South Shields and the Sea : Mariners and Lifeboats

South Shields by the Sea

South Shields’ Ocean Road leads east from King Street in the centre of the town and becomes Pier Parade where it cuts between the town’s two ‘Marine Parks’ towards the South Shields’ shoreline. The Marine Parks (North and South) date to the 1890s and reflected South Shields’ status as a popular seaside resort in that century.

Mouth of the Tyne, South Shields
Piers at the mouth of the Tyne, South Shields : © David Simpson

Close to the eastern end of Broughton Road not far from the south west corner of South Marine Park is an interesting group of 19th century single-storey cottages that form a large square divided by the road. Known as the Master Mariner Cottages they were almshouses built in 1843-47.

At the eastern side of the park we reach the seafront and the lovely beach. Here nearby are popular seaside establishments and the South Pier of the Tyne that all form part of South Shields’ appealing seaside attractions. There are lovely views out to the North Sea and across the mouth of the Tyne to Tynemouth Castle, Tynemouth Priory and the Collingwood monument.

The creation of the North and South Piers at the mouth of the Tyne from 1854-1895 improved navigation at the mouth of the Tyne but may also have encouraged further accumulation of sand for the beach front at South Shields.

Along the coast to the north of the parks we reach the very mouth of the Tyne with the hill called the Lawe up above. Up on the top of the Lawe many of the street names adopt a Roman theme in the vicinity of the Roman fort of Arbeia.

In front of the fort in Beacon Street are two obelisk-like beacons – the Lawe Top Beacons – with a line of stones as a marker in the ground between them. The beacons were used as navigation aids by ships entering the Tyne. Lining the two beacons up ensured safe passage into the river mouth for the ships.

Guiding beacon, South Shields
Guiding beacon, South Shields : Photo © David Simpson

Nearby are two cannons, presented to South Shields in 1858 as spoils of the Crimean War. The cannons are in fact copies rather than originals. The first cannons were melted down during the Second World War to assist with the war effort.

Inventors of the Lifeboat

Pier Parade between the North and South Marine Parks has a notable monument to Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Dating from 1890 it is a baroque style clock designed by J.H Morton. In addition to its role celebrating the Queen’s jubilee the tower also commemorates the invention of the lifeboat at South Shields in 1790 with the names of two men – William Wouldhave and Henry Greathead.

Alongside the monument beneath a cast iron canopy of 1894 a lifeboat of 1833 is displayed. The boat is called The Tyne and is of similar design to that developed at South Shields some 44 year earlier.

South Shields’ association with the development of the lifeboat dates back to 1789. In the September of that year a Newcastle ship called The Adventure was stranded on a treacherous sandbank – the Herd Sands – in severe conditions off the mouth of the Tyne. Sadly its crew members perished in the cold sea, with many thrown from the rigging as helpless onlookers watched from the shore.

Lifeboat, South Shields
Memorials to the invention of the lifeboat, South Shields : © David Simpson

A committee was formed at South Shields to discuss the development of a boat that could withstand conditions necessary for the saving of lives and two men in particular rose to the challenge. Henry Greathead, a South Shields boat builder and William Wouldhave, the parish clerk of St Hilda’s in South Shields both submitted plans.

Wouldhave (1751-1821) was born across the Tyne at North Shields but had moved to South Shields by the 1770s. Greathead (1757-1818) was born in Richmond in North Yorkshire and in his earlier life travelled the seas as a ship’s carpenter, at one point finding himself captured by the Press Gangs at New York and forced to work on board a British sloop. He remained in service until the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783.

There is some argument over which of the two men, if either, should take the credit for the design of the first lifeboat. At the time it was certainly Greathead who was given almost all the credit, partly due to the support of Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society.

Greathead had made efforts to secure the society’s support and they backed him in parliament, securing Greathead £1,200 in the process, much to the anger of the apparently bad-tempered Wouldhave, who was offered a few coins for his efforts but claimed the lifeboat was his design.

From the descriptions of those who knew him at the time, Wouldhave seems to have been very pasionate and engaged in developing the lifeboat and invested much effort into its design. It seems he was of comparatively humble background and perhaps less articulate in his mannerism than the other members of the committee who had issued the lifeboat challenge. There is an impression that Wouldhave was slightly patronised by the committee and that had he been of higher standing maybe he would have – if the pun can be pardoned – gained greater recognition.

Greathead – whose name sounds perfectly tailored for a great inventor seems to have been skilled in courting the support for his case. He had his detractors, though, and some have claimed his only contribution to the design was the rounded keel and that even that was a mistake. The general consensus in South Shields today seems to be that Wouldhave, should have, taken most of the credit.

Who it was that actually perfected the design will continue to be debated but Greathead was certainly skilled in building boats and went on to build around 31 lifeboats beginning with The Original, the world’s first lifeboat. Hundreds of lives were certainly saved by Greathead’s craftsmanship if not by his design.

Perhaps in the first place the real credit for inventing the lifeboat should go to the town of South Shields, for forming a committee and encouraging the development of lifeboats with the intention of saving lives.

Incidentally, the world’s oldest surviving lifeboat dates from 1802 and can still be seen in the North East of England. Called The Zetland, it was built by Greathead at South Shields and can be seen in a museum at Redcar on the Cleveland coast.

South Shields | Roman-Saxon Shields 

South Shields Industries

Villages : Westoe to Whitburn 

Bede’s Jarrow  |  Jarrow and Tyne Dock | Hebburn

Tynemouth North Shields | Wallsend 

Sunderland Monkwearmouth | Sunderland North


North East England History and Culture