Bringing Louisa Heartwell back to life
Ever wondered what happens to a lifeboat after it completes a long service of saving lives at sea? What about when, decades later, it returns home to us at the RNLI?
That’s exactly what happened with Louisa Heartwell – the 38ft Liverpool class, powered by oars and sails, that served Cromer’s lifeboat crew in 1902 under the command of Henry Blogg: the RNLI’s most decorated lifeboatman.
After 29 years of saving lives at sea, Louisa was sold to enjoy a new life as a motor cruiser and, later, as a houseboat on Chichester Marina. Now, she has been donated back to the RNLI to be conserved into her original, lifesaving self.
So, why bring a lifeboat back to life? As the RNLI’s Heritage Department explains, our past paves the way for our lifesaving future.
Why Louisa Heartwell?
‘Louisa will be part of our Historic Lifeboat Collection at The Historic Dockyard Chatham in Kent,’ says Dr Joanna Bellis, RNLI Heritage Interpretation Development Officer.
‘She’s the first historic lifeboat we’ve added to the collection in 18 years – and that’s because it’s a real commitment to take one on. You’re signing up to look after her for posterity.
‘But we had to accept Louisa because she’s significant in so many ways. She was Henry Blogg’s lifeboat, the first lifeboat whose crew were awarded Bronze Medals for Gallantry, and she’s one of the last remaining pulling sailing Liverpool class lifeboats.’
Former RNLI Chairman, and Volunteer Advisor, Charles Hunter-Pease agrees: ‘Every lifeboat has a story to tell of courage and lifesaving. But few remain to tell the story of lifeboat development. Louisa Heartwell gives us a unique opportunity to do both.’
A true original
Before Louisa returned home, Ian Smith, Gallery Manager for the Historic Lifeboat Collection, got to visit her in Chichester Marina. ‘Even with her houseboat conversion, Louisa still had the unmistakable lines of a pulling lifeboat,’ he explains.
‘We could see her original features were in excellent condition and our excitement just grew knowing we’d be able to restore her. It was difficult not to get swept up in the wave of optimism for bringing her home.’
We could see her original features were in excellent condition. It was difficult not to get swept up in the wave of optimism for bringing her home.
Joanna adds: ‘We often have to build historic lifeboats back up and replicate parts that are missing. But with Louisa, it’s a deconstruction exercise – we need to remove anything that isn’t original (like the houseboat cabin).
‘Sometimes, when a lifeboat has had a life outside the RNLI, it’s been substantially changed. But so much of Louisa is still original. That’s what really excites me – she’s 120 years old and exactly the same underneath.’
From marina to museum
In late 2019, Louisa Heartwell was transferred from the waters of Chichester to the RNLI’s All-weather Lifeboat Centre (ALC) in Poole, Dorset.
Sometimes, when a lifeboat has had a life outside the RNLI, it’s been substantially changed. But that’s what really excites me with Louisa – she’s 120 years old and exactly the same.
It was meant to be a brief stay while Chatham Museum created space to house her – but then the global pandemic hit. And, as the world was put on pause, Louisa continued living at the ALC until restrictions eased in March 2021.
Ian was one of the many people pleased to see her finally arrive in Chatham this spring. ‘We had to use a specialised compact city crane, which just about fit inside the gallery, to lift Louisa into the museum. That was the biggest challenge – we had to be especially careful not to damage the building or the other exhibits in the Lifeboat Collection.’
The conservation process
‘We have around 20 volunteers at Chatham Museum who are involved in the Louisa Heartwell project – it honours the legacy of the selfless crews who took to sea in her,’ Ian says, proudly. ‘The whole process has been a monumental team effort, made even more remarkable in the grips of a global pandemic.’
Is the task worth it? Most definitely. ‘Seeing the older lifeboats in the museum is a constant reminder of how we’re evolving with lifesaving,’ Ian explains.
‘We’ve come so far and owe so much to the crews who bravely went to sea in all the boats in the museum. Technology has changed, but the selfless dedication and drive of the crews hasn't.’
Louisa was funded by a generous legacy bequeathed to the RNLI by Miss Emily Heartwell – and was stationed at Cromer RNLI in 1902.
Built in London, Louisa was one of 40 in the fleet of pulling sailing Liverpool class lifeboats, each weighing over 4 tonnes with capacity to carry 14 lifeboat volunteers onboard.
By the end of her 29-year service at Cromer, Louisa Heartwell had launched 115 times and saved 195 lives, powering to rescues that earned Henry Blogg his first RNLI Gold Medal for Gallantry in the infamous rescue of the Swedish ship, Fernebo. This rescue also awarded the Cromer crew with the first ever Bronze medals in RNLI history.
Today, Louisa is one of only seven surviving Liverpool class lifeboats out of the original fleet of 40.
It’s 9 January 1917, and the Cromer volunteers are returning to shore aboard Louisa Heartwell – exhausted – after saving 22 people from the Greek vessel Pyrin in heavy seas and 50mph winds. Coxswain Henry Blogg suddenly hears word that a second vessel, the Swedish ship Fernebo, has broken in two from a mine explosion – and half its crew are stranded at sea.
The Cromer crew attempt to launch Louisa back out to the ship’s rescue, but the heavy surf keeps pulling the lifeboat back to the beach. It takes hundreds of volunteers – many up to their necks in water – to launch Louisa successfully, and the lifeboat crew change 3 times throughout the night due to sheer exhaustion.
But the Cromer volunteers persist and, just before midnight, Louisa Heartwell is finally out on the waves to rescue 11 survivors from Fernebo. For his part in the double rescue, Henry Blogg was awarded his first RNLI Gold Medal for Gallantry, and his crew were awarded Bronze for their ‘courage and dogged tenacity’.
You can be a lifesaver too, just like our loyal lifeboats! Make a donation to help save lives at sea – anything you can spare would be so appreciated.