Institution for the preservation of life from Shipwreck’ has retained it’s charitable status from the outset, but after 18 years in practical application to it’s mission Hilary himself considered the need for public funding. The request made to the Home Secretary, Lord John Russel was flatly rejected under consideration of such a change being ‘a departure from the general principal by which, in this Country similar Institutions are left to private benevolence.’ Hilary’s concern was in that the substantial funding that had lifted the Institution of onto such a good start had gradually been dwindling. This, it has been argued was for no other reason than the prevailing conditions of social unrest in the nation at that time. This, despite the greatest of efforts, combined with possible mis~management, neglect or lack of know how, in the methods required for the successful raising of charitable funds, saw a temporary decline in the Institutions fortunes. The readiness of the population to respond to disasters when brought to public attention however remained buoyant.

It was under the Presidency of the Duke of Northumberland and in the first half of the 1850’s that the Institution began its recovery with a number of important reforms. It was in 1854 that the Institution was renamed the ‘Royal National Lifeboat Institution’. This same year under the provisions of the Mercantile Marine Fund the Committee of the Privy Council for Trade offered a government subsidy, at first amounting to £2000/~ per year on the basis of a number of conditions. This acceptance from the Board of Trade of financial assistance was considered a necessary, if temporary measure to ensure the Institution was able to continue to fulfill it’s primary task, and only lasted for fifteen years, being brought to a close by the Institution itself. It was at the close of 1869 that the R.N.L.I. was once again in a position to declare publicly that it no longer wished for support from the Mercantile Marine Fund and as a charitable Institution, it has not looked back since. A Select Committee of the House of Commons, appointed in 1897 to investigate into allegations of mismanagement in the R.N.L.I. reported in its general conclusion, that ‘the thanks of the whole community are due to the committee of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for the energy and good management (often in very difficult circumstances) with which they have for so many years successfully carried out the national work of life saving, and this without reward or payment of any sort.’

15~ ‘The Lifeboat Story’ : Patrick Howarth, 1957. Routledge, Kegan and Paul Ltd.