The Oxford Collapsible Lifeboat has possible connections with the Titanic. Photo © Mandy Schaller
Volunteers at the Classic Boat Museum in Newport, Isle of Wight, are trying to untangle the mystery behind a collapsible lifeboat from the 1890s after rescuing it from a boatyard.
Staff at the museum were alerted to the curious looking craft by a friend in Oxford. He told them that the wooden lifeboat had possible Titanic connections but would be thrown on a bonfire at any time as it was getting in the way.
Ted Hargreaves, volunteer at the museum, went to investigate. He said, “It was flat when we found it. It collapses down to virtually nothing, so it was quite obvious that it was well worth saving. It has some link with the Titanic; it was always known as ‘the Titanic boat’ at the yard, by people who have worked there for 50 years or more.”
The lifeboat was found in Oxford. It collapses to just six inches high. Photo © Mandy Schaller
Exploring just what that link is will not be an easy task, as it will involve sifting through ancient documentation, and even then the search might prove unfruitful. Despite this, Ted has his own theory about what the connection might be.
“My feelings are that it was built as a sample for quotation to get a contract with the Titanic, even though the ones on the liner ended up being Englehardt collapsible lifeboats and not Oxford ones like this,” he said.
The story of lifeboats on the Titanic was a grim, cynical and incredibly over confident one. John Collis, also a volunteer at the museum, said: “All the big liners at that time were short of lifeboats. The problem was lack of deck space and also the fact that ship owners were not very keen on providing a lot of safety equipment for people they didn’t worry about, as we learnt from the Titanic disaster.”
The lifeboat will be restored back to usable condition. Photo © Mandy Schaller
However, there were four collapsible lifeboats on the Titanic, similar to the one now at the Classic Boat Museum, which could be stowed almost flat against a wall.
“After the sinking of the Titanic, the Board of Trade insisted that ships carry twice the amount of lifeboats,” John said.
Another mystery is if the lifeboat was ever utilized or not. Volunteers think it may have been used just for demonstration purposes, but then neglected despite its interesting history.
The lifeboat is an example of clever engineering, measuring just six inches high when flat, but able to hold up to 50 people when erected. “It’s a lovely system,” said John Collis. “All you do is bear down on it. The bottom goes down and the sides come up to give it shape and stability all the way through,” he added.
Ted Hargreaves also admires the workmanship that has gone into building the boat. “Every time I look at it I find something else interesting. It’s full of novelties, like the beautifully crafted curved tiller.”
Luckily the boat was in fairly good condition, having been kept dry at the boatyard where it was found. Lack of wood rot will make its restoration slightly easier, but still a major operation. “I’m going to try and resurrect it,” said Ted. “This museum likes to put all our boats back into usable condition.”
This photograph of a similar lifeboat carrying 64 people was also rescued. Photo © Mandy Schaller
Ted hopes the Titanic connection will become clear. “There’s got to be something in it, there’s no smoke without fire. I think we have a good chance of finding the story behind the lifeboat,” he said. “Whatever the uncertainties, it’s a rarity that’s for sure.”
Emily Sands is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South Eastern region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.