Fishermen’s Lifeboat Museum

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The Fishermen’s Lifeboat Museum (originally known as the Fishermen’s Heritage Centre) was officially opened on 13th April 2006 by Peter Cox, Town Mayor of Sheringham, in the presence of a throng of invited guests and witnessed by Sheringham residents who had come to see this long-awaited occasion. The museum is housed in the shed containing the Henry Ramey Upcher lifeboat (HRU), built for its predecessor the Augusta, and also in part of the attached historic Fishing Sheds on West Cliff.

The museum describes the history of the two lifeboats provided by the Upcher family of Sheringham Hall, the family itself and the fishermen who crewed these boats.

These boats are usually referred to as the private, Upcher or fishermen’s lifeboats, distinguishing them from the Sheringham lifeboats provided through the RNLI. Before Sheringham ever had a lifeboat, the Upcher family provided to the fishing community a fishing boat larger than most of the boats then in use by Sheringham fishermen. It was supplied to enable them to sail further in their quest for good catches of fish, but also came to be used as a rescue boat; however it did not have the extra stabilising features required of a true lifeboat. In 1838, recognising the need for a true, purpose-built lifeboat, the Upcher family supplied the Augusta, Sheringham’s first lifeboat. It no longer exists, but we do have some relics of it and a model. Its story is a fascinating one.

In 1867, when the Augusta was already nearly thirty years old, the RNLI supplied the Duncan lifeboat to Sheringham, housed in what is now the Oddfellows Hall. The intention was probably that RNLI lifeboats would replace the private lifeboat (the Augusta). For several years the two lifeboats both operated, depending on circumstances, with their crews in friendly co-operation, laced with a certain amount of good-humoured rivalry. In 1886, however, the Duncan was replaced by the William Bennett. This had a reputation of being heavy and difficult to launch, and during its time here was little used. With the Augusta almost 50 years old and suffering from “nail sickness” (rusting of the iron nails) pressure arose for the Upcher family to replace the much-loved Augusta. This they did in 1894 with the Henry Ramey Upcher (HRU).

The HRU was named in memory of the late squire of Sheringham by his widow, Caroline on 4th September 1894 and remained in service until 1935. For most of this time the coxswain was Henry “Coley” Cooper. His predecessors were also members of the Cooper family. The HRU was responsible for 33 recorded rescues during this time, resulting in the saving of 193 lives. It is in the form of a traditional inshore fishing boat of this area, which is said to go back to the Viking longboat, with a prow at both ends. By this date much had been learnt about lifeboat construction and a fairly standard design had been settled on over this part of the coast, which came to be known as the Norfolk and Suffolk type. It was built as all such boats were at the time by eye rather than from a plan by celebrated local boat-builder Lewis “Buffalo” Emery, using oak for the planking and fixings of copper throughout. It is 10.59m (almost 35 feet) long and 3.43m (just over 11 feet) wide with a keel length of 8.76m (almost 29 feet). It was powered mainly by human muscles, with eight oars each side, with the added possibility of help from the wind, although sails could not always be used in rescue work because of weather conditions. Unlike most other lifeboats of the time and since, it was not provided with a carriage to assist launching. The weight is about 3,000kg (3 tons), so a huge amount of effort was required by the crew and helpers to drag it over the shingle into the sea and to pull it back up the beach after its service – a dangerous operation but one which was successfully performed many times over.

The HRU was under a lot of pressure in the early years because the slipway to the RNLI lifeboat shed was washed away in a storm in 1897, making the launching of the William Bennett even more difficult. The JC Madge replaced the William Bennett in 1904 but was housed in a shed at the western end of Sheringham golf course, not the most convenient location for most of the crew who lived in Sheringham town. When the first motorised RNLI lifeboat (the Forester’s Centenary) arrived in 1936, however, time was up for the manually powered HRU.

The museum also contains information about, and a photographic record of, some of the fishermen who crewed the private lifeboats, many of whom worked in and around the Fishing Sheds, with displays about how they won their livings from the dangerous waters of the North Sea and other aspects of their lives. Sheringham Museum nearby contains four preserved former RNLI lifeboats which served the town, the earliest of which is of a similar period to the HRU, showing the evolution of these vessels over time.

For our location, see the Directions page. The museum is closed during the winter months. See the Opening Times page for the times the museum is open, but please bear in mind that it is staffed entirely by volunteers and when volunteers are unexpectedly not available the museum has to close. Also, owing to its exposed position on the seafront, the museum closes under extreme weather conditions. Admission is free, but voluntary contributions are requested to pay for the costs of maintenance of the buildings and their contents. We regret that wheelchair users are unable to see inside the boat or to make their way around it because of restricted space. They can, however, access the remainder of the museum.

Items connected with the lifeboat (e.g. booklets and leaflets, postcards, gansey patterns, guides, maps etc.) may be purchased (see Sales).

For further information or to arrange a group visit, please Contact Us