The history of the first lifeboats at Hastings

This Easter marked the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the town's first RNLI lifeboat - and its design was thanks to a Hastings shipwright who deserves more public recognition.

THIS Easter marked the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the town's first RNLI lifeboat - and its design was thanks to a Hastings shipwright who deserves more public recognition.

The 30 foot rowing boat Victoria arrived on a train from east London on Easter Monday, 5 April 1858. She had been built at the T&W Forrestt shipyard in Limehouse Basin to the RNLI's first standard plan for its lifeboats.

This plan had its origins in 1850, when it was becoming clear that there was a need all around the coast for a reliable design for lifeboats. So in October 1850 the Duke of Northumberland offered a prize of 100 guineas (105) for the best lifeboat model. The competition was advertised in the national and local press, and resulted in 280 entries, including 11 from abroad. Many of the models were displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition.

The winner was Bexhill-born shipwright James Beeching, then based in Great Yarmouth, whose model promised to be the first efficiently self-righting lifeboat. A full-scale version was built and exhaustive trials proved his design was right.

The RNLI then decided to add to James's boat the best features of the other entries. James Peake, Master Shipwright of the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich, prepared drawings and built the new improved boat.

The result, known as the 'Self Righting Pulling and Sailing Lifeboat', became the mainstay of the RNLI's fleet until the introduction of inboard motors in 1919. Hundreds were built at Forrestt's from 1852 to 1890.

James Beeching came from a Bexhill family noted for its smuggling exploits. In 1809 he married 20-year old Martha Thwaites at St Clement's Church in Hastings.

Her father was Thomas Thwaites, a prominent Hastings businessman who was also a shipowner. In the following years James and a partner ran a shipbuilding yard on the beach in front of the Castle.

But then in 1816 this went bust and was sold up - to James's father-in-law. The Tom Thwaites shipyard then built many large commercial sailing vessels up to the early 1840s, but the expansion of the Old Town westwards made it more profitable for the Thwaites's to sell the land for what today would be called 'regeneration'.

James, meanwhile, had emigrated in 1817 to Flushing in Holland, where he also built many craft, including a considerable number involved in the English smuggling trade, something he was not unfamiliar with.

Later he and Martha briefly returned to Hastings, but then moved to Yarmouth, where James set up a respected boatbuilding yard.

He introduced a type of fishing vessel which remained in use at that port until the development of steam.

But the Victoria was not the first Hastings lifeboat, for it had a predecessor, which James may also have helped to design and build. This was the Ariel, built after a disaster off St Leonards. In a gale on 20 November 1834 six Coastguards launched a large rowing boat from their station at Bulverhythe in a brave attempt to save the small collier Good Intent, of Rye, drifting off the new town of St Leonards.

But the Good Intent sank as they approached - and then their own boat capsized and all were drowned. The young Princess Victoria, soon to become queen, and her mother the Duchess of Kent happened to be staying in Crown House, Marina, and the Duchess witnessed the tragedy, along with many other people. A public fund to provide a local lifeboat was soon started, with the Duchess heading the subscriptions.

The Ariel was soon built - at the Thwaites shipyard, with which James Beeching had strong family links, and which he had once half-owned.

There is no record of how the boat was designed and put together, but, looking back, it would be no surprise if James had been involved.

Unfortunately, the Ariel had an unsuccessful career, stretching over about 17 years. No lives were saved, and the boat may only have been in the water two or three times. There was also no shelter or regular maintenance, and the Ariel was left in the open in a variety of places until she rotted away.