The History of Leith

August 18, 2004

Life Boat Donated To RNLI Museum

The “Helen Blake” with Captain W. L. Hume, M.N.I. (second right) with some of the hands who helped re-furbished the ex Life-boat, just prior to presentation to the RNLI museum in Chatham Dockyard.

Way back, around 1936, the then RNLI Boat committee called for a new design of an inshore lifeboat, the result turned out to be a 28-ft single screw wooden craft known as `Harbour Class`, an order for ten of these boats was planned but only one ever reached the stage of being commissioned.

Built and launched in 1938 by the Cowes, Isle of Wight boatyard, Groves & Gutteridge, of conventional construction, double diagonal mahogany planking on oak frames, with a single Hyland petrol engine: A single mast supported a dipping lugsail, with a massive pair of sweeps (oars) as a fail safe means of propulsion, I am quite sure, nay, convinced these were never used for real.

Helen Blake, as the boat was named, after the Lady who provided the £2400 cost of building, after undergoing rigorous trials in the Solent, was placed on station at Poolbeg, Dublin, and served continuously until sold out of service in 1958, with a fair record of lives saved: The new owner Colonel Earle, who was the then Secretary of the RNLI, had the boat moved to Walmer Castle, re-engined with a Coventry Victor diesel, with plenty of local crew members to help.

A couple of years later a friend of then Col: approached him to find a suitable boat that she could use for ‘Deer Stalking’ by water, on the fore-shore of her estate in Morven, Argyll, Loch Aline and the Sound of Mull being the area where Deer were wont to swim considerable distances, the boat was only used for a couple of weeks each season otherwise kept in pristine condition within a custom built boat-house.

Mrs Abel-Smith passed on and the boat lay unused for quite some time, her executors, by this time an Estate Company, could not justify retaining a boat on the books and decided to sell it, by this time also I had settled in a house in Glendaruel and saw a tiny advert in the Oban Times for Sea Call, the name Helen Blake having been changed when sold from the RNLI, on reading the advert it looked as if it was an ex ships lifeboat that was being offered, and at a comparable price, one phone call convinced me that this was quite different, the shortened story being that I purchased said boat, sailed it to Ormidale on Loch Riddon, via the Crinan Canal, and enjoyed many pleasurable trips around the Kyles of Bute and Firth of Clyde.

In time, upon being appointed the Liaison Officer for the RNLI, to be based at Cowes, we packed everything up, put the boat on a low loader and headed south, the boat landed up at her birth place, same yard and even a couple of older boat builders who had actually worked on her construction were invited along to their old charge: It was very quickly established that due to pressure of work, I was not going to be able to use the boat, so after due negotiation with the yard and RNLI, I agreed to send the completely re-furbished Helen Blake, on long term loan, to the RNLI Museum at Bristol, which most regrettably closed down after a couple of years, happily a suitable place was found for all the boats at the Chatham Naval Dockyard heritage centre, where ON 809 Helen Blake – the RNLI Official Number – sits proudly as a centre piece, gleaming paintwork and highly polished varnish, well worth a visit if you happened to be near that establishment.


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