Who was James Stevens?

Twenty lifeboats bear his name, but little is known about the man behind one of the RNLI’s biggest ever legacies.
RNLI lifeboat, James-Stevens No. 18

Photo: RNLI

In 1894, the RNLI was gifted one of the largest legacies in its history. Mr James Stevens of Birmingham had died, leaving a total of £50,000 in his Will as a gift to the RNLI. Even today, this amount of money would be a huge donation. 

Adjusting for inflation, this gift would be worth approximately £6,400,000 in today’s money. That makes it the second biggest legacy gift in RNLI history, behind the donation of two classic Ferraris in 2015 that sold for £8.5M at auction.

The donation helped fund the build of 20 lifeboats, which went on to save lives around UK and Ireland until the 1930s. 

But beyond the name written on the side of each of the lifeboats, not much is known about James Stevens. Who was he? What was his background? And what made him decide to leave such a generous and important gift to the RNLI?

The search

‘With this year being the 125th anniversary of the legacy, we really wanted to find out more about the man behind this generous gift,’ says Hayley Whiting, Heritage Archive and Research Manager. 

When you take into account that the charity has been in operation since 1824, with 238 lifeboat stations and many more having opened and closed across the years, it’s not an easy task. Tracking down more information on James Stevens was not going to be simple.

A look into the archives found the first clue – the legacy book that recorded bequests left to the RNLI. Amongst other generous gifts of £300, £500 and even £3,000, James Stevens’s bequest of £50,000 is recorded, received on 20 July 1894. 

The official record in the legacy book of James Stevens’s bequest
The official record in the legacy book of James Stevens’s bequest

The entry refers to James Stevens being a member of The Reform Club, a very exclusive gentleman’s club in London. Hayley contacted the club, who confirmed that Stevens was a member there from 1862 until his death on 12 June 1893. Unfortunately they too knew little else about him. When he passed away, Stevens left an estate of £102,102, meaning he left almost half of his estate to the RNLI.

Working from this, Hayley was able to track down and order a copy of Stevens’s original Will. The document showed the amount he wanted to bequeath to the RNLI, and his desire for the money to fund the construction of lifeboats. As well as donating to the RNLI, the Will showed Stevens also left money to the Shipwrecked Fisherman and Mariners Royal Benevolent Society.

Excerpt from James Stevens’s last Will and testament
Excerpt from James Stevens’s last Will and testament

This all suggested Stevens had some connection to the sea. Further research revealed he was a timber merchant based in Birmingham. Perhaps his trade involved the import or export of timber internationally, making him keenly aware of the dangers of shipping during that time period? 

For a man of such wealth, there appears to be little record of James Stevens aside from a few financial notices and census records. He may have been a private individual, or perhaps the information on him has been lost over time. 

What we definitely know about are the lifeboats which bore his name.

The lifeboats

Stevens’s legacy provided enough funding to build 20 lifeboats, each named after him. The lifeboats were a part of the RNLI’s lifesaving fleet for 37 years, from 1896 until 1933 when the final boat was taken out of service. 18 of the 20 were pulling and sailing lifeboats, with the other being two steam powered.

James Stevens No.1 at Port St Mary Lifeboat Day

Photo: RNLI

James Stevens No.1 at Port St Mary Lifeboat Day

The lifeboats were stationed all around the UK and Ireland, including Campbeltown, Angle, Padstow, Dover, Holyhead, Howth, Southend-on-Sea and Swansea. 

James Stevens No.1 went to Port St Mary on the Isle of Man, where it served for 23 years. In that time, its crew saved 53 lives.

James Stevens No. 14 was stationed at Walton-on-the-Naze for 29 years, where it helped save 227 lives. 

The Watson class lifeboat James Stevens No. 15 was stationed at Wexford for 21 years. One of the crew members, Edward Wickham, received two Silver Medals for courage while manning the lifeboat, the first in 1906 and the second in 1914.

James Stevens No.3 was on service for 30 years

Photo: RNLI

James Stevens No.3 was on service for 30 years

Lifesaving during this period was often dangerous, and the James Stevens lifeboats did not escape tragedy. The steam class James Stevens No. 4 at Padstow was lost at sea in 1900, with eight of her eleven crew drowned in the disaster.

James Stevens No. 10 is another vessel with a storied history. The last of the James Stevens lifeboats to be on service, it saved 227 lives between 1900 and 1933. Stationed in St Ives, the 35ft self-righter lifeboat was involved in many rescues, including the rescue of nine sailors from the SS Taunton in 1916, which earned Coxswain Thomas Stevens a Silver Medal. The lifeboat was recently purchased by crew and supporters at St Ives Lifeboat Station, in the hope they can restore it to its former glory.  

In total, the crew of the 20 James Stevens lifeboats saved 1,072 lives. 

James Stevens No.10 St Ives lifeboat being launched

Photo: RNLI

James Stevens No.10 St Ives lifeboat being launched

The legacy

A big part of the RNLI’s ability to save lives at sea is down to legacies. 6 out of 10 lifeboat launches are only possible thanks to a gift left in someone’s Will. Whether it’s a small legacy to celebrate someone’s passion for the sea, or a larger one to fund a lifeboat in their memory, these donations keep the RNLI going.

We may never know exactly why James Stevens decided to leave such a large gift in his Will to the RNLI. But the legacy of his generosity lives on today. At Sennen Cove Lifeboat Station in Cornwall, Kirstan Gorvin serves on the crew. He is the great-great-grandson of someone rescued by the St Ives James Stevens No. 10 lifeboat. 

There will be countless others like Kirstan. People walking around today thanks to the lifeboat crews and the lifeboats that James Stevens helped fund. They may not realise that they are only alive to live and love thanks to him, and all the other legacies, large and small, left by those who want to help save lives at sea. 

Find out more about how you can leave a gift in your Will by visiting RNLI.org/legacies.

You can help save lives at sea with a donation today. From kit to crew training to kids’ education, you’ll be making a real difference to our volunteers – and the people they save.

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