1785: The first lifeboats

Lionel Lukin paved the way for the first purpose-built lifeboat when he designed the world’s first unsinkable boat and patented it in 1785.

Lionel Lukin's patent for the world's first unsinkable boat

Photo: The British Library Board

Plan of Lionel Lukin’s ‘unimmergible’ boat taken from his pamphlet.

A London coachbuilder, Lionel Lukin, paved the way for the first purpose-built lifeboat when he designed the world’s first unsinkable boat and patented it on 2 November 1785.

Although a coachbuilder, Lukin was interested in improving the safety of boats. And in 1784 he began experimenting with a Norwegian yawl, a type of sailing boat, using the River Thames to test his ‘unimmergible’ design. Lukin incorporated pockets of air in watertight bulkheads (compartments), buoyant gunwales (top sides of the boat) and used cork and other lightweight materials in the structure. He also included a false iron keel for additional weight to help keep the boat upright.


In 1786 Dr John Sharp, Archdeacon of Northumberland and a trustee of Lord Crew’s Charity, commissioned Lukin to convert a coble, a type of fishing boat, into an ‘unimmergible’ lifeboat for Bamburgh.

This converted coble served a number of years as a lifeboat, making it the first known lifeboat and Bamburgh Castle the first lifeboat station of the time.  

During storms, men from the castle patrolled Bamburgh’s shores on horseback, ready to go to sea in their lifeboat and help save lives from shipwreck.

Elsewhere around our coasts, many communities were pulling together to help those involved in shipwrecks.    

In fact the earliest record of a boat being kept specifically for rescuing the shipwrecked was actually 9 years earlier at Formby, Lancashire, in 1777.


It wasn’t until 1789 that action was taken to design a purpose-built lifeboat, prompted by a tragedy at the mouth of the River Tyne.

A ship named Adventure ran aground during a violent storm. But little could be done to save the ship’s crew because the sea was too rough for the local men and their boats. Instead they had to stand by helplessly as Adventure’s crew drowned.

The disaster inspired South Shield’s private Law House committee to find an inventor who could design and build a lifeboat.

They launched a lifeboat design competition and offered a reward of 2 guineas (around £2.10 / €2.68) for the best design.

Among the entrants were Parish Clerk William Wouldhave and Boatbuilder Henry Francis Greathead, both from South Shields.

Wouldhave’s design, modelled in tin, was for a boat made out of copper and cork that would right itself in stormy seas.

Greathead’s model was built out of wood and although it had some great features, it didn’t self-right.

Neither design was an outright winner. Instead the committee took ideas from both to produce a final lifeboat design.

William Wouldhave was offered half the prize money as a reward for his efforts, which he took offence to and rejected.

Henry Greathead was asked to build the lifeboat from the final design and went on to become known as the inventor of the lifeboat.


The Zetland is Greathead’s only surviving Original type lifeboat. Built in 1802, she saved over 500 lives and the Zetland Lifeboat Museum at Redcar is dedicated to her 78 years’ of service.

Model of the first purpose built lifeboat
Model of the first purpose-built lifeboat, the Original, built by Henry Francis Greathead

Greathead took the final design and added his own modifications. The result was the aptly named Original – the first purpose-built lifeboat.

Measuring 9m long and 3m wide, she could carry 20 people including a crew of 12.

She was steered by two oars trailed over the stern rather than a rudder and could be rowed in either direction.

She was powered by 10 short oars rather than full-length oars to make her more manageable in heavy seas.

Her sides were cased with cork and secured with copper plates, increasing her buoyancy considerably. And a curved keel made her easier to steer.

She was stationed at South Shields and remained in service until 1830. Her first service took place on 30 January 1790 when she rescued a shipwrecked crew on Herd Sand.

Henry Greathead went on to build 31 Original type lifeboats over the next 2 decades for communities around our coasts and abroad.

He never took out a patent on his invention and was always willing to share his plans for the good of others and lifesaving at sea.

The oldest surviving lifeboat, the Zetland, at Redcar in 1802
The oldest surviving lifeboat, the Zetland, at Redcar in 1802