Henry Francis Greathead was born on January 27, 1757 in Richmond, North Yorkshire, England. His father was well off, having been in public service for many years as an officer of salt duties and later as supervisor and comptroller of the district when his family moved to South Shields, England in 1763.
Henry received the best education available in the area, then served an apprenticeship in boat building.
In 1778, Henry took a position as a ship’s carpenter.
The next year he was shipwrecked near Calais and on his return to England narrowly avoided being press-ganged into naval service.
During a voyage to the Grenadas his ship was taken by American privateers, and was then sent to New York where he was impressed aboard a British sloop.
Henry remained in service till the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783.
He returned to South Shields where he set up his own boat building business in 1785, and married in the following year. He had six children, though all but two of them died at a young age.
Then in 1789 a ship was stranded on a sandbank and the crew could not be rescued because of storm conditions.
A committee was formed to build a boat capable of effecting a rescue in such conditions. Two models were submitted.
One, modeled in tin by William Wouldhave, was to be built of copper, made buoyant by the use of cork, and was incapable of being capsized.
The committee however disapproved of the idea of a copper boat, but Wouldhave was awarded one guinea for his trouble. Self-righting lifeboat designs would not be deployed until the 1840’s.
Henry Greathead also made a submission, built of wood, which floated bottom up when overturned.
He was however rewarded by being hired to build a boat akin to a Norway Yawl as directed by the committee.
Sometime after, two members of the committee presented a curved keel model which Henry had built.
The curved keel lifeboat Henry designed rose more fore and aft than a typical Norway Yawl.
When full of water amidships, one third at each end would remain out of the water, and it could continue underway without foundering.
It could also be rowed in either direction and was steered by an oar rather than a rudder.
It was designed to be rowed with ten short oars, these being more manageable in heavy seas than a full-length oar.
Henry’s lifeboat design was thirty feet long and ten feet broad.
The sides were cased with cork, four inches thick, weighing nearly 7 hundredweight and secured with copper plates.
It added considerably to the buoyancy of the boat, helping it recover quickly from any upset.
The curvature of the keel made her very easy to steer about her centre.
The boat was designed to carry twenty people.
Then on January 30, 1790, Henry Greathead’s lifeboat named the “Original” went out on her first trial run on the River Tyne.
It took some years before this lifeboat become well known to the public, and it was not until 1798 that Hugh Percy, 2nd Duke of Northumberland, purchased a lifeboat for North Shields, and then another for Oporto in 1800.
Then in 1802, Henry Greathead’s work was “deemed a fit subject for national munificence” and a petition was submitted to the House of Commons.
A committee ascertained the utility of the lifeboat, the originality of the invention, and the remuneration that he had already received.
They interviewed numerous witnesses and after some debate the House unanimously granted Henry Greathead £1,200.
Trinity House also awarded 100 guineas, as did Lloyd’s of London.
The Society for the Encouragement of the Arts and Sciences gave him 50 guineas and a gold medallion.
However, Henry Greathead never took out a patent on his invention, and reportedly was willing to share his lifeboat plans with others for the public good.
The Zetland lifeboat
The Zetland is the oldest surviving lifeboat in the world. It is currently in a free museum in Redcar. The name Zetland comes from the local Lord of Manor, the Marquess of Zetland. The Zetland is on the National Register of Historic Ships.
Henry Greathead’s eleventh lifeboat, the Zetland built in 1802, saw 78 years of service in Redcar and saved over 500 lives with the loss of only one crew member.
She normally had a crew of 13, but up to 20 could be needed in rough weather. Her cork fenders were replaced at some point by internal buoyancy tanks.
This boat is the only one of Henry Greathead’s to survive, and is preserved at the RNLI Zetland Museum.
By 1806, Henry’s lifeboats were in use at Whitby, North Shields, South Shields, Exmouth, Penzance, Plymouth, Newhaven, Ramsgate, Dover, Liverpool, Lowestoft, St Andrews, Montrose, Aberdeen, Ayr, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and Russia.
In 1807, Lionel Ludkin designed the Frances Ann for the Lowestoft service, which wasn’t satisfied with Greathead’s design, and this saved 300 lives over 42 years of service.
By 1811 the list of Henry Greathead lifeboats included Guernsey, Arbroath, Pillau, Cronstadt, Rye, Whitehaven, Stettin, Riga, Danzig, Cromer, Leith, Bridlington, Charleston, Fraserburgh, Gothenburg, San Lucar, Dunbar, Blyth, Spurn and Heligoland.
The Admiralty had also purchased five smaller craft.
In total, Henry Greathead built 31 lifeboats.
Henry Greathead’s claim for the invention of the rescue lifeboat and his contributions to its design were eventually contested.
Several letters appeared in newspapers and periodicals denying his right to the honor and awards lavished upon him.
Although his claims were contested, Henry Greathead had built 31 lifeboats, which had saved many, many lives, and succeeded in making the concept of a shore-based rescue lifeboat widely accepted.
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