1890: First steam-driven lifeboat

Between them, the RNLI’s three hydraulic steam-driven lifeboats were in service for over 40 years and saved 570 lives. 
First steam-driven lifeboat, the Duke of Northumberland
First steam-driven lifeboat, the Duke of Northumberland

The RNLI’s early pulling and sailing lifeboats struggled in heavy seas. But advances in technology made more reliable forms of motive power available.

Steam had transformed Britain’s industrial landscape through the development of steamships and the railways. But keeping a lifeboat engine room fire burning while pitching and rolling in heavy seas would not be straightforward.

Sixty years after the idea was first mooted by Sir William Hillary, and after extensive trials, our first steam-cum-sail boat Duke of Northumberland went into service at Harwich Lifeboat Station in September 1890. 

The hydraulic steam-driven lifeboat – so-called because it used waterjets instead of propellers – was based on an 1888 scale model built by Greens of Blackwall.

We commissioned five more steam lifeboats. Two of these – City of Glasgow and Queen – used waterjets; the other three – City of Glasgow II, James Stevens No. 3 and James Stevens No. 4 were propeller-driven.

Between them, our three hydraulic steam-driven lifeboats were in service for over 40 years and saved 570 lives. But lighter, faster, cheaper petrol-driven boats would soon start to appear. 

When, in 1900, James Stevens No. 4 was wrecked at Padstow with the loss of eight crew, it marked the start of the end for steam. No more steam-driven RNLI lifeboats were ever built.