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Lifesaving on the Thames

A national lifesaving organization
A standard lifeboat design
The Thames lifeboat builders
The Thames: test tank and 'shop window'
A 21st century service
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The Thames lifeboat builders

Growing demand for lifeboats

Forrestt's Life-Boat Building Yard, Limehouse.
View full size imageForrestt's Life-Boat Building Yard, Limehouse. © NMM
The demand for both merchant and shore-based lifeboats grew with the successive repeals of the Merchant Shipping Acts during the later half of the 19th century. As a result, boatyards and some of the larger shipyards on the Thames were building them in large numbers. 

Lifeboats under construction.
View full size imageLifeboats under construction at Thames Ironworks, 1902. © NMM

The hulls of RNLI lifeboats had a complex construction with double diagonal planking. The exacting standards required by the RNLI surveyors meant that only a small number of boatyards were awarded these coverted building contracts.



Selected boatyards

Steam lifeboat 'Duke of Northumberland' (1889).
View full size imageSteam lifeboat Duke of Northumberland (1889). © NMM
During the 19th century, nearly 90% of the RNLI fleet built was built by yards on the Thames. The first to take full advantage of this was Forrest & Son of Limehouse. More than 115 lifeboats were built at this yard after 1864. This work was later shared with Woolfe & Son of Shadwell, who built 143 from 1876. Then, finally, Thames Ironworks built more than 206 boats between 1896-1913.

Lifeboat under construction.
View full size imageLifeboat under construction. © NMM

Other yards worth mentioning are:

  • R & H Green of  Blackwall, who built the Duke of Northumberland , the world's first steam lifeboat, launched in 1888
  • J L Thornycroft of Chiswick, whose work on marine petrol engines led to their introduction in the early 1900s.

Find out more
StoriesHospitals in the port
The port was a dangerous place
StoriesPolicing the Port of London
Fighting crime in maritime London
StoriesThames Ironworks
Building for London and the world
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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