1936: Last horse-powered launch
The arrival of the motor lifeboat Royal Silver Jubilee at Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk on 11 February 1936 marked the end of the iconic sight of horses pulling lifeboats through streets and across sand to launch in all weathers.
Royal Silver Jubilee, which was launched by caterpillar tractors, replaced Wells’s old pulling and sailing lifeboat, the Baltic.
The RNLI first experimented with mechanical launching in 1920. Agricultural tractors with caterpillar tracks were adapted, making them watertight in shallow water.
The end of service for the Baltic left only one role for horses in the lifeboat service: turning the capstan to pull the Hastings lifeboat up the beach. But this practice was also soon modernised with the installation of an electric winch.
A farewell tribute from the time
An article entitled The Last of the Life-boat Horses in the December 1936 issue of The Life-boat Journal (now Lifeboat magazine) pays tribute to this end of an era in lifeboat launching:
‘Thus passes away one of the most familiar and spectacular features of life-boat work, a feature at one time as familiar as the horses of the old fire-brigades. …’
‘The change has added to the efficiency of the service, but it has taken from it something of its picturesqueness. When the alarm had been sounded the first man to arrive at the boat-house with his horse received an extra five shillings, and those who saw the race for the boat-house, and the team of four, six or eight horses taking the boat into the sea, will not easily forget what a fine sight it was.’
Expensive and difficult to hire
Lifeboat-launching horses were mostly hired from farmers, but this was becoming increasingly difficult.
One reason was that farm horses were themselves being phased out by the same tractors being adopted by the RNLI.
Another problem was an increasing reluctance by farmers to put their horses at risk of injury and this was impacting on the cost of hire.
At some stations, it became impossible to hire local horses and they had to be brought from such a distance that it delayed launching.
Horses in lifesaving action
One of the most challenging feats ever undertaken in RNLI history involved around 100 people and 18 horses dragging the Lynmouth lifeboat 13 miles overnight in terrible weather to launch to a ship in distress.