11 Abandoned Lifeboat Stations of Britain & Ireland

The abandoned lifeboat stations of Britain and Ireland: disused RNLI stations and other independent lifeboat operators (Uncovering the abandoned lifeboat stations of the UK and Ireland)

We recently examined a number of forgotten Coast Guard stations across the British Isles and the USA, from major operations centres to remote coastal lookouts. In this complimentary article, we turn our attention to some of the United Kingdom and Ireland’s abandoned lifeboat stations. The coastline of the British Isles is home to some 237 active lifeboat stations (444 lifeboats) of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) alone. These, along with other disused RNLI and independent stations, are an important part of the archipelago’s maritime history.

Abandoned lifeboat station in Polpeor Cove on The Lizard, Cornwall (Image: David Dixon; abandoned lifeboat station in Polpeor Cove, Cornwall)

Founded in 1824 as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, the RNLI is the largest charity dedicated to saving lives at sea in the waters around the UK, the Republic of Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. RNLI Lifeguards – most of them unpaid volunteers – operate on more than 200 beaches and rescued an average of 22 people per day in 2015. Since the organisation’s founding, an estimated 140,000 people have been saved at a cost of 600 RNLI lives.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution works closely with Her Majesty’s Coastguard and the Irish Coast Guard. When distress calls come in, they’re redirected to the relevant coastguard agencies who may then call on the RNLI (or independent lifeboats, like the one at St Abbs) to handle the emergency.

As a result, the charity remains as important as ever, despite improvements in maritime safety and the many disused stations and boathouses that dot the British coastline. This article examines a small number of abandoned lifeboat stations of the RNLI and other independent operators around Britain and Ireland.

Rye Harbour Lifeboat Station, East Sussex England

The abandoned lifeboat station at Rye Harbour is now a Grade II listed memorial to the tragic events of its past (Image: Marathon)

When the Liverpool-class lifeboat RNLB Mary Stanford (ON 661) capsized in Rye Harbour on November 15, 1928, its entire 17-man crew was drowned in one of the worst lifeboat disasters in British maritime history. The volunteers had been dispatched to aid distressed vessel The Alice of Riga, which was taking on water eight miles off Dungeness. But amid stormy seas and crashing waves, the Mary Stanford’s crew didn’t hear a recall signal that came when The Alice’s sailors were confirmed to be safe. A signboard, at the site of the old Rye Harbour Lifeboat station, chillingly declares: “The lifeboat sailed on into the storm. At midday, The Mary Stanford was seen floating upside down. The full horror unfolded as the bodies of her courageous crew began to be washed ashore. Not one single life could be saved.” The abandoned lifeboat station on the East Susses coast is now Grade II listed. Empty since that fateful day almost a century ago, it stands today as a memorial to the tragic men of the Mary Stanford.

Polpeor Cove Abandoned Lifeboat Station, Cornwall, England

Abandoned Lizard Lifeboat Station in Cornwall, southwest England (Image: Nigel Thompson; abandoned RNLI station in Polpeor Cove)

Three lifeboat stations have been built in Cornwall’s Polpeor Cove over the years, the third and final one completed in 1914. Pictured above, this solid concrete building and its integral slipway were abandoned by the RNLI in 1961. Rough conditions and hazardous rocks made launching the lifeboat treacherous. Recovery of the vessel was also tricky, and the station’s exposed location made it costly to maintain. This, and the need to accommodate the more modern lifeboats being deployed during the 1950s, caused the RNLI to close the Polpeor Cove facility early the following decade. The current Lizard Lifeboat station is located in Kilcobben Cove, though its predecessor still stands alongside its disused slipway.

Derelict Hilbre Islands Lifeboat Station, Dee Estuary

Ruin of the abandoned Hilbre Islands Lifeboat Station (Image: John S Turner)

This derelict lifeboat station on the Hilbre Islands, a small archipelago at the mouth of the Dee estuary between England and Wales, is one of the more ruined examples we came across. The islands, which are thought to have been inhabited on and off since the Neolithic Age but now have no permanent residents, are part of a nature reserve and area of special scientific interest. The Hilbre Islands were home to a small inn during the 19th century but the silting of the River Dee ultimately led to its closure and trade relocated to ports on the Mersey. The abandoned lifeboat station there eventually fell into ruin. Today, it is a roofless shell of a building.

Lossiemouth Lifeboat Station, Moray, Scotland

The former Lossiemouth Lifeboat Station in Moray, Scotland (Image: Ann Harrison)

This abandoned lifeboat station in Lossiemouth could almost be a small fisherman’s chapel, though the faded blue doors betray its former purpose. Built in 1899, the stone-built structure looks to be in reasonable external condition. Just as the disused lifeboat facility once protected those plying the waters off Lossiemouth, on Scotland’s Moray Firth, a nearby RAF base now houses the air defence fighters that protect UK skies against potential airborne adversaries.

Portrane Lifeboat Station, Fingal, Republic of Ireland

Abandoned Portrane Lifeboat Station in Fingal, Ireland (Image: jaqian)

Immediately below the repurposed Portrane Martello Tower in the county of Fingal, Ireland, stands an old stone-and-brick-built lifeboat station that appears to have been closed years ago. The large doors through which the life saving vessel would have emerged before plunging into the chilly waters of the Irish Sea have now been sealed off. But otherwise, the abandoned lifeboat station in Portrane, a small seaside town that has appeared in the likes of Father Ted and Murphy’s Law, looks to be in good condition.

(Image: jaqian)

Near the abandoned Portrane lifeboat station are a cluster of derelict houses (above) which, according to Flickr user jaqian, may once have housed the lifeguards who monitored the often treacherous waters around County Dublin.

Ballywalter Lifeboat Station, County Down, Northern Ireland

The former Ballywalter Lifeboat Station in Northern Ireland (Image: Albert Bridge)

Moving north of the border to County Down, the Ballywalter lifeboat station was reportedly closed more than 110 years ago. Opened in 1866, the facility remained in use for 40 years, finally ceasing to operate in 1906. The above photograph, taken five years ago, shows that the abandoned lifeboat station in Northern Ireland had been recently sold. According to photographer Albert Bridge: “During its last nine years it answered only one call. There were two lifeboats on station – the “Admiral Henry Meynell” (1866/85) and the “William Wallace” (1885/1906). Latterly owned by Ards Borough Council and now with a “sale agreed” sign.” The Ballywalter station is said to have saved 154 lives during its operational life. But when its coastguards were withdrawn in 1906 the village had trouble finding a crew to manage the emergency facility, causing the lifeboat to be withdrawn from service also.

Quarry Green Disused Lifeboat Station, Campbeltown, Scotland

Disused Quarry Green Lifeboat Station at Campbeltown, Scotland (Image: Steve Partridge)

Steve Partridge writes that the disused lifeboat building above was not the first of its kind to be built at Campbeltown on Scotland’s beautiful Kintyre peninsula. The original RNLI station was reportedly established in 1861 and included a boathouse at New Quay. The abandoned lifeboat station seen here was built in 1898 and closed down in 1929 when its life-saving vessel was moved to a mooring in Campbeltown Harbour’s Old Quay. Like others featured in this article, the sturdy stone structure’s large blue doors leave little doubt as to its former purpose.

Balcomie Sands Abandoned Lifeboat Station, Fife, Scotland

Balcomie Sands Abandoned Lifeboat Station (Image: Neil Theasby)

This one’s a bit more unusual: a deserted lifeboat station in the middle of the Crail Golfing Society’s Balcomie golf course in Fife. Despite its fairway location in the path of many a stray golf ball, the old facility looks immaculate from this distance, despite its old boathouse doors being walled off. The Balcomie lifeboat station now makes for an interesting historical diversion for golfers playing a round, and is also used by Balcomie’s greenkeepers to store their machines and other equipment.

Tenby Lifeboat Station, Pembrokeshire, Wales

(Image: Jaggery)

Built in 1905 on the north side of Castle Hill in the Pembrokeshire town of Tenby, West Wales, this former lifeboat station has been converted into a four-bedroom house. It’s actually the second of three Tenby RNLI Lifeboat stations to have served the seaside town since 1894. All three still stand and the newest one, built in 2005, remains in use and can be viewed by the public. When the RNLI was refused planning permission to demolish the 1905 boathouse and its roller slipway, the charity sold the building to a private owner. Its 2011 conversion was featured on the Channel 4 TV programme Grand Designs. The original Victorian boathouse in Tenby Harbour has also been restored.

Hemsby Lifeboat Station Ruins, Norfolk, England

Ruins of the abandoned Hemsby Lifeboat Station, which was demolished and replaced by a new facility (Image: Evelyn Simak)

Nowadays the Hemsby Inshore Rescue Service operates from a modern facility near Newport, in Norfolk. Nearby, the institution’s former premises is little more than a ruined concrete foundation alongside a cluster of anti-tank blocks built during World War Two for the defence of Britain. The Hemsby Inshore Rescue Service is independent of the RNLI and relies on public donations in order to operate. Photographer Evelyn Simak writes that Hemsby’s older abandoned lifeboat station was destroyed in a storm in December 2013, described as “the worst in 60 years”.

Ruined Isle of Whithorn Lifeboat Station, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland

The abandoned ruins of the old Isle of Whithorn Lifeboat Station (Image: Billy McCrorie)

Another derelict ruin, this one on the Isle of Whithorn, one of the most southerly villages in Scotland. Located in Dumfries and Galloway, the Isle of Whithorn Lifeboat station opened in 1869 and operated until 1919 or 1920, when its vessel was replaced by a motor lifeboat at Kirkcudbright. The ruin is understood to have remained in reasonable condition after World War Two, during which time its roof was still in place. The cairns that now stand within were erected in 1997 to commemorate the arrival of the 5th century Christian missionary Saint Ninian to the west coast. According to Wikipedia: “During the 50 years that the lifeboat station was operating there were three lifeboats: Charlie Peake (1869–1886), 7 launches and 10 lives saved. Henry and John Leighton (1886–1901), 12 launches and 22 lives saved. George and Margaret (1901–1919), six launches and six lives saved.”

Bonus: Abandoned Lifeboat at Loch Harport, Isle of Skye, Scotland

An abandoned lifeboat on the shores of Loch Harport in the Scottish Highlands (Image: Tom Richardson)

It seems a shame to publish a round-up of abandoned lifeboat stations without including at least one redundant or wrecked lifeboat. So here we go! On the shores of Loch Harport near Merkadale, on the Isle of Skye, lies a forlorn vessel with a varied history. Photographer Ruth Craine writes on Flickr: “Taken at low water on Loch Harport just outside the village of Carbost. A shot of the bow of the ex Scarborough lifeboat the ECJR, and later the fishing vessel Can-y-Don. The boat vanishes from all maritime records after 1992 when it appears she crossed into private ownership. What happened to her after this date, and just how she ended up here on the loch with two other boats, a herd of cows and next to a cemetery are still a mystery.”

Related: 10 Defunct Coast Guard Stations, Lookouts & Vessels



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