The RNLI and Irvine in 1861


Read here about the arrival of the first RNLI life-boat (Irvine's second lifeboat) in 1861 and the return to Irvine, after a gap of 101 years, of the lifeboat station barometer (close-up photos below),
now on display at the Wellwood Burns Centre and Museum,
to celebrate the 2012-15 Irvine Harbourside Project.

The 1860s were a key period in the provision of life-boats, as requests reached the RNLI from many parts of Britain, often from local gentlemen on behalf of the fishermen of their local town or village, and in the provision of barometers, encouraged by the first head of the Meteorological Department in London, Rear-Admiral Fitz-Roy. The barometer, paid for by a 'Captain Blair' (possibly Capt Blair of Blair, listed as a tax commissioner in the 1851 GPO Ayrshire Index), would have been housed in the 1861 lifeboat shed and transferred to the new lifeboat shed built in 1874 and demolished in the 1970s.

In 1854 Admiral Fitzroy had started data-based predictions of the weather, and the telegraph allowed the swift passing-on of information; after a bad storm had wrecked the clipper 'Royal Charter' off Anglesey (it is believed she was advised to put in at Holyhead, but decided to press on to Liverpool) with the loss of 450 lives, mostly gold miners returning from Australia, Fitzroy convinced Parliament that he could predict storms and set up the forerunner of the Met Office in 1859. Fitzroy could justifiably be termed the 'inventor of the science of forecasting'. The Met Office initially focused on saving lives at sea; barometers were of major importance in this initiative.

The arrival of the 1861 life-boat (local press, Apr. 1861)

The lifeboat sea trial 1861 (local press, June 1861)

The auction advert for the previous lifeboat (local press, Jan. 1862)

Feature article: The provision of RNLI barometers in 1860/61
and the return of the Irvine barometer in 2015

also: PDF scans: 'Barometers for Lifeboat Stations' (RNLI journal, 'The Life-Boat', 1st Oct., 1860)

supplementary weblink: The RNLI document listing barometer locations

supplementary weblink: An LSE Discussion Paper on Barometers in Victorian Britain


The Irvine Life-boat arrives, reported by the "Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald", 13 April, 1861 (the item seems to be contributed, while the addendum, in square brackets, is clearly added by a local journalist) - the photo shows a model (in the RNLI Henry Blogg Museum, Cromer) of the 1858 Cromer lifeboat (built by Forrest's of Limehouse, London, at a cost of £276) on its carriage:

Life Boat: The National Life Boat Institution has just sent one of its best single bunker lifeboats, accompanied with a transporting carriage, to Irvine, on the Ayrshire coast, where some sad wrecks have, from time to time, occurred. The boat is 30 feet long, 7 feet wide, and rows 8 oars. She will self-right, if upset, and immediately self eject any seas she may ship. The transporting carriage of the boat is admirably adapted for its purpose. By an ingenious contrivance the boat, with her crew on board, is launched off the carriage. With their oars in their hands they are enabled to obtain headway before the breakers have time to beat the boat broadside on the beach. The hauling up of the lifeboat on her carriage is accomplished with equal facility. The cost - £180 - of the life boat and her equipments is the gift of a benevolent Scotch lady named Miss Pringle Kidd.

A commodious house has been prepared for the reception of the lifeboat, her stores, and carriage. In fact, there is probably not a more complete life boat establishment on the whole coast than is now found at Irvine. A free conveyance was readily given to the life boat and carriage from Carlisle to Irvine by the Glasgow and South-western Railway Company. Arrangements will forthwith be made by the local committee for the organisation of a crew, and for the appointment of an efficient coxswain for the boat.

The National Life Boat Institution has now 100 boats in connection with it. Of these, nine are stationed on the Scotch coast, at the following places: Ayr, Irvine, Thurso, Buckie, Banff, Lossiemouth, Fraserburgh, St Andrew's and North Berwick. The institution also has a life boat ready to be sent to Cantyre [sic]. A truly noble fleet, outnumbered certainly by the navies of commerce and war, but the largest life saving fleet the world has yet seen. Some of these boats have, within the last 15 months, saved nearly 400 lives and thus it is that many a brave seaman, who is now in the full enjoyment of life and strength and able to provide for his family, would long since have had his last requiem sung by the ruthless waves. As each life boat requires about £30 a year to keep it always ready for instantaneous service, it is evident that a large sum is required annually by the Institution to maintain its numerous life boat establishments, and that the good and sacred work in which it is so actively engaged can only be perpetuated by endowments, and the continued support of the Scotch public at large.

[On its arrival in Irvine it was drawn through the streets to give the public an opportunity of seeing her, and awakening an interest in that which may be an instrument in saving the lives of some of our fellow-creatures. Every thing necessary is provided, carriage, turntable, oars, ropes, cork jackets, hammer, axe, saw, nails, etc., even to the wick and oil for the lantern. We hope it may be long before she is called into active service, but should such a time arrive we doubt not but with willing hearts and active hands, she will be found fully efficient for the purpose for which she is designed.]

Footnote 1: An item in the following week's paper made it clear that the London and North-western Railway had also provided free transport, their original charge, made in error by its officials, being speedily refunded.

Footnote 2: The donor after whom the lifeboat was named has few mentions in the Scottish records. Not in the 1841, 1851, or 1871 censuses, Miss Pringle Kidd was a visitor in 1861 at Market Square, Kelso, in the company of several others, incl. a peer, aged 35, born Edinburgh (Stenton). However, her death in 1902 at age 95, at Manor, Peebles, as proprietrix of Woodhouse, recording birth at Stenton in Jan. 1809, would make her 52 in 1861. The P.O.Directories of 1867 and 1870 place her at Lasswade Bank, Lasswade. In 1880 her name appears in the list of shareholders of the National Bank of Scotland. She had inherited Woodhouse from D. Kidd, stationer. She was clearly an unmarried lady of means and Irvine can acknowledge appreciation for her donation to the RNLI many years ago.


The sea trials of the new Irvine Life-boat, reported by the "Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald", 8 June, 1861:

Trial of the New Life-Boat: Announcement having been made last week by placard, that a trial of the 'Pringle Kidd' would take place on Saturday at four o'clock, by the hour named a large concourse of the inhabitants had collected on the Quay, amongst whom were conspicuous the several members of the Harbour Trust. The boat on her carriage having been brought to the water edge, a selected crew of fishermen in their cork jackets took their places on board under the command of Mr David Sinclair, who had been appointed coxswain, and whose frequent services in cases of shipwreck well entitled him to the honorable distinction. Mr Alexander McKinlay, harbour master, and captain Alexander Watt, also stepped on board. At the word given the tacklings were loosed and the gallant looking boat slid easily and gracefully into the liquid element, amidst the cheers of the numerous onlookers. As the day was calm, with only a gentle swell on the bar, no adequate conception could be formed of how she would conduct herself in a storm, but we cannot doubt, from the fame the other boats of the Institution have acquired, that the 'Pringle Kidd' will maintain the high character of her family name.

After having pulled across the bar, and stretched about a mile to the southward, she turned her prow to the shore; and now having the tide in her favour she swept along with rapid speed; the brawny arms of the crew, giving force by the power and regularity of each stroke, soon brought her back again to the point of departure.

An attempt was now made to capsize her by bringing the united presence of all on board to bear on her starboard gunwale; which, after much difficulty, was accomplished, and which sent the whole of her crew foundering in the water, with the exception of Captain A Watt, who showed something of the "wide-awake-look-outism" of an old tar by running the round of the bottom, and thereby saved himself from a drenching. We were greatly pleased to see how soon and how easily she righted herself again, into which with dripping locks her crew speedily found access, when she was once more set in her carriage and safely hauled back again to her very convenient and well fitted-up place of abode.


Advertising the auction of the previous life-boat, in the "Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald", 11 Jan., 1862:

LIFE-BOAT FOR SALE, AT IRVINE. There will be Sold, by Public Roup, at IRVINE HARBOUR, on Monday, the 27th January, 1862, at Twelve o'Clock, Noon:

A Substantial, Well-Built BOAT, suitable for a Pier Harbour, which has for some time been used as a LIFE-BOAT at Irvine. Length over all - about 29 feet; Length of Keel - about 20 feet; Length of Beam - about 8½ feet; Depth - about 3 feet 2 inches; with Cork outside, and Air Boxes inside; pulls Ten Oars, which are all complete, with One Steering Oar, Grimmers and lanyards on each Oar. The Boat is in excellent order, and sits on a Four-wheeled Carriage, on which she can be transferred to any place. Would be very suitable for a Steamboat Station, as she could land Thirty to Forty Passengers at a time.

For further particulars apply to A. C. McKINLAY, Harbour Master.

Irvine, 1st January, 1862.


An account of the provision of RNLI barometers, with reference to the Irvine barometer

(by Ian J Dickson, 2015)

An article in the RNLI journal ‘The Life-boat’ of October 1860 (pdf scans downloadable below), describes the key roles, in the provision of barometers to lifeboat stations, of three men. Rear-Admiral Fitz-Roy, F.R.S., acting as the first head of the Meteorological Department, compiled “so thoroughly practical a Manual for the use of a barometer that seafaring men or fishermen may soon become familiar with the indications of the instrument” and “obtained the sanction of the Board of Trade to supply some forty of our poorer fishing villages with barometers”. His Grace the Duke of Northumberland, jointly with the Meteorological Society, “also provided [14] barometers for some of the fishing stations on the Northumberland coast, under the superintendence of James Glaisher, Esq., F.R.S., of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich”.

Their initiative prompted the RNLI to attempt to supply “every life-boat house in the system with a barometer and to train the coxswain how to use it.” Negretti & Zambra had supplied those for the Board of Trade and for Northumberland. The RNLI specified “a good instrument, and one that will not easily get out of order in travelling, or require renovating at frequent intervals; in short, a barometer that, having been once set up at a life-boat station, will be a permanent instrument of instruction, and one that will not entail any further expense to the Society.” Their journal records some “important improvements. The brass or ivory scales that barometers are generally furnished with are here replaced by a substantial plate of porcelain, on which the degrees and figures are legibly engraved, and permanently blackened in, so that there will be no danger of their becoming faded or obliterated. This is a very important improvement, especially for an instrument that has of necessity to be placed in an exposed position. The mercurial tube of the barometer is of large diameter, so as to render the mercury easily visible, and show the slightest variation. To prevent the admission of air to the vacuum above the mercurial column, a trap is laid at the bottom of the tube. A great change has also been effected in the old system of marking the scales with Fair, Change, Rain, etc – words which in reality have often a tendency to mislead.” The Admiral emphasised that the barometers be “set regularly by a duly-authorized person” and that their users should base judgements not on the point indicated by the mercury, but on its rising or falling, and the rate of change – “the state of the air foretells coming weather rather than shows the weather that is present”. Thus lifeboatmen could warn of storms, “combining instrumental indications with their own local weather estimates”.

The barometer is one of the earliest of its kind, being one of about twelve sent out in the first month of issue, February 1861. A “good quality and rare 19th century oak cased RNLI Sea Coast Barometer”, its arched top with porcelain plate bears the RNLI inscription, and the main register plates bear the makers’ name and serial number. The mercury Fahrenheit thermometer has concealed bulb. The vernier is rack-and-pinion operated. The Board of Trade certification plate bears the date November 1860 (text: "THIS BAROMETER Reads correctly with Greenwich Standard NOVR 1860 J. Glaisher F.R.S."). The protective glass is bevelled. The original concealed wide-bore barometer tube terminates in a rectilinear cistern cover - our photo on the left shows the cistern with its cover removed.

The RNLI records the destinations of its barometers – since No. 12 was sent to Irvine, we know that this is indeed the instrument used by Irvine lifeboat crews. Their records also note: “Bought by Capt. Blair”; sadly, we have no idea of this thoughtful donor’s identity, though there was a fishing family of that name at the Quay (Harbour Street).

Where the barometer went in 1914, when the station closed, we do not know - probably to RNLI HQ who would at some later date sell it as surplus stock to raise more funds (as indeed a charity has an obligation to do). There is wording - ‘Mr Colley 3248 R.A.N’ - pencilled on the rear and on the inside of the cistern cover. It surfaced in a Bonham’s sale in London in 2015 and was purchased by a barometer dealer who noted the ‘12’ and contacted the Harbourside website. Purchase was then speedily agreed prior to its display on his stand at the British Antiques Dealers' Fair, where it was much admired, in London. He commented: “I really love to see barometers ‘going home’."


From the RNLI journal 'The Life-Boat', 1 October 1860

four scans: pdf1 :: pdf2 :: pdf3 :: pdf4

We do not plan to transcribe this article - we hope you can read it well enough in the scans provided - however, if you feel transcription would be worthwhile, email us to ask for it to be added below.

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