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The Iconic 136-year-old South Shields lifeboat The Bedford Restored by the North East Maritime Trust

lifeboat The Bedford Restored by the North East Maritime Trust
September 2023
Reading time 3 Minutes

An iconic 136-year-old South Shields lifeboat, the Bedford, which helped to save 50 people from the North Sea, has been brought back to life with the help of the North East Maritime Trust and cutting edge colour analysis. We find out more

Constructed in 1886, the Bedford was the last lifeboat to be built by the Tyne Lifeboat Institution and, launched on more than 50 occasions between 1887 and 1937, the boat is of great historical significance to the maritime heritage of South Shields. That's why, when the Bedford rolled out of the North East Maritime Trust's workshop for the first time in more than half a century, it was a proud moment for all involved.

‘Definitely the best bit is seeing it all finished,’ says trustee Richard Branson, who helped restore the lifeboat. ‘You can see as you’re going through the restoration that these boats have got the most amazing history, and revealing or preserving some of that for prosterity is what gives us so much satisfaction. Certainly looking back on how much it’s changed, we were just very proud of the work we’d done and hoped that we can get her on public display for other people to see too.’

Richard first got involved with the Trust when he found he had more time on his hands after retiring three years ago. ‘I actually trained as a naval architect in Newcastle many years ago, so I have a little bit of background and knowledge of boats but I haven’t got a particular specialism,’ he explains. ‘Basically I just help out with anything in regards to the restorations so working, painting, all sorts. There’s a whole range of skills we need in the workshop for restoring and looking after these boats.’

The North East Maritime Trust (NEMT) is all about educating the public in relation to the maritime heritage of the United Kingdom, especially the North East of England. To achieve this their focus is on historic working boat restoration, repair and conservation including maintenance, training and sailing for all. When they finished working on a lifeboat from Tynemouth called Henry Frederick Swan (which is currently in the water on Newcastle’s quayside), they were searching for their next project, and when late chairman Jerry Dudman saw the Bedford up for auction he knew it was the one. 

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‘The boat was built not far from here in South Shields in 1886,’ says Richard. ‘She is 33 feet long, 11 feet wide, weighs 3.7 tonnes and she was crewed by 14 men (12 on the oars and two others). She was in service in South Shields from 1887 and she was launched on 52 occasions and saved 49 lives. Her last launch was in 1937 and apparently she was in the boathouse here on the Tyne for 31 years as a museum piece. Then she went to Exeter in 1968 and then, when the Exeter Maritime Museum closed in 1997, she was put in storage in Lowestoft and relocated to Eyemouth. In 2017 when the museum in Eyemouth was closing down, our current chairman who’s sadly no longer with us spotted the boat for sale and bid at the auction to buy her. 

‘We’d previously restored a Tynemouth lifeboat and the trust was looking for another project so it all fitted quite nicely. We’re obviously looking to preserve maritime history but particularly maritime history in the North East, so any boats that have an association with the North East are particularly of interest. Clearly the Bedford being built in and operated out of South Shields had a lot of local interest so I think it was a natural fit for us really.’

The Trust acquired the Bedford and brought the boat back to the Tyne with the help of South Tyneside Council, The Port of Tyne and a number of other people. ‘Over the years the boat was fitted with an engine so we stripped that back, took the fittings out and replaced bits of the hull exactly as they would’ve been from new,’ says Richard. ‘That involved replacing wood at the stern and removing a rudder. We replaced a lot of the deck and some of the internal work, then we had to prepare the rest of the hull for painting, so it was quite a lot of work.

‘We have 10–12 people in the workshop on any day and there were a number of people involved in the project. We have a range of people here from joiners to shipwrights, and even engineers, so the whole gallon really. We had the guys who made the wheels, as she’s the only lifeboat of that age still left on her original carriage so we had to restore the carriage and turn ourselves into wheelwrights to rebuild them like wooden cart wheels. We had a load of people who made the new frames and so on for the boat, so there was an awful lot that went on.’

A big part of the restoration was restoring the Bedford to its original colour, something that the NEMT enlisted a local business to help with. ‘When the boat came to us it had been painted a number of colours and one of the things that we wanted to do was to take her back to her original condition. The colour had been lost in time though and with only black and white photos you can’t tell can you? So the paint was stripped off with the help of International Paint based in Felling and we sent the paint to them for analysis. 

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‘They then managed to match the exact shade and made the paint up for us so when we came to finish the boat it matched the exact colour of the original boat,’ Richard continues. ‘When she came to us it was a darker shade of blue and we could never have known the exact match for the colour without International Paint. They were a great help and supported us very much through the process of the restoration.’

The analysis was crucial in establishing the original colour that the vessel was painted, as well as revealing an unknown layer of gold leaf – this information allowed the Trust to make the boat’s restoration as historically accurate as possible. As well as analysis and expertise, AkzoNobel also donated a range of its premium coatings, including Interfill 830, a high strength and impact resistant epoxy, and a new topcoat system.

Alongside discovering the Bedford’s initial colour, the NEMT also discovered the original builder of the boat. ‘When we were doing the restoration we found the name of the guy that built it scribed underneath one of the thwarts, which are the seats that go across. We discovered she was built in 1886 by a guy called Lancelot Lambert in South Shields – I think that was one of my favourite parts of the project.’

The restoration of the Bedford took about four years altogether, and the NEMT believes the vessel is the only complete example of an evolution in lifeboat design in the world, which includes her wooden wheel carriage, oars, and life-saving equipment, and their hope is to put her on public display for other people to see what they’ve done. ‘The work was completed at the end of last year but the boat’s now in storage in South Shields while we try to find a permanent home,’ says Richard. 

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‘We’re working with South Tyneside Council to find a permanent public display place for her in the town and they’re supporting us very well. But there are a number of options for where the boat may be displayed and we’re just currently waiting for some decisions on those. I’m not sure when it’s going to happen but I think it won’t be long before she’s on display.’ Watch this space! 

NEMT’s work relies on volunteers, with the Trust open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturday mornings, and they’re always looking for people to join. ‘We’re happy for anyone else who would like to join us to do so. We had a bit of a dip after Covid as I think a lot of charitable organisations did, so we’re trying to get back on track. We have a number of projects in the workshop at the moment, such as restoring a sculling boat from Cullercoats. 

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‘The Trust also has a Tynemouth lifeboat which was built in 1917 and restored before the Bedford which currently lives on a pontoon on Newcastle’s Quayside. She’s on public display there and we used the boat during the summer for various trips or outings on the river. She recently acted as an escort boat for a rowing race from the Tyne down to South Shields and we’re also taking her down to Hartlepool for Tall Ships at the beginning of July. We also have an old sailing coble that we try and sail as regularly as we can. That lives on a mooring here in South Shields but can often be seen on the Tyne going up and down the river. So we’re not just looking for people to maintain the boats, we’re looking for people to come and sail them with us as well. 

‘We also have a little museum in our entrance hall that’s got a whole load of seafaring artefacts in it and we welcome people to come and have a look to see what we’re doing in the workshop. Next door we have the slipway boat shed where we have boats out of the water for maintenance, so we’re quite happy show visitors around. If  anybody’s interested in that get in touch – becoming a member’s not a rigorous process, we just have an application form, you pay £15 a year and can become a member. You don’t need any experience, just willingness and a passion for old wooden boats.’

If you’re interested in helping with the work of the NEMT visit them at 2 Wapping Street, South Shields, get in touch via their website or follow them on social media.

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