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Henry Greathead - The First Life Boat

Henry Greathead's dream was to become a boat builder in his home in South-Shields and designed a boat to withstand rough seas. Find out what he went through to get the materials.

Henry Greathead had been pressed into his Majesty’s navy in Portsmouth having returned to England in 1784. His dream was to become a boat builder in his home in South-Shields. He had designed a boat to withstand rough seas. In order to build the boat he needed materials, and to get those he needed money (something which he didn’t have), Greathead wrote to two underwriters with whom he had been in correspondence with during an incident in Calais of a false insurance claim by his captain. He wrote, sharing his design and asking for assistance in finding the funds from their contacts.

Those two underwriters were Mr James Forsyth and Mr Peter Warren. Me Peter Warren was a partner of Angerstein. To Greathead’s surprise, not only did he receive a donation towards his efforts, but Waren also recommended him to the Duke of Northumberland who promised to pay all the expenses connected with the actual building of a first boat ‘for the rescue from the sea of shipwrecked or other persons.’

Greathead had wanted to call his invention the Safety Boat, but it was the Duke of Northumberland who came up with the more catchy name of Life Boat.

It was in the autumn of 1789 that Greathead launched his first boat named the ‘Northumberland’ (30ft long and 10ft wide).

It was several weeks later that the Northumberland was used for her first emergency; a sloop (a small warship) called the Edinburgh which was sinking 1.5 miles from shore.

They were able to save all seven lives even though the sea was “so monstrous high, that no other boat whatever could have lived in it.’ What a success!

The government, in 1801, however declined to support a widely petitioned plan to pay for the building of more lifeboats claiming the work should be left to ‘private enterprise’.

No one came forward and offered the required coach and so Lloyd’s, on the initiative of Angerstein, donated £2k and other donations soon followed.

This resulted in 14 lifeboats being built and equipped. Subsequent donations enabled that number to grow which saved tens of thousands of lives which otherwise would have perished.

Lloyd’s provided continuous funding until 1824 when the now flourishing National Life Boat Institution, presided by none other than the Duke of Northumberland took over.

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