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Saving lives at sea

The Committee that met at three o’clock on the 10th June 1789 at Lawe House, South Shields, overlooking the treacherous sands at the mouth of the Tyne, would have been surprised to learn that it was about to ignite a controversy about who invented the lifeboat that would rage for over two hundred years. The Committee’s aim in posting its famous advert in the Newcastle Courant was simple: it wanted to collect ideas that could form the basis of the design of a boat for their new rescue service. It was the rescue service that was new, not the boat, which was to be built according to the best principles of traditional craftsmanship based on existing boats that were known to have good seakeeping ability, and the only new thing about their approach was the small reward of two guineas offered for the best model or plan that was supposed to encourage local boat builders to compete. They certainly didn’t think they were running a competition to invent a new type of boat because as anyone in the conservative world of small boatbuilding would have reminded them designing a small boat was a matter of experience and new untested ideas usually didn’t work.

Unfortunately most local boat builders didn’t enter the competition and the two models submitted couldn’t have been more unsuitable: Willie Wouldhave, a housepainter full of strange ideas, a man who obviously knew nothing about boatbuilding, submitted a model of a metal boat which no one knew how to build, while Henry Greathead, a boatbuilder, but a relative newcomer to the river, sent in a model of a boat rather like a raft that was unlikely to be accepted by the pilots who would form the crew. In the end the Committee made the best of a bad job, selected what it thought were the best ideas from the plans and models submitted, and designed a boat themselves based loosely on the highly regarded Norway yawl improved by the addition of cork buoyancy to make it unsinkable. The contract to build the boat was awarded to Henry Greathead, a man with powerful connections as the secretary of the St Hilda Lodge of Freemasons, and the tenant of Nicholas Fairles’s boatyard, who was in any case the only boatbuilder interested in the project. The arrangement suited Fairles who was the chairman of the Lawe House Committee and later chairman of the Tyne lifeboat Institution, it suited Greathead who received an order for his business, and there the matter rested as the first lifeboat, the Original, was built, entered service, and went quietly about its work rescuing shipwrecked sailors. 

Willie Wouldhave, the strange eccentric who proposed a copper boat with cork buoyancy attached to make it unsinkable, certainly wasn’t happy with his second prize of one guinea, and famously stormed out of Lawe House after being told the result of the competition leaving his model behind, but for the Committee that was a small matter.  Wouldhave, who later became parish clerk, a post which was in the gift of Nicholas Fairles, went around telling everyone who would listen that the lifesaving boat was his design because he had suggested the use of cork to make it unsinkable, so the Original was known locally in South Shields as Willie Wouldhave’s cork boat, and quietly let the matter of the guinea drop, until something happened that made the claim to be the inventor of the lifesaving boat much more valuable that two guineas and started an controversy that continues to this day. 

Henry Greathead

The role of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle in the matter of the “invention” of the lifeboat is not well known, but it was crucial to the way the controversy developed in the first decade of the Nineteenth Century and to the creation of an argument that has rumbled on for more than two hundred years. In the last months of 1799, fully ten years after the  Original was built at South Shields, Society members hearing reports of a dramatic rescue of shipwrecked sailors by a new lifeboat (the Northumberland) at the mouth of the Tyne instructed William Turner, the Senior Secretary, to write to Nicholas Fairles, an honorary member of the Society, 

requesting he inform them respecting its construction, the numbers of lives it had saved, and the most probable methods of rendering the knowledge of it general so as not only to be consistent with, but to promote the interest of the inventor (Minutes January 1800). 

This is the first mention of the idea that the lifeboat might be an invention and it is significantly linked to the prospect of financial reward. There is no record of Fairles’s reply, but in May 1800 Henry Greathead, the builder of the lifeboats Original and Northumberland, presented plans of the boats at the monthly meeting of the Society, told the Society he was the inventor, answered member’s questions, and was given five guineas for the construction of a model to promote his “invention”. 

Greathead was an ambitious man, and with the backing of the Society he seized the chance to advance himself and his business. Building lifeboats was not a profitable enterprise despite their obvious success in service on the Tyne, and by the turn of the new century Greathead had built only two in ten years at minimal profit to himself, but promoting himself as the inventor of a remarkable new boat would he hoped bring new orders, public recognition, and perhaps reward from a grateful nation. Following his presentation in May the Society “communicated” information about his “invention” to “several public spirited persons around the country” and more importantly wrote to Rowland Burton MP concerning a petition to Parliament to reward Greathead for his invention (Turner 1807). By the time the petition was presented in February 1802 Greathead’s business was feeling the benefit of the campaign: he had already built four more boats and had two others under construction in his yard. 

The evidence that Greathead presented to Parliament to support his claim to be the inventor of the lifeboat was a blatant fraud. He produced a model, probably the one paid for by the Society in 1800, that he said was the model accepted by the Committee of Lawe House in 1789 as the basis for the Original, together with a certificate signed by some of members of the Committee endorsing his claim. Tellingly the certificate was not signed by Nicholas Fairles, the chairman, who later described it as “far from the truth”, but in the absence of any testimony to contradict his story and with the enthusiastic support of a number of carefully chosen witnesses Greathead was awarded £1,200 and a massive boost to his business. 

Greathead’s lifeboats cost around £165 each, and there is no doubt that once the idea of a national lifeboat service had been accepted suitable boats could have been built much more cheaply by local boat builders around the coast, but following the endorsement of Parliament, the allocation of £2,000 to support the building of new lifeboats, and the acceptance of the idea that Greathead’s boats had unique qualities, orders flooded in, so that by the end of 1802 he had built twenty one lifeboats, with more to follow in 1803 before the short lived lifeboat boom promoted by a nationwide publicity campaign petered out.  It is possible that Greathead hindered rather than helped the growth of lifeboat services around Britain. His boats were heavy, expensive, difficult to manage without a ready crew of pilots, and away from their home river they were often viewed with suspicion so that some even rotted in their houses unused despite the undoubted enthusiasm that raised money for their building.  

A bust of Willie Wouldhave at South Shields Museum

In July 1802 the Society received a letter from William Wouldhave, the poor clerk still regarded by many in South Shields as the true inventor of the lifeboat, accusing the Society of exercising a strange kind of patronage. The letter was formally read, but by then the Society had made its choice. The Secretary noted that Wouldhave had waited too long to pursue his claim and that raising the matter now would “serve no purpose but to irritate the friends of Mr Greathead” (Minutes press cutting July 1802), although much later Robert Spence Watson in his history of the Society, perhaps influenced by a letter from Henry Taylor, a much respected former collier captain and lightship promoter, questioning the Society’s role in the affair, took a rather different view: 

There can be little doubt in the mind of anyone who has, at this distance of time, carefully looked into the matter, that there is more of the Wouldhave model than the Greathead model in the boat ultimately constructed. So far as the invention is a North Country one, it must be admitted that the man who most certainly and sagely thought out the true principles upon which any successful boat must be constructed did not get the rewards (Spence Watson 1897). 

Greathead’s claim, so far as it went, rested on the lifeboat’s curved keel which was hardly unique in boat building or in any way a new invention, and his success was relatively short lived. In November 1810 he was declared bankrupt, and he died in poverty in London in 1816, his reputation ruined locally by the New Hartley lifeboat disaster in April 1810 when one of his lifeboats went to pieces due to its defective materials and construction drowning twenty six people. By contrast Willie Wouldhave’s reputation as the inventor of the lifeboat grew steadily in his home town of South Shields backed by a pamphlet campaign by his friend and collaborator the writer William Hails challenging Greathead’s claims. Hails, who spent sixteen years as a shipwright on the river at Howden, worked with Wouldhave developing his ideas, probably drew the plans that Wouldhave submitted with his model to the Lawe House Committee, helped with the testing of the model at South Shields beach, and gave the clearest description prior to the publication of the Northumberland Prize Committee report of 1851 of the essential qualities of a lifeboat. Hails, who could have had a claim to be the inventor of the lifeboat himself given his collaboration with Wouldhave, pointed to Wouldhave’s model being unsinkable and self-righting as evidence for him being the inventor of the lifeboat, and vigorously supported Wouldhave’s complaint that a great injustice had been done by Parliament’s award to Greathead. Despite the publicity generated by Hails’ campaign Wouldhave received no reward other than public recognition in his home town where he was said to be “the inventor of that valuable blessing to mankind, the lifeboat” by the inscription on his gravestone at St Hilda’s Church erected after his death in 1821, and his widow was given a pension for life by the Tyne Lifeboat Institution, still chaired by Nicholas Fairles. 

The lifeboat carved on Willie Wouldhave’s gravestone at St Hilda’s Church South Shields 

Shields lifeboats built by Greathead gave many years of service in the North East and around the coast throughout the Nineteenth Century, illustrated by the outstanding record of the Zetland at Redcar, but they were obsolete long before 1851 when the Northumberland Premium lifeboat design competition led to the introduction of the national lifeboat. The loss of the Shields lifeboat Providence, not built by Greathead, but similar in design and construction to the Original,  in 1849 highlighted the limitations of the Shields boats which were heavy, floated upside down when capsized, and with their curved keels could only run for short distances in big seas. The new national lifeboat based on James Beeching’s winning model was in fact an embodiment of Hails’ ideas on lifeboat design being self-righting and unsinkable, and even though it was for many years viewed with suspicion and rejected on the Tyne it undoubtedly strengthened Wouldhave’s claim to be the inventor of the lifeboat by highlighting the unique features of his model as described by Hails. 

By the second half of the Nineteenth Century the story of the invention of the lifeboat had become part of the identity of the prosperous and rapidly growing town of South Shields shaping the history of the invention of the lifeboat as we know it today. The arms of the Municipal Borough of South Shields already featured a lifeboat on its foundation in 1850, and in 1887 a public meeting decided that the best way for the town to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee was to erect a lifeboat memorial to Willie Wouldhave the inventor of the lifeboat. Following a belated campaign by the supporters of Greathead it was agreed that the memorial should be called the Wouldhave and Greathead memorial of the Lifeboat although it is perhaps significant that the image of Wouldhave faces the town down the main street while the image of Greathead looks out to sea hidden from casual passers-by.  What exactly Wouldhave invented was despite Hails still unclear as cork buoyancy had been used by Lionel Lukin before 1789, but his case was about to be restated in a new, powerful, and most unexpected way.

The lifeboat model in South Shields Museum

At the end of the Nineteenth Century Ralph Hedley’s romantic painting Willie Wouldhave Inventing the Lifeboat (1896) was bought for the Borough of South Shields by public subscription and placed on display in the Free Library and Museum in Ocean Road together with a model purporting to be Wouldhave’s actual model that he famously left with the Committee of Lawe House in 1789. This was a heroic period in the town’s development with the excavation of the Roman Fort confirming its illustrious past and distinct identity of which the lifeboat was by now a central part.  The belief that the model lifeboat in South Shields museum is Willie Wouldhave’s model is almost an article of faith in South Shields now. In fact the history of Wouldhave’s model after 1789 is unknown; Wouldhave did not have it in 1802 when he wrote to the Literary and Philosophical Society complaining about its patronage of Greathead, he offered only to bring his plans, and it was certainly not available for inspection during Hails’ campaign on behalf of Wouldhave in 1805/6; it only reappeared towards the end of the end of the Nineteenth Century in conjunction with Hedley’s painting. Conveniently the model is highlighted in the painting and each reinforces the authenticity of the other, but in retrospect some features of the model give cause for concern:  Hails, who helped Wouldhave test his model at South Shields beach, says that Wouldhave’s model represented a boat thirty foot long at a scale of eight tenths of an inch to the foot which doesn’t fit the dimensions of the museum model, while the sheer of the museum model, an important feature of the design, isn’t duplicated by the air cases which means the shape makes little or no contribution to the boat’s buoyancy or stability. Crucially, given the importance Hails placed on the model being self-righting, a replica of the museum model floated upside down when capsized despite being heavily ballasted.  

Stephen Laverick’s lifeboat model in St Hilda’s Church South Shields

Wouldhave’s model was almost certainly lost soon after he left it at Lawe House in 1789 when the question of the invention of the lifeboat had no significance or meaning. Shields’ folk believed for most of the Nineteenth Century that the lifeboat model which hangs in St Hilda’s Church was Wouldhave’s model, although it is known from church records to be a model of the first lifeboat, the Original, made in 1802 by Stephen Laverick Henry Greathead’s senior apprentice. In truth the museum model contributes little to Wouldhave’s case to be the inventor of the lifeboat, but given the importance of the story to the town’s identity the value of such an artefact cannot be overstated, and in such circumstances belief is more important than evidence.  One possible explanation for its sudden appearance is that it was made for the 1851 lifeboat competition and used by Hedley, a realist artist, in his painting, or it could even have been made by Hedley or his assistants specifically for the painting based loosely on Hails’ published description. The publication of its photograph in Hodgson’s history of South Shields (Hodgson 1903)) without any discussion of its provenance or authenticity sealed its place at the centre of a story of the invention of the lifeboat by a lone and misunderstood genius which to echo Nichols Fairles’s comment might have been far from the truth, but for the people and Borough of South Shields was much more attractive than Greathead’s lies or the complicated reality. 

The Lifeboat Memorial Ocean Road South Shields 



Hodgson, George B, The Borough of South Shields from the earliest times to the close of the Nineteenth Century, Newcastle, Andrew Reid and Company, 1903

Landells, Stephen, Rescues in the Surf the story of the Shields lifeboats 1789-1939, Newcastle, Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2010  

Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, Minutes of Monthly Meetings, unpublished manuscripts 

Millard, John, Ralph Hedley Tyneside Painter, Newcastle, Tyne and Wear Museums Service, 1990 

Osler, Adrian G, Mr Greathead’s Lifeboats, Newcastle, Tyne and Wear Museums Service, 1990

Report of the committee appointed to examine the lifeboat models submitted to compete for the premium offered by his Grace the Duke of Northumberland, London, Clowes and Sons, 1851

Spence Watson, Robert, The History of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne (1793-1896), London, Walter Scott 1897

Turner, William, History of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle, Sarah Hodgson, 1807

Whitaker, Boswell, Skuetender Lifeboat, South Shields, South Tyneside Borough Council Library Services, 1979 

Lifeboat Design Competition

A reward of two guineas* will be given to any person producing a model of a boat calculated to go through very heavy broken sea – the intention of it being to preserve the lives of seamen from ships come ashore in hard gales of wind. Models will be received on any day at the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle and a committee will meet on the 1st September 2015 appointed to determine who shall be entitled to the reward
*together with a year’s membership of the Society
Competitions have played a vital role in the development of the lifeboat and to mark the exhibition the society is launching a competition for young people to design and build a model lifeboat in the spirit of the competitions of 1789 and 1851. Entries are invited from anyone under eighteen on the 1st September 2015 and a selection of the models will be exhibited at the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle following the judging. 

Testing a self-righting lifeboat model at South Shields beach

The Redcar lifeboat Zetland built by Henry Greathead at South Shields in 1802 now on display at Redcar Lifeboat Museum


A Letter from Mr. Wouldhave Claiming the Invention of the Lifeboat
read July 1802
I hope you will excuse the liberty I take of addressing you on a subject, which you will perhaps think very strange; trusting however to your desire of promoting useful Science, and your encouragement of Scientific Genius: I venture to inform you that though Mr. Greathead, by a strange kind of Patronage, has received Premiums from different Societies and the Legislative Body, as the Inventor of the South Shields Life-boat.
I (and not he) am the Inventor, nor is there one Good property in that boat, that is not pirated from the Original Model I presented to the Committee at the Law House, for the express purpose of examining the Plans &c. and rewarding the inventor of the best.
It would be foreign to the purpose Gentlemen, to detain you by representing the gross ignorance of the persons that formed this Assembly, in every branch of Natural and Experimental Philosophy; I shall only observe that the undeserved persecution I have met with from them, and the bare-faced injustice they have been guilty of towards me, can in no way be accounted for unless, the freedom I took of ridiculing their contracted ideas, has given rise to a malignity, altogether worthy of the most Ignorant of Men.
But why should I detain you Gentlemen?
The reward that would have done me good, that was my due, (if any one's) is pocketted by the Builder, not the Inventor. But is it not proper that Rascality should be detected, that the injured should be righted? You unanimously answer yes. Then Gentlemen I am the injured the grossly injured. Mr Greathead and his Patrons are the men who has injured, undeservedly injured me; and though I am Poor, and unsupported; before your respectable Body, who will be convinced by argument rather than by riches, assured by demonstrations, not fair speeches.
I will at your desire shew you the Original Plan, and after you have compared it with the Lifeboats built by Greathead, if you are not satisfied, that I am the Inventor of every good property of that boat, I forfeit my Veracity and will give it up quietly as I have been forced to do the rewards of that ingenuity which God has been pleased to bless me with. I shall only trouble you a little further.
Dare Mr. Greathead say that he proposed any cork in his Model or Plan? Dare he say the Model in any way approached the form of a Norway-yawl? If he dare say so, let him produce his Original Plan. Which if it imitated anything was a Butchers Tray rounded at each end, in the form of a Tailors lap-board.
To conclude, After my Model had remained (according to their desire for further Investigation) about five weeks, at the Committee Room. I was again ordered to attend, when they offered me a Guinea as they said because I was Second, then said I Gentlemen who is first, there was no reply a pause I took the Guinea and gave it to Mr. Teasdale, saying, set this to my Accompt, for I don't mean to pocket this.
There are hundreds of People, in South Shields; who know me to be the Inventor of the Boat, many of them are men who understand the Laws of Motion, the resistance of Fluids, and the forms of those bodies best calculated to divide them. My Poverty has hindered me from publishing anything relating to this iniquitous procedure and I only beg that you would be so kind as to consider the subject, and believe me I am not affraid [sic] to challenge the world to prove that I have assented anything but the truth. Any other particulars you may wish to know, I will inform you, or you may be fully informed by Mr. Hails a Teacher of the Mathematics, in Westgate Street Newastle.
I am Gentlemen
with respect
Your Obt. H'ble Servt.
Wm. Wouldhave



A Letter from Mr H.Taylor of North Shields
Giving an Account of his Exertions for the Establishment of Lights in Hasboro Gatt and Goodwin Sands
read October 1802
Esteemed Friend,
I take the liberty to hand thee two Pamphlets, to make such use of as thou mayest judge proper.
Much has been said and written about the Life Boat, and much honour and profit has accrued to the inventor. I do not mean by what follows to make an invidious comparison nor would I have mentioned the circumstances if the inventor had not been secure of his reward, how very much some people are indebted to fortuitous circumstances.
During that last twelve or fourteen years of my life I have laboured and successfully laboured, for the benefit of Shipping and Commerce, and for the preservation of the lives of Seamen, as the narrative that accompanies this will fully demonstrate. If I should say that the lights projected by me (and which but for me would probably never have existed) will benefit Shipping and Commerce and Seamen, very many times more than all the Lifeboats that have been, or may be built, I sincerely think I should speak the truth.
It may be enquired how comes it to pass, that the Author of such benefits is so little known or noticed? I answer, my design at first was simply that of being useful without desiring or claiming either honour or profit, until the opposition given by the Trinity Board, to my Scheme of a Floating light at the Goodwin, forced me to appear in print, advised thereto by a very respectable Mr P. who (as the Trinity Board refused to comply with the wishes of the Trade, in granting me a lease of said light) proposed to lay my case before the House of Commons But though the Testimonies are so strong in my favour, and the National benefits confessedly so great, He was not permitted to do it.
I then thought in justice to myself, I would by an appeal to the Shipping and Mercantile Interests, let them know to whom they are indebted for the benefit of the Lights. Accordingly in the early part of this year, I printed a short Appeal, annexed it to the narratives, and sent them to London to be given away, and having occasion to be in town myself on other business, I certainly should have made them as public as possible, but my friends advised me to the contrary, and one of them an eminent Merchant wrote the board on my behalf, in consequence of which they gave me Five Hundred Pounds.
The instructions for managing Ships at Single Anchor, cannot be understood by thee, nor is the Subject (though a necessary part of Seaman-Ship) well understood by any but North Country Seamen, and even they see it necessary that the instructions should be put on board their Ships.
I believe nothing on the same subject was ever before printed, except by a person at Liverpool, whose performance I never saw, but if (as I am told) he advises to lay Ships to Leeward of their Anchors, he has published a fundamental error.
The Society formed in Newcastle some years ago for general Arbitration was suggested by me, but the sensible address annexed to the Rules was written by thee.
That Society might have continued to this day but for two reasons. First the Members living at too great a distance from each other, and Second because there were too many of them.
The Philosophical Society of which thou art so useful a member could not do a more praiseworthy act than that of reviving the Arbitration Association at Newcastle to consist of Members resident in the Town.
What a delightful thing it would be if in every Town in the Kingdom, such an institution could be formed, the practicability of it must be self-evident, how much Money might be saved that is uselessly squandered away in Law! How much Animosity might be prevented among Men, and what peace, and harmony, and good will might be found in every man's own neighbourhood.
As I know thee to be a benevolent man, I am sure thou wilt rejoice to find that any plans are proposed and adopted, that have for their object the preservation of the lives of Men, and I feel satisfaction in presenting thee with an account of my endeavours for that good end.
I am very Respectfully thy friend
Henry Taylor
To the Rev Wm. Turner




About the author

David Kidd

David grew up in South Shields and, after graduating from Leicester University with a degree in Economic History, he became a bank manager before leaving the bank to become a maths teacher, eventually spending eight years in Ethiopia and Eritrea training teachers, until he retired. 
In 2016 he researched the topic of the invention of the lifeboat for an exhibition at the Lit&Phil.

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