Naval and Maritime Book Reviews by Rob Jerrard

A History of Plymouth Lifeboats

Author: Alan Salsbury

ISBN: 1841142751

Publishers: Halsgrove 01884 243242

Price £19.95 RRP UK (Currently of offer from the Publishers at £6.99)

Publication Date: 2003


Sir Robin Knox Johnson

Britain has the longest coastline in Europe. Although Iceland, the Fareoes and Norway can lay claim to worse weather conditions, the British Isles, particularly in winter, are frequently battered by a series of gales and storms that put vessels and their crews at considerable risk. In the past, if the crew of distressed vessels could not take to their own boats, or jump or wade ashore, the chances of drowning were great. At the height of Britain's maritime power, when more than half the world's commercial shipping fleet flew the British Ensign, losses were frequent, and the loss of life appalling.  Rescue for the crew of a vessel in distress was a very haphazard affair.

So it is perhaps a little surprising that an important port like Plymouth did not organise some form of life saving until the Napoleonic Wars when the first lifeboat was presented to the three towns of Devonport, Stonehouse and Plymouth by P Langmead, Esq., MP, and arrived in Sutton Harbour on Wednesday 20 July 1803.  She was one of 31 boats constructed to a design by William Wouldhave of South Shields.  These lifeboats were 30 feet in length with a beam of 10 feet.  No records exist of the number of lives saved, but she remained in service for 22 years and was replaced by a new boat designed by William Plenty of Newbury, Berkshire.  The Plenty had a length of 26' 0" and a beam of 8' 6", it pulled ten oars and was built purely as a rowing boat.  This boat was placed on station by the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck.  Again no records are available of the services rendered and lives saved.

The Plymouth station lapsed between 1840-62 and then the first RNLI lifeboat was commissioned, a 34-foot self-righting boat, the Prince Consort, which came into service on 24 February 1862.  The RNLI has maintained a lifeboat at Plymouth ever since.  Up until 1926 these were powered by muscle or sails, when the first motor lifeboat was introduced, a 60-foot Barnett Class, the Robert and Marcella Beck.  She remained on station until 1952 apart from war service when she carried out convoy rescue duties in Icelandic waters. During her absence,  she was temporarily replaced by the Minister Anseele,  a vessel belonging to the Belgian Government, which had been found abandoned in the English Channel.

Since the RNLI took over the station, 11 lifeboats have been in service at Plymouth and have saved a total of 593 lives.  Plymouth's last lifeboat, the City of Plymouth, was one of the highly successful Arun Class fleet of fast rescue craft.  The City of Plymouth was recently replaced by a new boat, one of the even faster Severn Class vessels, the Sybil Mullen Glover.  Over the years the services have changed. When the lifeboats were first introduced their services were almost entirely to commercial and Naval vessels.  This remained the case until quite recently when the dramatic reduction of the fishing fleet, Merchant and Royal Navies, and the huge expansion in yachting, has inevitably meant that a greater proportion of services these days are for pleasure craft.

The type of casualty may have changed but the sea is still as dangerous as ever. Whatever the reason for being at sea, a vessel in distress means humans at risk and this is what the lifeboats are for.  Lifeboat crew are a special breed of people.  When others are heading into shelter the men and women who man the boats know that this is when their services are most likely to be required.  They never pause or flinch for they know that speed may mean all the difference between a life lost or saved.  Their experience and willingness to risk their own lives demand everyone's respect, but particularly from those of us who carry out our business at sea.


Poets, authors, songwriters and philosophers have described her from time immemorial. Each has reflected upon her varying moods, romantic, enticing or volatile, unforgiving and dangerous.  She means all things to all men, a provider of food, recreation

and, for many, the sustainer of life itself.  She is also the final resting place of countless souls.  She covers two-thirds of the surface of the earth, and remains one of the great forces of Mother Nature, one that man may harness, but cannot tame - she suffers no fools - she is the sea.

Visitors to Plymouth cannot fail to be magnetical­Iv drawn towards the maritime history of this great city and port.  Meandering around areas of the Barbican, Sutton Harbour and The Hoe, lasting impressions are forever imprinted upon the memory.  While wandering along these historic waterfronts and side streets, steeped in history and tradition, one can almost sense the presence of Hawkings, Gilbert and Raleigh, together with that of the most famous son of Plymouth, Sir Francis Drake No doubt every schoolboy can recount the story of that famous game of bowls which Drake allegedly played on Plymouth Hoe in 1588, whilst awaiting the approach of the Spanish Armada. They will also recall the sailing of the Mayflower, from Plymouth in 1620, as it carried the Pilgrim Fathers to America.  In latter years they may also remember the arrival, at Plymouth in 1967, of the yachtsman Francis Chichester as, in Gypsy Moth IV, he completed his single-handed circumnavigation of the world.  The maritime history of Plymouth, both ancient and modern, is inextricably linked with the Royal Navy.  A Naval base was first established in Plymouth during the reign of Edward I. Devonport Dockyard, which stands on the Hamoaze (the name for the waters of that particular part of the River Tamar), was originally known as Plymouth Dock.  The dockyard dates from 1693 when both wet and dry docks were built.  This yard was developed further with the provision of workshops, stores, and the construction of additional docks, which subsequently formed the area known as South Yard.  The dockyard was extended with the addition of the Morice Yard, which provided ordnance, powder and shot to the fleet, and was further extended with the addition of the Steam Yard in 1844.

Devonport Dockyard played an extremely important role in both world wars and is now the largest Naval dockyard in Western Europe.  Amongst other functions, the dockyard of today boasts modern frigate refit sheds and has facilities to accommodate and refit nuclear submarines.  The area now occupied by the Royal Navy is known as the Plymouth Naval Base.  Most of the former dockyard is now in private hands, Devonport Management Limited, as a commer­cial enterprise.  In more recent years DML has played a leading role in assisting the Royal National Lifeboat Institution with the development of the new generation of Fast Slipway

In January 2003 DML launched the first Severn Class lifeboat, which the yard had fitted out on behalf of the Institution.

The unsung heroes of the city's maritime history are undoubtedly the men and women of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.  Although the Institution is perhaps of less prominence to the individual, the lifeboat service of today continues to maintain a long and proud tradition.  Plymouth's first purpose-built lifeboat was placed at Sutton Pool in 1803.

Over the last two decades Plymouth, in common with most coastal resorts, has experienced a vast increase in the number of leisure craft using the facilities of the harbours. To some extent this has changed the nature of the services which the lifeboats of the RNLI provide.  Some individuals venturing out to sea have little or no regard for their own safety, let alone the safety of others; likewise they show little or no respect for the sea. It is reassuring and gratifying to know that when assistance is required, whatever the circumstances and whoever the casualty, without judgement of the individual and with unquestionable bravery and dedication, help is readily at hand from the brave men and women of the lifeboat service.  In this short history it is clearly not possible to chronicle, in detail, every launch of every lifeboat during the 140-plus years that the RNLI has served the seafarers of Plymouth.  Only in a small way is it the author's intention to record some of the acts of heroism and bravery of the crews of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's Plymouth Station.

A Portrait of Portsmouth Gosport and Southsea Home of the Royal Navy

Edition: First

Author: Iain McGowan

ISBN: 1841144541

Publishers: Halsgrove

Price £12.99

Publication Date: 2005

For me this book is a journey through my childhood and youth.  For the first 27 years of my life my home was either in Portsmouth, Southsea or Gosport.  My paternal Grandfather and my Father were both born in Portsmouth and but for WWII so should I have been.  However, because of the bombing I was born near Southampton, although we lived at Southsea at the time.  I trained at HMS St Vincent in Gosport and lived there (The other side of windy bridge) when I was in HMS Dolphin.  Later in life my parents moved to Wickham near Fareham.  Although I lived in London I came back almost every week.

The book gives some of the history of the great city of Portsmouth.  In the Introduction it supplies two maps highlighting the most important points.  On Page 11 our journey begins with Porchester and Old Portsmouth.  Standing upon Portsdown Hill it easy to see why the Romans built a castle at Porchester and why during the Napoleonic wars it was a prison.

The skyline has of course changed as the photographs of the entrance of Portsmouth harbour reveal on Page 14, with the block of flats on the Gosport side near the ferry.  I remember when they were built.  Camber Quay has changed as well.  I remember Banana boats and the French onion sellers landing with their bicycles.

You cannot have photographs of Portsmouth without HM ships and on Pages 22 and 23 HMS Newcastle enters and HMS Ark Royal leaves.  I wonder how many Royal Naval ships have entered and left.  Has any body ever counted?

It is many years since I left Portsmouth and made my home elsewhere, however it has been a delight to work my way through this book and observe how may of the scenes have changed.  The redeveloped Gunwharf  Quay was quite a shock to me.  It would have been an even greater shock to my GGrandfather who worked there after he left the (RMA Blue Marines) Royal Marine Artillery in 1855.  However ‘looking northwards up West Street towards the point and the harbour’ hasn’t changed much.   John Pound the Shoemaker is remembered on Page 39.  We Portsmouth schoolchildren were told of his deeds and the school he established for neglected children, but is he more widely known?

Pages 46-60 cover the Dockyard, HMS Victory of course and HMS Warrior in which my GGrandfather John Jerrard served as a Gunner RMA.  It is pleasing to see one of the old Monitors surviving.  About the time I joined the Navy in 1956 there was still one in Reserve Fleet, I believe it was HMS Roberts.

Page 61 reminds us that Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth.  The photograph of the remains of the Portsmouth and Arundel canal has connections for me.  My GGGrandparents lived in Canal Walk, which runs beside what is now the railway line which once contained water.

The history of the forts along Portsdown Hill is explained on Page 65 with a photograph of Fort Nelson.  One of these forts was used by HMS Dryad to train Radar Ratings and I recall time spent at one on my RP2 course.

Spit Bank Fort in The Solent evokes another memory.  We used to come out by boat from the Diving School at HMS Vernon and dive around the base of one of the forts.  This was when we had switched to compressed air with SABA sets.

Pub signs and names take up Page 70 and 71.  Brickwoods and Gales are names that come easily to mind, but I cannot recall ‘Blakes Noted Gosport Ales’, but I am sure my Grandfather would.

It distresses me to read that Portsmouth is now one of the most densely-populated areas in Europe.  My Grandfather, who was born in 1873 (he called Winston Churchill ‘Young Winston’ before anyone else did) once told me that Hillsea was all farmland when he was a boy.

The book of Portsmouth must mention Portsmouth Football Club.  The hours I spent there - happy memories of Jimmy Dickinson, Len Phillips, Peter Harris, Jackie Mansell, Gordon Dale, Jackie Henderson and Phil Gunther, who incidentally played for Wimborne Road Junior school at Centre Half as I once did. 

Tom McGhee, Reg Flewin, Douggie Reid, Barnard (who also played cricket for Hampshire) and Norman Uprichard, who invited us into his terraced house for tea and cakes after a match.  I still have all their autographs. 

How may people know that another name - AC Smith, who played in goal when the club was formed, is better known as Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.  He also played for Portsmouth cricket team but ‘gentleman did not play football’ hence the Pen Name.

Lest we forget, there is a photograph of the war memorial on Pages 114 and 115.  My family should not forget, because my uncle, Ronald Jerrard is remembered there.  He lost his life on 25 November 1941 when HMS Barham was sunk. 

At page 123 the Royal Marine Barracks at Eastney is featured, my GGrandfather lived and brought up children here and as a boy I joined the Royal Marine Cadets and ran with the Field Gun, we camped on the Isle of Wight.

I am pleased to see Alec Rose is remembered.  I remember standing with my mother in Hampshire Terrace to see him drive past in 1968, it was in fact the very month I left the Royal Navy and moved away from Portsmouth, I went to London to seek my fortune, up the A3 as Nelson would have travelled.

Near the end of the book on Page 140 the Bat & Ball Public House is featured with a photograph of the pub sign and Broadhalfpenny cricket club.  This a fair distance from Portsmouth, however I remember it well as it was one of the many places we found our way to on our motorcycles in the fifties.

Nelson has the last word (Didn’t he always), his words "England Expects every Man to do his Duty" on the wall near his real Mistress the sea.  Would ‘confides’ have been a better word? There is argument still, was it "to" or "Will"

Hampshire - we invented cricket and Portsmouth - we housed the greatest Navy in the world.  I am proud to call it my home town. If you have any association with the area this book will bring back memories.