Zetland: The Oldest Lifeboat in the World

Zetland: The Oldest Lifeboat in the World


The Zetland is the oldest surviving lifeboat in the world. That’s makes it pretty special and, thanks to a couple of successful restoration projects, it’s still looking good for a boat that’s over 200-years-old.

You can find the oldest lifeboat in the world at the Zetland Lifeboat Museum and Redcar Heritage Centre. Entry is free but The Friends of Zetland Lifeboat (charity) may appreciate a small donation to help pay for the museum running costs and any future restoration projects.

The Zetland lifeboat has a long and distinguished history. It was first launched in 1802 and remained in service until 1864. That’s over 60 years of service. It’s a long time. Especially for a lifeboat.

One of the most incredible things about Zetland is, 16 years after it was taken out of service, the boat went on to save even more lives during a terrible storm. Three ships went aground and the two modern lifeboats were damaged so the Zetland hit the waves to carry out its final rescue mission. It saved seven men.

In the 78 years between its construction and its final life-saving trip, the Zetland lifeboat saved more than 500 hundred lives. On one occasion, it brought 52 people back to land in a single trip. Looking at the size of the boat it’s hard to believe it was possible to fit so many people onboard.

I lived in the North East of England for several decades and know Redcar well. I often walked past the museum, but I never went inside. At the time, I had no idea what an important exhibit is inside. Many people who visit Redcar may be the same.

Had I realized I was lucky enough to have easy access to the oldest lifeboat in the world, I would have probably gone inside the museum and taken a few pictures. I had no idea until a few days ago.

On Saturday, I was exploring the activity options available to people visiting the coastal areas in the north east of England and finally learned Redcar is home to the oldest surviving lifeboat in the world. I decided to go and see the Zetland but luck was not on my side.


The Museum Opening Hours: Check Before You Go

Redcar Lifeboat Museum Opening HoursAccording to Google, the Zetland Lifeboat Museum and Redcar Heritage Centre opens each weekend (11:00 – 17:00) but Google is wrong.

The museum website isn’t much help either. It doesn’t present the opening times clearly and doesn’t appear to be regularly updated.

When I got to Redcar and found the museum was closed, I asked around and was told the museum does not open again until Easter. To be honest, this did not come as a surprise. A lot of the museums and other attractions on the north east coast are only open during the summer.

So if you want to go to the Zetland Lifeboat Museum and Redcar Heritage Centre and see the oldest lifeboat in the world, the best time to go is during the summer. If you want to go any other time, it may be best to ring first and check the opening times.

I tried a few times but nobody picked up. You may be luckier. Here’s the number: 01642 494311.

And here’s the email address: zetlandmuseum@hotmail.com

I don’t see my visit as a wasted journey. I saw the oldest lifeboat in the world through the window and even managed to take some photos by pressing my phone up to the glass.

I’m always looking for interesting things to write about on this blog. The oldest lifeboat in the world! I think that’s interesting. Many other people may think so too and seeing the oldest lifeboat in the world may be an attractive idea for anyone visiting the north east of England.

So, instead of this being a short blog post (went to see it, but it was shut, job done), this post is rather long. I feel inspired to write an article that provides the history of the Zetland and other notable facts about the oldest lifeboat in the world.


About the Boat and Her Crew

The Zetland is a 30 ft long, Clinker-Built, double-ended rowing boat.

Clinker planking is a boat-building method that can be traced back at least as far as the Anglo Saxon age. The wooden planks on clinker-built boats overlap each other instead of being placed edge to edge.

Double-ended rowing boats cut can cut through the water easily in both directions. That offers certain advantages for a lifeboat like the Zetland. When it was time to return from a rescue mission, instead of turning the boat around, the seamen were able to simply reverse their rowing position and head back the way they came.

The lifeboat was generally manned by a crew of 13 men, including 10 oarsmen. However, in heavy seas, it was possible to increase the size of the crew to allow two men to double-up on the oars.

Fishermen can be very superstitious so the fact that they were willing to be part of a crew of 13 is unusual. It’s probably also a testament to the amount of faith they had in the boat.


Zetland Lifeboat: The Early Years

The Zetland cost £200 to build. That may not sound like a lot of money but the modern-day equivalent would be more than £19,500.

The boat was commissioned by Lord Dundas and Reverend Williamson but the people of Redcar footed the bill. The task of building the boat was carried out by a lifeboat builder from South Shields. His name was Henry Greathead. During his career, he built 31 boats. The Zetland is the only one that remains.

During the 1800s, Redcar was not the busy town it is today. It was just a few small cottages that were home to the local seamen. Prior to 1802, Redcar was without a lifeboat so when the Zetland arrived on, October 7th, it was a cause for great celebration.

Drinking ale and toasting the success of the boat and the health of its builder, the fishermen vowed the boat would never want for hands to man her.

Redcar Fishermen and their Lifeboat

The fishermen were true to their word. Whenever a vessel was in distress at sea, a young drummer boy marched down the street beating his drum and shouting, “Come along brave boys, come along.”

However, when the first boat arrived in Redcar it had no name and was merely known at the Redcar Lifeboat.

Thirty-two-years later, the first Lord Zetland received his title and the people of Redcar decided to name their lifeboat “Zetland” in his honour.

Notable Rescue Missions

The Aurora (1829)

On August 13th, 1829, The brig Aurora was wrecked on the North Gare at Seaton Carew during a fierce storm. The local lifeboat was successfully launched but the conditions were too harsh for the crew. After three hours of fighting against the wind and the waves, they gave up and returned to base.

The Zetland was brought from Redcar and due to the severe conditions, it was launched with a crew of 26 instead of 13. Fighting waves of such magnitude would require two men at each of the boats 10 oars.

Even with the extra men, reaching the Aurora was hard work but the boat got there in the end. When the Zetland returned to shore it was carrying the Auroras eight crew members along with the captain and his wife.

The mission was led by Lt. Richard Elsworthy Pym. The RNLI awarded him a gold medal for his part in the mission.

The Caroline (1836)

On Christmas Day 1836, the brig Caroline ran into trouble off the coast of Redcar. Despite the gale-force winds and tumultuous sea, the crewmen successfully managed to launch the Zetland and go to the Caroline’s aid.

Unfortunately, the mission was a failure and the Zetland’s Bowman, William Guy, was washed overboard. Never before had anyone lost their life from Zetland Lifeboat and it never happened again.

The Jane Erskin (1854)

In 1854, the Zetland went to the aid of the crew of the Jane Erskin. It was one of the boat’s most memorable missions.

The Jane Erskin had run in the rocks just off the coast of Redcar. Initially, local fishermen tried to save the vessel by lightening its cargo in an attempt to refloat it. Unfortunately, the weather became so bad the Zetland had to be launched to so save the crew of the Jane Erskin and the fishermen as well.

When the Zetland returned to shore, it had 52 people onboard.


Why the Zetland Lifeboat was Taken Out of Commission

On 17 February 1864, the Zetland lifeboat was launched to go to the aid of the brig Brothers. Although it rescued all seven members of the crew, the Zetland sustained some damage.

The RNLI deemed the boat longer fit for service and replaced it with a self-righting lifeboat called the Crossley.

This was a sad point in the Zetland’s history and, had things gone to plan, the worlds oldest lifeboat would no longer exist.

The RNLI arranged for a local carpenter to dismantle the boat. This decision did not sit well with the people of Redcar and an angry crow gathered to protect the Zetland from harm.

Faced with such strong opposition, the RNLI was forced to rethink its position and gave the boat to the people of Redcar. However, there was one string attached. The people had to promise not to use the Zetland to compete with the RNLI’s newer boats.

In 1872, fundraising brought in £100 and the Zetland was finally repaired but true to their word, the people of Redcar didn’t launch it to try and save any more lives. However, in 1880 things changed.

The Oldest Lifeboat in the World Comes to the Rescue Again

On October 29, 1880, there was a terrible storm and three ships were in distress.

The lifeboats Emma and Burton-on-Trent were both damaged while going to the aid of the first two vessels. Disaster struck when the schooner, Luna, struck Redcar pier and broke in half. Emma and Burton were out of commission so the Zetland was brought out of retirement and saved seven sailors from the damaged vessel.

The Royal National Lifeboat Association (RNLI) gave £100 to the Zetland’s crew as a reward for their bravery.

Recent Restoration

On the 15th April 2013, master shipwright John Keiron (National Historic Ships) began a preliminary investigation of the Zetland’s condition.

Working alongside volunteers from the Zetland Lifeboat Museum and Redcar Heritage Centre he opened up the box sections to ascertain the condition of the boat’s wooden structure.

This was the first time the box sections on the oldest lifeboat in the world had been opened since 1823. Fortunately, the hull was found to be still in good condition, but the investigation revealed a need for some internal restoration.

On November 28, 2018, the Zetland lifeboat left the Lifeboat Museum and Redcar Heritage Centre for the first time in 55 years. It’s destination? The Middlesbrough-based logistics company AV Dawson for restoration work to save its structural integrity.

A logistics company may seem like a strange venue for restoration work but the work needed to be carried out in a warehouse that had an overhead crane. Finding such a place had proved difficult but when Gary Dawson, the managing director of AV Dawson, heard about the problem he was quick to help.

“When it was brought to our attention that they were struggling to find a warehouse with the overhead crane necessary to carry out their conservation project we were more than happy to offer one of ours,” Dawson said.

The Zetland left AV Dawson and headed home to Redcar on April 6, 2019, to catch the start of the tourist season.

Although AV Dawson is located next to the River Tees, the oldest lifeboat made its final journey on the back of a trailer. Perhaps not the most fitting way for the Zetland to travel, but certainly the best way to make sure it got back to Redcar safe and sound.

A crowd of 100 people turned out to welcome the Zetland home, including a choir made up of local fishermen.


The Zetland Lifeboat Museum and Redcar Heritage Centre

Redcar Drummer BoyThe Zetland Lifeboat Museum and Redcar Heritage Centre is easy to find. It’s housed in a listed building on the Esplanade, a short distance away from Redcar Lifeboat Station. [MAP] 

The museum is run by volunteers who are passionate about preserving the Zetland so that people can continue to have access to the oldest lifeboat in the world for many years to come.

The museum has two floors. The Zetland lifeboat is on the ground floor. It takes up most of the room but there are other maritime artefacts on display along the walls, including the Zetland’s call-out drum.

Although I was unable to get inside and experience it, the upper floor of the museum is apparently home to the Laurie Picknett Gallery, which contains a collection of Redcar photographs, postcards, and other local memorabilia dating back to the 1800’s.

If you are visiting Redcar try not to let the chance to see the oldest lifeboat in the world pass you by. It may be a good idea to ring the museum first though. If you don’t, you might find yourself in the same boat as me (pun intended) and only be able to see the Zetland by looking through the window.

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