HISTORICALLY reports of sailing ships being ‘lost with all hands’ was a common occurrence. However, it was not until 1824 that the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwrecks (RNIPLS) was formed.
Just one year later Captain Richard Spencer RN, CB, a naval officer residing in Lyme Regis on half pay while awaiting recall to sea service, set about converting a local boat for lifesaving.
It has been suggested that the boat was a 14 foot Lerret, a double-ended clinker boat used for seine netting off the Chesil Beach. It could, however, have been any four-oared boat; a Lyme stone-boat is another possibility.
Spencer set about making the boat extremely buoyant even when swamped. He fitted air-tight copper cases enclosed in pine boxes. These were secured under each of the boats (thwarts) seats, two longer versions were fitted externally to either side of the boat.
On October 3 1825 Spencer and two brave volunteers rowed out of the Cobb and after removing the bung allowed it to fill with water. Despite letting the boat broach broadside onto breaking waves, the boat remained upright and fairly stable.
Further trials were carried out, with the craft resisting all efforts to capsize it. Later in the month a larger boat was used with eight men aboard, once again the results were positive.
The Dorset branch of the RNIPLS recommended that 14 ounce copper be used to make the air cases stronger and that extra cases be fitted to the bow and stern. A lifeboat inspector confirmed the alterations had been carried out at a cost of £18.4s.
A newspaper report of the September 27 1927 refers to the “temporary lifeboat fitted out as recommended by Captain Spencer”. It states the boat with 14 men aboard was rowed to windward of the Cobb and despite being partially waterlogged it returned without mishap.
A boat that could carry that number of men would indicate a length in the region of 18-20 foot with 6-8 oars. It is evidence that Spencer was carrying out trials with larger sized boats and with increased carrying capacity.
It has not been possible to find any evidence of the ‘temporary lifeboat’ being used to save lives. Apparently the boat, despite earlier positive reports, proved to be unsatisfactory, nearly drowning a man when it capsized. Left to rot, it was eventually broken up and any parts of value sold off by the coastguard.
It does, however, illustrate that Lyme, albeit by the efforts of Captain Spencer, was at the forefront of lifeboat development.
Lyme was not to get its first purpose-built lifeboat that could self-right until 1853. It was 27 foot Peake-type, eight-oared boat with two pole-mast from which four cornered sails could be hoisted. The boat cost £137 of which two-thirds was raised locally.
The modern RNLI lifeboats cannot be compared to their 19th century forerunners but owe their development to men like Captain Spencer.
Local author and historian