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First and fast: The history of the Sir William Hillary lifeboat

2020 sees the 90th anniversary of the first fast motor-powered lifeboat. Here’s the story behind a one-of-a-kind lifesaver.

Sir William Hillary, the first fast motor-powered lifeboat

Photo: RNLI

Sir William Hillary, the first fast motor-powered lifeboat

We have a long history of innovation, from the cork lifejackets developed by an RNLI inspector to the development of the Shannon class lifeboat by our in-house engineers. Our lifesavers have always been looking at ways to make their equipment and craft more capable, more efficient, and better at saving lives. 

The 1920s saw a new challenge arise for the RNLI: airplanes. This burgeoning technology was growing increasingly popular, and accidents weren’t uncommon. This concerned the decision-makers in the RNLI at the time, who wanted to ensure that their lifeboats could get out quickly to rescue those on downed aircraft. The problem was laid out in Lifeboat Magazine, March 1929

‘In addition to the very heavy passenger-steamer traffic across the [Dover] Straits, there is now a considerable daily traffic by aeroplane, maintained in all but the worst weather. The time during which an aeroplane is exposed to the risk of coming down while over the sea is very short. On the other hand, once an aeroplane is down in anything but a calm sea, the time during which she will remain afloat is generally so short that the ordinary Motor Life-boat could scarcely hope to reach the casualty soon enough to rescue those on board. In the case of a vessel the time between first being in distress and being in imminent danger of destruction may be many hours, and even two or three days. In the case of an aeroplane it may be only a matter of minutes.’ 

The solution

Design blueprints for the Sir William Hillary petrol engine

Photo: RNLI

The design of the Sir William Hillary’s petrol engines

The first fast motor-powered lifeboat was stationed at Dover, as this would help increase the speed of response time for reaching downed aircraft. The 64-feet high-speed lifeboat was a design unique to the RNLI, and only one of this kind was built. Fitted with two 375hp petrol engines, the Sir William Hillary was twice as fast as the motor lifeboats in the RNLI fleet, with a top speed of 18 knots.

But it wasn’t just about speed. This was the first lifeboat to be built with a cabin, finally providing the crew with some protection from the elements, especially during long periods at sea. An onboard electricity supply provided lighting, as well as powering the wireless radio, a searchlight, throwline night tracers and a Morse code signalling lamp. The lifeboat was also fitted with firefighting equipment, and it could carry 50 casualties below deck.

‘This new boat will be capable of going to sea in any weather not too heavy for the cross-Channel passenger service, but she will not be suitable for work inshore or on the Goodwin Sands. The new Boat will be stationed at Dover, with a Crew of whom some will be permanently employed by the Institution. The Boat will cost between £17,000 and £18,000 and the cost of upkeep will be some £1,750 a year.’

Boatbuilders work on the Sir William Hillary at the boatyard

Photo: RNLI

Boatbuilders work on the Sir William Hillary at the boatyard

The rescues

The lifeboat arrived at the station on 21 January 1930. During its 10 years at Dover, Sir William Hillary saved 29 lives and launched 43 times. One of their most famous launches was the rescue of the Blackburn Rovers.

On the morning of 26 November 1939, the HM trawler Blackburn Rovers was on anti-submarine patrol off Dover. A full gale was blowing from the south-west and the water was described as a ‘very heavy sea’. The trawler was a mile south-east of South Goodwin Sands when a loose wire fouled the ship’s propeller. The crew tried to free it, but the conditions made it impossible. They then attempted to drop anchor, but it would not hold and the crew soon found their ship drifting rapidly towards a nearby minefield.

The Sir William Hillary launched just after 10am. An hour and fifteen minutes later, the lifeboat was on the scene and found the trawler in a perilous situation – at the very edge of the deep minefield. While the trawler was small enough to make its way through the mines, the loose anchor of the Blackburn Rovers could have triggered a mine at any time. Even if the trawler was able to drift through this deep minefield, a shallow minefield waited on the other side that not be so forgiving.

Anti-submarine technology was one of the frontlines of the Second World War, so the thought of it getting into the hands of the enemy was a concern, even in this situation. The lifeboat moved in close to the trawler and told the crew to pass over as many confidential papers and as much gear as they could. They would then scuttle the trawler in the hope that it would take its secrets with it to the deep.

At this point, the crew onboard the trawler didn’t think they’d make it out alive. They were trapped in the middle of the minefield, on a boat that couldn’t move, being tossed and thrown by the heavy rolling seas – some even breaking over her. The situation was bleak. The way the trawler was drifting meant that the lifeboat had no lee to shelter in, and so it would have to expose itself to the full force of the waves if it was to rescue those onboard.

The lifeboat’s coxswain, Colin H Bryant, was not going to give up. With great difficulty, he manoeuvred the lifeboat alongside the trawler and kept it there, as the lifeboat crew and those onboard the trawler transferred the secret gear across. All this time, they were drifting closer and closer to the minefield. At any point, the trawler could hit a mine, spelling the end for both trawler and lifeboat.

But the lifeboat crew persisted and managed to transfer both the secret gear and the trawler’s 16 crew members onto the lifeboat.

Coxswain Bryant received a Silver Medal for Gallantry for his seamanship during the rescue. What made the rescue all the more incredible was how he had only recently recovered from a serious illness. The effort it took to complete the rescue meant that the second coxswain had to take over at the helm for the return journey to the lifeboat station.

Second Coxswain Sidney Hills, and Motor Mechanics Wilfred Cook and Christian Stock, were all awarded Bronze Medals for Gallantry. The other five members of the crew, Barton, Walker, Le Gros, Hadley and Clark, received Thanks of the Institution Inscribed on Vellum.

Also onboard the lifeboat that day was Lieutenant Richard Walker, Assistant King’s Harbour Master at Dover, who helped the crew navigate their way through the minefield. For his assistance, he was awarded a Bronze Medal for Gallantry.

Dover Lifeboat Coxswain Bryant was awarded a Silver Medal

Photo: RNLI

Dover Lifeboat Coxswain Bryant was awarded a Silver Medal

The end

The lifeboat was commandeered by the Admiralty in November 1940 where it served as an air-sea rescue vessel throughout the Second World War, as well as helping with commando training. After the war, the lifeboat was sold privately and renamed Isle of Colonsay.

The former lifeboat met its end in 1980 when it was involved in a collision with another motor vessel off the coast of Portugal. Sadly the boat was lost beneath the waves, 50 years after it was first built.

The RNLI have continued to innovate and develop new technology to help save lives at sea, especially in those areas with a particular challenge. RNLI hovercraft help tackle long stretches of mudflats and high tidal ranges, while the E class lifeboat allows our Thames crews to react quickly to the many shouts they get each year. Every new design or innovation shares the DNA of the innovations that came before it. And the first fast motor-powered lifeboat Sir William Hilary continues to be an influence to this day.

Find out more about the RNLI’s history of innovation in the heritage section of the web magazine.  

With thanks to Nicholas Leach