The Lifeboat & its Work – Part 1

In this sea-girt isle of ours the warmest sympathies of all are constantly excited on behalf of those who suffer from Shipwreck ; and hence in our age it is happily regarded as one of the most important social duties to provide, So far as practicable, for the safety of the seafaring traveller – to protect his ship from the electric fire, to light up our headlands for his safe return, and to plant Life-boats on the coast for his succour in the hour of distress.

Important as those objects are, both nationally and individually, yet it is only within the memory of living men that any real and practical attempts were made to promote and establish them. The thunderbolt continued to burst on the unprotected mast, to set fire to the ship, and to decimate the crew ; the homeward-bound mariner would furl his sail when within sight of his native shore, and be welcomed to it by coal fires or tinkling bells while those who suffered from shipwreck were frequently allowed to perish within sight of land, their countrymen listening to their piercing cries for help, and yet powerless to succour them. 

Previous to the year 1854, the National Life-Boat InstItution, through the medium of its journal and other sources, had unceasingly expressed its strong convictions of the utter inadequacy of all the then existing means for affording succour to shipwrecked persons around our coasts. Its Committee mourned over this state of things as a national discredit, believing that many hundreds of lives were every year sacrificed at the very threshold of our doors, without any of those strenuous efforts being made for their relief which the urgency of the case demanded, and which our character as a Christian nation loudly called for. They also urged that the shipowner as the employer of the seaman, and the agent for the emigrant and other passengers, should be compelled to provide every available means to prevent accidents and to afford them security. 

The Government of the day at last became convinced of those facts, and made a successful effort to meet the evil, by means of that great shipping measure – “An Act to Amend and Consolidate the Acts relating to Merchant Shipping.” This Act embodies a most comprehensive system of legislation for all the vast and varied interests involved in the immense shipping trade of this country; and it has been worthily supplemented by the Shipping Amendment Act of 1873.

Soon afterwards the Board of Trade, as the representative of the Government, joined cordially with the National Life-boat Institution in completely reorganising the means for Saving Life from Shipwreck on the coasts of the United Kingdom, the Institution undertaking the management of the Life-boat system, and the Board of Trade, in conjunction with the Coastguard, that of the rocket and mortar apparatus. 

We will now proceed to describe what is known as to the origin of the Life-boat. As is frequently the case with great inventions, it is somewhat difficult to say who was the first designer of the Life-boat ; for although Mr. Henry Greathead, a shrewd boat-builder at South Shields, has very generally been credited with designing and building the first Life-boat, about the year 1789, yet it is certain that Mr. Lionel Lukin, a coach-builder in Long Acre, London, had designed and fitted a boat for Saving Life in cases of Shipwreck, which he called an “Unimmergible Boat,” some four or five years before Greathead brought forward his plan for a Life-boat. 

Lukin was a native of an inland town, Dunmow, in Essex, and not a resident in a seaport; he had nevertheless learned “that by the oversetting and sinking of both sailing and rowing boats many valuable lives had been lost,” and was thus induced to turn his attention to the subject in 1784. The then Prince of Wales (George IV) who knew Lukin personally, not only encouraged him to test his invention experimentally, but offered to pay the whole expense of his experiments. 

It appears that Lukin then purchased a Norway yawl, which he fitted up according to his plan, and which he tried in the Thames. To the outside of the upper frame of the yawl he added a projecting gunwale of cork, tapering from nine inches amidships off to very little at the head and stern; and, in addition to this, he formed within the boat, from the gunwale to the floor, a hollow water-tight enclosure, which gave the buoyancy that was required, the compartment running nearly from stem to stern. By these means “the vessel had such a power of buoyancy in its upper part as to render the specific gravity of the whole vessel and its contents less than the specific gravity of the body of water it would displace in sinking.” In order to give it weight or ballast sufficient to keep it upright, the patentee added a false iron keel, and he increased the buoyancy of the boat by two watertight enclosures, one at its head, and another at its stern. Upon these principles several Life-boats were constructed, and found “to be strictly unimmergible.” A patent for the design was taken out by Lukin on the 2nd of November, 1785, and the specification appeared in the third volume of the “Repertory of Arts.”

The Rev. Dr. Shairp, of Bamborough, hearing of the invention, and having charge of a charity for saving life and property at sea, sent a coble to Mr. Lukin to be made ” unimmergible.” This was done, and satisfactory accounts were afterwards received of the altered boat, which was reported to have saved several lives in the course of the first year of its use. 

Although the Prince of Wales had been the liberal patron of Mr. Lukin, yet even his influence was not sufficient to bring the Life-boat into notice ; and Mr. Lukin appealed in vain for encouragement to the First Lord of the Admiralty, to the Deputy Master of the Trinity House, and to various Admirals and Captains of the Navy. With the exception of the Bamborough coble, not a single Life-boat on this plan was placed at any of the dangerous parts of our coast.

Lukin retired from business in 1824, and ultimately went to reside at Hythe, in Kent, where he died in 1834. At his request, the following inscription was engraved on the reverse side of his tombstone, and is still to be seen in Hythe churchyard :

“This Lionel Lukin 

Was the first who built a Life-boat, and was the original Inventor of that principle of safety, by which many lives and much property have been preserved from Shipwreck; and he obtained for it the King’s patent in the year 1785.”

As we have said, notwithstanding Lukin’s ceaseless efforts to bring his plan of Life-boat into general use, hardly any efforts had been effectually made to aid the shipwrecked mariner until the year 1789, when the Adventure, of Newcastle, was wrecked at the mouth of the Tyne. While this vessel lay stranded on the Herd Sand at the entrance of the river, in the midst of tremendous breakers, her crew “dropped off one by one from her rigging,” only three hundred yards from the shore, and in the presence. of thousands of spectators, not one of whom could be induced to venture to her assistance in any boat or coble of the ordinary construction. Under the strong feelings excited by this disaster, a Committee was appointed, at a meeting of the inhabitants of South Shields, to offer premiums for the best models of a Life-boat “calculated to brave the dangers of the sea, particularly of broken water.”

From the many plans which were offered to the Committee, two were selected – one by Mr. William Wouldhave, a painter, and the other by Mr. Henry Greathead. 

The idea of Wouldhave’s form of boat was suggested to him, it is said, by the following circumstance: – Having been asked to assist a woman to put a “skeel” of water on her head, Mr. Wouldhave noticed that she had a piece of a broken wooden dish lying in the water, which floated with the points upwards, and turning it over several times, he found that it always righted itself. This observation suggested to him the construction of his model, but he does not seem to have done more than construct a boat which was long known at Shields by the name of Wouldhave’s Cork Boat. 

As regards the boat suggested by Mr. Greathead, the great novelty in it was the improvement of makıng the keel curved instead of straight; and the Shields Committee awarded to him the premium, and employed him to build a Life-boat as he had proposed, its cost being defrayed by public subscriptions. It was built at South Shields, and was launched there in January, 1790.

In a letter addressed to The Monthly Magazine, in July, 1802, by “A Son of the Tyne,” it is stated that the boat was not altogether on Greathead’s plan, but that the Committee adopted his form of keel, and took the hint from Wouldhave’s model of making the boat more buoyant by means of cork. The boat was given to Greathead to build, because he appeared to take an interest in the work, and was the only one in the boat-building trade who had taken notice of the advertisement.

The form of the boat was like that of a steamer’s paddle-box boat, with stem and stern alike. She had no means of freeing herself of water, or of self-righting, in the event of being upset. She was at first moved along the shore upon four low wheels ; but another plan was afterwards adopted. Two wheels of 12 ft. diameter, with a moveable arched axis, and a pole affixed thereto for a lever, were constructed, and the boat was suspended near her centre between the wheels under the arched axis, towards each extremity of which was an iron pin. When the pole was elevated perpendicularly, the upper part of the axis became depressed, and a pair of rope slings, which went round the boat, being fixed to the iron pins, she was raised with the greatest facility by means of the pole, which was then fastened down to the stern of the boat.

It appears, therefore, that Greathead’s boat differed from Lukin’s in the shape of the keel, and in the substitution of cork for the side air-chambers. Indeed, in the former’s boat the peculiar nature of the curvature of the keel is reckoned the basis of its excellence ; and it is owing to this very important peculiarity, which is the undoubted plan of Mr. Greathead, that he has been popularly regarded as the inventor of the Life-boat, and entitled to a national reward.

Mr. Wouldhave died at South Shields, in 1821. His Life-boat design is commemorated in the parish church of St. Hilda, at that place, on a tombstone, which is headed by a model of a Life-boat, and bears the following quaint inscription.

“Sacred to the Memory of William Wouldhave 

Who died September 28th, 182I, 

Aged 70 years, 

Clerk of this Church 

and Inventor of that invaluable blessing to mankind The Life-boat.

“Heaven genius scientifick gave, 

Surpassing vulgar boast, yet he from soil 

So rich no golden harvest reap ‘d – no wreathe 

Of laurel glean’d nor but the sailor’s heart 

Nor that ingrate a Palm unfading this, 

Till Shipwrecks cease, or Life-boats cease to save.”

A model of his Life-boat is also suspended to the chain of the chandelier in St. Hilda’s church. 

Although the Life-boat constructed by Mr. Greathead was built in 1789, yet it performed no useful service till 1791, when it saved the crew of a Sunderland brig which was stranded at the entrance of the Tyne. On the 1st of January it saved the crews of the ship Parthenius of Newcastle, and the Peggy. In 1796 it did similar service to the crew of a Scottish sloop, the Countess of Errol; and in 1797 to the Fruit of Friends, from Leith and the Planter, from London, in which fifteen lives were saved. Notwithstanding these numerous acts of humanity, no other Life-boat was made till 1798, when the then Duke of Northumberland ordered one to be built at his own expense by Greathead, and endowed it with an annuity for its preservation. It was stationed at North Shields ; and soon after it was finished it saved seven men from the sloop Edinburgh of Kincardine, which was wrecked on the Herd Sands. It saved also the crew of the brig Clio ; and in 1799 the crew of the ship Quintilian from St. Petersburg. The Duke also ordered a Life-boat for Oporto in 1800 ; and in the same year Mr. Cathcart Dempster ordered one for St. Andrew’s, where, on the 10th of January, 1803, it was the means of saving the crew, twelve in number, of the Meanwelt of Scarborough. On this occasion the storm was so violent, that the fishermen could not be persuaded to go afloat in the boat, till Mr. Dempster, one of the magistrates, Major Horsburgh, and Mr. David Stewart, a shipmaster, nobly volunteered their services. Owing to these and other proofs of its practical value, Mr. Greathead received many orders to build Life-boats, and before the end of 1803 he had built no fewer than thirty-one five for Scotland, eight for foreign countries, and eighteen for England. 

In the beginning of 1802, when two hundred lives had been saved at the entrance of the Tyne alone, Greathead applied to Parliament for a national reward and, after a Committee of the House of Commons had taken evidence, and reported on the value of the invention, the sum of £1,200 was voted to him. The Trinity House added £105, Lloyd’s the same sum, the Society of Arts its Gold Medal and 50 guineas, and the Emperor of Russia a diamond ring. 

After such gratifying testimony to the value of Life-boats had been given, it might reasonably have been anticipated that their number would be increased rapidly on the coast. Such, however, was not the case. Neither can we find that any authentic records were kept of the boats, their services, and the accidents that may have occurred to them. 

We find, however, a notice of the following lamentable accident to one of the boats, with a fearful loss of life. It appears that at Hartley, on the coast of Northumberland, five miles north of Tynemouth, in the year 1810, one of Greathead’s Life-boats, carried overland from Blyth, rescued the crews of several fishing cobles that were prevented landing by a high sea tumbling in suddenly upon the coast, unaccompanied by wind. On returning towards the shore, the boat incautiously got too near the South Bush Rock, when a heavy sea broke on board, and split her in halves; the result was, that the whole of those on board, thirty-four in number, were unhappily drowned.

In contrast to the sad result of this accident, it may here be mentioned that in February 1874, the Stonehaven self-righting Life-boat met with an unfortunate accident, when four of her crew were lost. On that occasion she was so much damaged by being violently dashed by the heavy seas for hours against the large stones and masses of rock at the back of Aberdeen Pier, after she was abandoned, that it was found impracticable to repair her. Still the way in which the boat passed through this trying ordeal, which would have destroyed any ordinary boat in a very short space of time, demonstrated in a most striking manner the great strength of the diagonal principle of boat-building, carried out in the self-righting Life-boats of the Institution, and the ample security that is, in that respect, given to the brave crews who work those boats. Even in its injured condition the Life-boat had not lost its powers of flotation.

The original Life-boat built by Greathead terminated its career about the year 1821, when it struck upon the rocks while proceeding out to a stranded ship at the mouth of the Tyne, and was destroyed ; but no life was lost.

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