1854: First lifejackets

RNLI Inspector, Captain Ward, broke new ground in lifesaving in 1854 with his invention of the cork lifejacket.
Crew of Fleetwood station wearing cork lifejackets and sou'westers circa 1890.

Photo: RNLI

Crew of Fleetwood station wearing cork lifejackets and sou'westers circa 1890

The RNLI has constantly broken new ground to ensure our volunteers stay safe out at sea. In 1854, RNLI Inspector, Captain Ward, did just this with the invention of the cork lifejacket – the first lifejacket ever to be issued to lifeboat crew members.

During the 18th century, our volunteers had to manually row their boats when launching to rescue in stormy seas. When the first lifejacket design was created, it therefore needed to be flexible enough to move with the men as they paddled.

A range of materials were put through rigorous testing for the lifejacket design, which were trialled for buoyancy (floating power), weight, durability and water resistance. If a component didn’t meet the RNLI’s standards to endure the lifesaving task at hand, the material was immediately discarded. Some of the unsuccessful materials included:

  • Air – a canvas jacket was inflated with large pockets of air. It proved to be lightweight and easy to stow, but it punctured easily.
  • Horsehair and rushes – although the materials were light and buoyant, neither were waterproof nor durable enough for lifejackets.
  • Woods such as baobab and balsa – the bark was successfully light and buoyant, but they were hard to obtain and very expensive to buy.

The final lifejacket, designed by Captain Ward, used narrow strips of common, circular cork which, when fitted together, were sewn into a canvas vest.

Each lifejacket was bulky, holding a buoyancy of 25lbs each! But they floated well, were hard-wearing and, most importantly, crew members liked them.

The lifejackets were created in two different sizes to fit the builds of the lifeboat crew, but they were also large enough to be passed over a casualty’s head and shoulders.

The lifesaving efficiency of the cork lifejackets was soon proven in the dramatic Whitby rescue of 1861.

1904 – the kapok lifejacket.

Tynemouth lifeboat crew wearing kapok lifejackets circa 1914.
Tynemouth lifeboat crew wearing kapok lifejackets circa 1914

At the start of the new century, a new material known as kapok was used to replace the now aging cork lifejackets.

Kapok is a fine, cotton-like material which is more commonly used to stuff cushions and toys. But in the 19th century, it was also found to be very beneficial as a component for lifejackets.

The cottony material is full of hair-like follicles (very small tubes surrounding the roots of the hair-like strands). These follicles contain natural oils that are non-absorbent to water and the air within them gives the material very high buoyancy. Once designed, the kapok lifejackets had a supporting force that was stronger by 3½ times to that of cork.

Initially, there were several problems with designing the kapok lifejackets - many lifeboat crews even announced that they’d rather drown than wear them! But once created, the canvas-covered jackets remained in lifesaving use until the late 1960s.

1972 – the Beaufort lifejacket

Exmouth lifeboat crew wearing Beaufort  lifejackets 1974
Exmouth lifeboat crew wearing Beaufort lifejackets in 1974

Synthetic foams, developed in the 1960s, lead to the introduction of the Beaufort lifejacket.

The buoyancy of the foam meant the lifejacket could support both the wearer and the casualty and ensured that crew floated face upwards in the water if they were knocked unconscious.

The bright orange colour made the lifejacket far more visible at sea and it also had a light, recovery loop, buddy line and safety line.

Consistent purpose

Our lifejackets may have changed almost beyond recognition over the years, but the essential task that they carry out has stayed the same.

As innovation continued (and continues) to grow in all aspects of our lifesaving equipment, it has always remained that an RNLI lifejacket must fit the following criteria:

  • They must provide enough buoyancy to support a crew member and another person.
  • They must not restrict movement and not interfere with other protective clothing, either in the boat or in the water.
  • They must be quick and simple to put on.
  • They must be hard-wearing.

These are principles that the RNLI still hold today.