On this day - 30th January

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Greathead Lifeboat

The 30th of January 1790

To South Shields shipbuilder Henry Greathead goes the honour of building the first successful purpose-built lifeboat, though his claim is not uncontested.

In the 1770s one Lionel Lukin had designed a craft with similar use in mind; and Greathead's own boat very probably owed much to the copper boat design of William Wouldhave, also from South Shields, who indeed shared the prize money offered by Newcastle interests spurred to seek such a vessel by the tragedy of a wreck in the Tyne. Wouldhave got one guinea, but Greathead went on to be awarded £1200 by Parliament and various smaller sums by Trinity House, Lloyds and others.

Henry Greathead had been a sailor, and suffered shipwreck himself, so the project must have been close to his heart. He may, however, not actually have designed the boat trialled on the Tyne on January 30 1790: a wooden construction, clinker-built on substantial frames, with two curved ends out of the water to help buoyancy should she be filled with water; much cork was used in the craft too — inside again for buoyancy; outside for the same reason and as a fender.

With 10 short oars for ease of use in storms, and steered by an easily moved oar at the stern, she could carry 20 in total, and was as easy to row backwards as forwards. Greathead built more than 30 of the craft in his remaining career, and for that at least deserves celebration.

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