Hythe’s Lionel Lukin and Lifeboats

Living in a coastal area like Sandgate and Hythe means that it’s hard for residents to go very long without seeing a lifeboat of some kind. They’re such a ubiquitous part of living by the seaside that it’s easy to take them for granted, but did you know that the first custom-built lifeboat wasn’t patented until 1785?


Considering how many years humans have spent on the water, it’s surprising that an official lifeboat was not designed until a few centuries ago. The man behind this life changing invention was Lionel Lukin, who was born in Great Dunmow in Essex in 18th May 1742. He was apprenticed to a coachmaker in London and went on to set up his own coachmaking business in the city.


However, Lukin was interested in vehicles beyond the coaches by which he made his living. He was a keen inventor, and soon he turned his creative mind to the problem of lifeboats and decided to try and find a way to create a boat that would be unsinkable. Local legends in Great Dunmow state that he began his journey in his home town, experimenting with model boats on the local fishing pond, which was known as Doctor’s Pond due to medical leeches that bred there.


Soon Lukin progressed from model boats to full-size vessels, and in 1784 he began testing his ideas on a kind of sailing boat known as a Norwegian yawl, using the River Thames to trial his prototypes. Lukin’s designs involved using pockets of air in watertight compartments, buoyant gunwales (the top sides of the boat), and using cork and other lightweight materials in the structure to help with buoyancy. Lukin also included a false iron keel that would add additional weight and help keep the boat upright.


Lukin patented his design for the unsinkable boat on 2nd November 1785. In 1786 he was commissioned to convert a coble, a type of fishing boat, into his unsinkable design, and this vessel served as the first known lifeboat. However, in 1789, the tragedy of the ship Adventure, which perished with all hands, prompted a wider response to the lifeboat question, and there was a competition for inventors to send in their lifeboat designs; the winner would receive 2 guineas.


In the end, the judges took two of the submitted designs, one from Parish Clerk William Woudhave and one from boatbuilder Henry Greathead, and used them to create a new kind of lifeboat. This resulted in Greathead often being credited as the inventor of the lifeboat, and Lukin would struggle to the end to get the credit he deserved.


Lionel Lukin died on 16th February 1834 and is buried in St Leonard’s churchyard in Hythe.

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