The Ipswich and Thorpeness Lifeboat – ‘Saving lives in Suffolk ‘

Did you know that Ipswich once had its own lifeboats?

Well, sort of.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) formed in 1824, was originally called the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck. It formed the same year that the Suffolk Association for Saving the Lives of Shipwrecked Seamen was also created.

In 1824 there were already 3 lifeboats in Suffolk, based at Lowestoft, Bawdsey and Landguard Fort. The lifeboat based at Landguard Fort had originally been paid for by subscription, after the loss of a ship and its crew near to the fort in 1820.

This lifeboat was designed by a local boat designer Richard Hall Gower whose designs were innovative for his time. The lifeboat was able to be transported across a beach with ease, rigged with two small spritsails and made buoyant using cork and copper air-cases. It was launched at Jabez Bayley’s Yard at Stoke Bridge in Ipswich in April 1821 watched by the townspeople and named the ‘Ipswich Lifeboat’. It was then put through several testing trials on the river. Such as being dropped from height into the water, part filled with water and then rowed down the river and back.

The establishment of the Suffolk Association for Saving the Lives of Shipwrecked Seamen brought direction to the way the lifeboats were used in Suffolk. The lifeboat at Landguard was refitted and repaired for £35 at the direction of the Association, about £2000 in 2017. Despite the refit the lifeboat remained quite ineffective and in 1825 it was dismantled. This was probably due to the lifeboat only being crewed by soldiers stationed at Landguard Fort who were poor sailors. As opposed to the crew of the lifeboat based at Harwich across the estuary.

In 1853 after the Suffolk Association passed control of its Suffolk lifeboat stations to the RNLI, a new station was established at Thorpeness.  Where a second ‘Ipswich’ lifeboat was to be based. It was christened and launched on the 29th of May 1862 in Ipswich. The town providing funds for its construction.

Until recently we had thought that there was only one visual record of the launching of this event left. An etching and whole page article in the Illustrated London News in 1862. The realisation that a photograph of the event has survived too added to the story of the lifeboat. Though it is still unknown who took the photograph. After further research, our Image Archivist Stuart believes it was taken by Ipswich artist and renowned Victorian photographer, Robert Burrows.

Launch of the Ipswich Lifeboat in 1862 – IMT Image Archive

The photograph reveals the excitement of that day. It shows what pride and interest in maritime matters the townspeople of the time must have had. Many of the townspeople’s livelihoods were dependent on the sea, so perhaps this is not surprising. As the Thorpeness lifeboat, its crew saved many lives on such a particularly exposed part of the Suffolk coast. This image was included in our 2021 IMT Calendar.

Our Image Archive has continued to grow since we launched it online in 2016. We are always looking for more volunteers to help with research and the conservation of the Image Archive. So please do get involved if you are interested in this aspect of our maritime heritage and history.

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