1905: First motor lifeboat

The evolution from sail to petrol, and later petrol to diesel, revolutionised the RNLI’s lifesaving capacity. 

Tynemouth's second motor lifeboat, Henry Vernon
Tynemouth’s second motor lifeboat, Henry Vernon

By 1900, the days of steam-driven lifeboats were numbered.

They were slow and heavy, and expensive to build and maintain. The future lay with the petrol engine, a fact recorded by the Lifeboat Journal in August 1904: ‘… it has developed into the present form as we know it, with nearly all its previous faults eliminated, and ready for use either ashore or afloat’.

Petrol engines were proven on the open road and in the skies, but petrol and seawater weren’t an obvious match. Making an engine casing that was watertight but not airtight would be one of the biggest challenges.

Extra power and control

The earliest petrol-powered lifeboats were adaptations of existing pulling and sailing ones. Under the direction of Naval Architect George Lennox Watson, we successfully fitted a petrol engine into a sailing lifeboat and trialled it in the Solent in 1904. 

A year later, to a lukewarm reception from the crew, the J McConnell Hussey entered service at Tynemouth Lifeboat Station.

Gradually the detractors were won over. The extra power and control of petrol proved crucial when the station’s next petrol-driven lifeboat, Henry Vernon, rescued the crew of the steamship Dunelm in 1913. 

The Henry Vernon: ‘showed splendid qualities and proved beyond question the value of this type of boat’. It showed its qualities again when rescuing survivors from the hospital steamship Rohilla in 1914.

The evolution from sail to petrol, and later petrol to diesel, revolutionised our lifesaving capacity. But motor power had other benefits too. 

Crew members no longer needed a professional maritime background, giving us access to a much larger pool of potential lifeboat volunteers.