Whitehaven Lifeboat

The first boat built specifically for use as a Lifeboat in Whitehaven was built by Henry Greathead, of South Shields. The boat he built was 28 feet in length, with a beam of 10 feet and rowed 12 oars with a crew of 15, costing £149 to build. The boat was built for the Whitehaven Harbour trust, and was apparently never given a name.

At a meeting of the Trustees at the Courthouse on 30th September 1803 a letter was read from Mr Henry Greathead of South Shields stating the prices of the different sized Lifeboats- the clerk was directed to write to Mr Greathead and order the largest sized lifeboat for the use and benefit of this Harbour, to be delivered as soon as possible by Land Carriage fully equipped.

From the West Cumberland Times of 23rd October 1954, it is known that the boat had arrived on 10th January 1804 after a 4 day overland journey by horse drawn wagon. It was made unsinkable by thick boards of cork fixed on the sides, weighing 1½ tons.

Her first service was on 17th November 1813 to the Brig Brothers of Workington. The harbour boat was launched to assist her. Laden with cattle from Bangor, Northern Ireland she appeared off Whitehaven in the "greatest distress" and soon afterwards came ashore near the Entrance of the harbour at about 3pm. The harbour boat was crewed by five men. Thomas Farrell was washed overboard and "perished in the humane attempt to save his fellow creatures".

The remainder of the crew were rescued by the exertions of numerous Individuals and the Ship’s Crew, aided by the same means with the assistance of the Lifeboat. The trustees provided a sum of 30 guineas to reward those who had assisted in the rescue. Also the situation of the lifeboat was reviewed, so that it may be more readily available for immediate use.

Thomas Farrell was buried on 7th December 1813 at Holy Trinity Church, Whitehaven, his body having eventually washed up. There is no gravestone. He was aged 25. All 52 cattle on board died, and one of the passengers died from cold and fatigue the following day. The name of the passenger is not recorded.

Following the recommendation made after this launch, at the Trustees meeting of 11th March 1814 the plan for a new Lifeboat House on the New Quay were approved. The Accounts do not provide a discrete cost for this new lifeboat house. On 7th June 1816 the Harbour Master was directed to ensure a sufficient crew for the Life Boat under his own immediate direction, and that such Crew may from time to time be practiced in the use of the Lifeboat.

Whitehaven Lifeboat Parade, 1884
Whitehaven Lifeboat Parade, 1884
At about 3am on 31st August 1819 a strong north-westerly blew up, which rapidly increased to a hurricane. By the time of the high tide at 6am the tide had risen to an unusual height and great alarm prevailed in the town, for the safety of some vessels which appeared in the offing. The gale continued until Wednesday evening.

During Tuesday morning 21 vessels entered the harbour but five were driven on shore between the Old and New Harbour- the Atlas,  the Contest, the Fortune, the Brothers (of Ramsey), and the Phoenix (of Newry).

At noon (low water) the Contest, laden with coal came nearly opposite the mouth of the harbour and endeavoured to beat off, but every attempt proved ineffectual. Most of her sails were split, or carried away by the wind, the remainder were much damaged, and at length she was driven on shore between the North Wall and William Pit. Soon after a seaman, William Whinnea leapt into the sea, swam into shoal water and was rescued, quite exhausted, by many hands on shore.

The Lifeboat was then launched from the New Quay, and made many vain attempts to reach the stricken vessel, but was unable. Eventually a buoy drifted onshore from the ship, and with its aid the boat was able to rescue five crew men. The rope then broke, the vessel was again driven onshore. After many attempts to fire a line another buoy drifted ashore which allowed the lifeboat to rescue the mate, and on another pass the master, making eight men rescued in all, seven by the lifeboat and one by swimming.

Scarcely was this rescue complete, than the Thistle (also laden with coal) was driven ashore but 40 yards closer to the north wall. With the assistance of a hawser from the stricken vessel the lifeboat was able to land the whole crew (number not recorded) safely ashore.

By 8 pm both vessels were total wrecks.. At about the same time a ship’s boat with two men arrived in the midst of the tempest. The men had had to abandon their fishing vessel off Portaferry, Ireland at 7am and had been driven 13 hours in the storm to Whitehaven.

A subscription was opened to aid the crews of the two wrecked vessels who had lost all their possessions and to “reward those persons who so nobly stepped forward and manned the lifeboat, thereby preserving the lives of the crews”.

After this unsuccessful service the Trustees meeting of 6th September 1819 were tasked with obtaining a new Lifeboat.

At the following meeting on 26th October 1819 it was decided to procure a boat of smaller dimensions than the present one as being “more likely to suit the purposes for which it is intended”. Correspondence was to be undertaken with Mr Davison of Bishopwearmouth, and investigate whether or not to build the new boat in Whitehaven, if not the best & cheapest mode of conveyance to the town.

The final (4th) service launch of this first boat was on Tuesday 5th March 1822. The Dove, the Falcon, the Mary Isabella, the Hebe, the Mary, the Fanny, the Active and the Defence all sailed on the high tide at 1000 and in good weather, laden with coal for Dublin. Also the Jenny, the Wellington, the Jane, and the Defence Cutter. Within an hour a strong southerly blew up accompanied by strong showers of sleet and rain and bitter cold. Under these conditions all the vessels were forced to ride out the storm.

The Dove was driven past the harbour entrance at around 1700, ebb tide, and was forced onto the rocks at Redness Point. The lifeboat was launched but even with twelve oarsmen was unmanageable in the storm, was driven to leeward of the vessel with the utmost velocity and the men were obliged to make for Parton to save their lives. The Rocket Brigade next tried to fire a line the 60 yards from shore, but that too proved impossible in the conditions. A buoy was then drifted from shore, and the mate was rescued. However with the seas breaking over the vessel the other 7 crew had to seek refuge in the maintop. The vessel drifted, and was eventually forced onto her beam ends. Eventually the crew were further forced into the main chains. From this exposed location and from fatigue two boys, James Wade and Thomas Cotcher fell into the sea and perished. One man, Cavender, jumped in a last desperate bid to survive, to try to swim to shore but perished. Finally the main mast came to nearly rest on a rock and the remaining four men were now able to crawl along the mast and were recovered by many hands on shore, and with the aid of a hawser. She was a total wreck. All three were found on shore near Harrington the next day.

James Wade (of Queen Street), aged 15, and Bernard Cavender (aged 30 of New Town) were buried at St. Nicholas Church, Whitehaven on 8th March. Thomas Cotcher (of New Street), aged 19, was buried at Holy Trinity Church, Whitehaven on the same day.

Of the other vessels which left port that fateful morning: The Falcon struck the Little Ross near Kirkcudbright and sank at around 2100. Of the five crew a boy, John Watson was washed away and perished, and Isaac Moore died in the rigging at 0400 next day. The other three men were rescued at 0900 on Wednesday. Isaac Moore was buried at Kirkcudbright on 7th March, but the body of John Watson was not found. The Joshua of Workington also sank nearby, and all perished. The Mary Isabella also came to grief in the same area. Of her crew of eight, seven perished when they were washed out of the rigging. The Wellington was also wrecked nearby but all her crew were saved, similarly for the Dido of Harrington, and the Jenny. The Active was beached half a mile north of Workington, with no loss of life. The Fanny was beached about one mile north of Workington, with no loss of life. The Hebe was driven ashore near Maryport, lost her bowsprit and topmast but was able to limp into Maryport on the Saturday. The Mary (of Lancaster) was forced on shore at Bank End. The Mate, John Sampson died in the rigging from cold and fatigue, and another crewman, John Hall also died. The other five crew were rescued, although three boys suffered severe exhaustion. The Defence was forced on shore between Maryport and Allonby, with no loss of life. The Defence Cutter made it safely to Douglas, and the Jane made it safely to Belfast.

Test Launch Of The Whitehaven Lifeboat c1900
Test Launch Of The Whitehaven Lifeboat c1900

The Whitehaven Rocket Brigade was formed in 1849 when the first shore-to-ship rescue device was bought for the town. The volunteers, who would support the lifeboatmen, would haul the apparatus on a wagon to where a stricken ship was floundering offshore.

The rockets, carrying ropes, were fired out and once received on board, a much heavier cable could be drawn across, facilitating the use of a breeches-buoy to rescue stranded crew and passengers.

Volunteer Brigades worked closely with local Coastguard officers, providing trained and disciplined teams of volunteers to assist in emergency situations; training was overseen by HM Coastguard. The Volunteer Life Brigades were shore-based organisations, trained in ship-to-shore rescue techniques.

Whitehaven Rocket Brigade, 1930
Whitehaven Rocket Brigade, 1930


Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

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