In 1789, a coal ship named Adventure ran aground at the mouth of the River Tyne during a violent storm. The sea was too rough for the local boats and nothing could be done to save the thirteen-man crew. This tragic loss prompted a competition to design a new type of boat, that could carry 24 people and was suitable for rescues in rough and stormy seas. The result was the first ‘Life-Boat’.

Parish clerk William Wouldhave and boat builder Henry Greathead, both from South Shields, submitted designs for the competition. Neither design was approved by the judging committee. William Wouldhave was offered half the prize money, but he took offence and rejected it. The committee combined ideas from both designs and asked Henry Greathead to build this new ‘lifeboat’. Greathead added some of his own modifications and the result was what became known as the Original – the first purpose-built lifeboat.

Henry Greathead is often credited as the inventor of the lifeboat. But the honour really goes to three men: Greathead, Wouldhave and Lionel Lukin, who paved the way when he patented his design for the world’s first unsinkable boat in 1785. Among the key elements of the design of the Original were the curved keel, the use of cork blocks and banding, and the double-ended construction allowing rowing in either direction. Over 32 such lifeboats were built, and the model exported overseas, though by the 1840s they began to be replaced by lighter designs that were easier to launch.

Today, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution has a fleet of over 330 lifeboats. Most of the boat crews are voluntary, rushing from their everyday lives, when alerted, to put out to sea and risk their lives to save others. Since 1824, lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved as many as 140,000 lives.

This painting shows William Wouldhave developing his model lifeboat for the competition. His idea was for a self-righting boat, constructed from copper, with cork for buoyancy.


Did you know..?

Henry Greathead never took out a patent on his design, preferring to share his ideas for the good of others and lifesaving at sea.

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.