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Pride of RNLI heads for new berth; Restoration of old lifeboat is set to make historic waves.

A lifeboat paid for by the generosity of an enigmatic Birmingham developer is to be restored - 100 years after it first took to the high seas to save the lives of stricken sailors.

The 43-foot James Stevens Number 14 was tracked down by amateur detective work after being converted into a houseboat and lost in the backwaters of history.

Now it is to be fashioned back into its original state and returned to the town which it served to complete an extraordinary homecoming.

The boat was one of 20 purchased by the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) from a pounds 50,000 legacy left by Edgbaston businessman Mr James Stevens in 1894.

Little is known about Mr Stevens except that he was a land developer. The only address given for him was the Birmingham Reform Club, a political society

which disappeared from city records before the turn of the century.

Although the man himself remains a mystery, the RNLI believes his kindness could be without precedent. Spokeswoman Mrs Sue Denny said: "The biggest ever donation we have had is for pounds 6.5million from Jersey businessman Roy Barker in 1994 - that paid for half a dozen lifeboats.

"So to have a donation which paid for 20 boats is incredible and quite unheard of."

The Number 14 was a Norfolk and Suffolk-type, which meant it was able to be launched from the sand at low-water by being pulled into the sea.

It was built at Thames Ironworks in 1900 and sailed to Walton, Essex, ironically where the City of Birmingham lifeboat was to be stationed between 1984 and 1993.

Twelve men served aboard the huge rowing craft before it was given a 32hp engine in 1906, making it one of the first motorised lifeboats in the RNLI fleet.

It was eventually replaced in 1928 after a distinguished career in which it was launched 126 times, saving 227 lives.

The James Stevens's most dramatic rescue was on December 29, 1917, when it saved 92 passengers from the stranded SS Peregrine of London, which ran aground in a force nine gale.

After leaving active service in Walton, the craft was floated up the Thames before later being used as a fireboat in the Second World War.

It then disappeared without trace and is believed to have been sold and used mainly as a houseboat for many years.

Last year, the boat was discovered by Mr Tony Denton, from the Lifeboat Enthusiasts Society, in Maldon, Essex, still being used as a houseboat. It was almost unrecognisable from its glory days because of all the alterations that had been made.

After negotiating a pounds 3,000 deal with the boat's owners, the James Stevens, one of 20 similar boats built between 1896 and 1900, was recently returned to Walton to be restored by volunteers from the Walton Maritime Museum and the Frinton and Walton Heritage Trust.

Miss Rachel Baldwin, chairman of the trust and museum curator, said: "It's a very important boat to the area and to the town - which looks towards the sea.

"There are a number of people who had relatives who served on the boat, and when we found out it was available it was just too good to turn down. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity because it is such a part of Walton's heritage."

Miss Baldwin said she believed it was going to cost pounds 15,000 to restore the boat, which will involve stripping away the conversion which turned it into a floating house and putting back two huge masts which would have made the original so recognisab le.

"The major decision we have to make is whether to put an engine in or keep her as she would have been originally.

"That way we can take passengers out on her.

"Whatever we decide, it's going to make a really good millennium project," said Miss Baldwin.

Spokesman for the maritime museum Mr John Steer, whose grandfather Thomas sailed aboard the James Stevens Number 14, said he was full of admiration for the lifeboat men who risked their lives to save other sailors and passengers.

"The boat was completely open and at the mercy of the elements and the men would have been soaked through even in summer," he said.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 14, 1998
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