#MuseumFromHome – Day 223

Posted by Tenby Museum on Nov 17, 2020 Blog No Comments

Day 223 of our #MuseumFromHome project and today we look at cork lifejackets.

Lifejackets have been saving lives for generations. Their history can probably be traced back to the simple blocks of wood or cork used by Norwegian seamen. The first cork life jacket was patented in 1765 by Dr John Wilkinson. In his book entitled the ‘Seaman’s Preservation from Shipwreck, Diseases, and Other Calamities Incident to Mariners’ ,
However the first cork lifejacket is attributed to RNLI Inspector, Captain Ward, in 1854 and this cork lifejacket was the first ever to be issued to lifeboat crew members.

During the 18th century, RNLI volunteers had to manually row their boats when launching to rescue in stormy seas. When the first lifejacket design was created, it therefore needed to be flexible enough to move with the men as they paddled.
A range of materials were put through rigorous testing for the lifejacket design, which were trialled for buoyancy (floating power), weight, durability and water resistance. If a component didn’t meet the RNLI’s standards to endure the lifesaving task at hand, the material was immediately discarded.

Some of the unsuccessful materials included air (a canvas jacket was inflated with large pockets of air which proved to be lightweight and easy to stow, but it punctured easily); horsehair and rushes (although the materials were light and buoyant, neither were waterproof nor durable enough ) and woods such as bayobab and balsa – the bark was successfully light and buoyant, but they were hard to obtain and very expensive to buy)

The final lifejacket, designed by Captain Ward, used narrow strips of common, circular cork which, when fitted together, were sewn into a canvas vest Each lifejacket was bulky, holding a buoyancy of 25lbs each. But they floated well, were hard-wearing and, most importantly, crew members liked them.

The lifejackets were created in two different sizes to fit the builds of the lifeboat crew, but they were also large enough to be passed over a casualty’s head and shoulders.