Penlee Point Lifeboat Station and the flag of the RNLI flying next to it
Penlee Point Lifeboat Station © Royal National Lifeboat Institution
Penlee Point Lifeboat Station © Royal National Lifeboat Institution

Former Penlee Point Lifeboat Station in Cornwall Listed

The former Penlee Point Lifeboat Station in Cornwall has been listed at Grade II by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the advice of Historic England.

Penlee Point Lifeboat Station was built between 1911 and 1913 and closed for active service in 1983 following the Penlee Lifeboat disaster. Some 16 people, including eight Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) crew on the lifeboat Solomon Browne, lost their lives in hurricane conditions while trying to rescue passengers on board the cargo ship Union Star, which was on its maiden voyage on 19 December 1981.

The Penlee Point structures have been maintained by a team of local RNLI volunteers since their closure in 1983 and, along with the later 1985 memorial garden, stand as an eloquent reminder of the disaster and of the crucial role played by the RNLI in saving lives at sea since the 19th century.

The Penlee Point structures are one of the last works of WT Douglass, RNLI architect and engineer from 1888 to 1913. Despite some minor alterations, they still have much of their original fabric and fittings and the slipway is a relatively early and almost intact example of a reinforced concrete structure of its type.

These simple and functional structures at Penlee Point Lifeboat Station witnessed a very sad moment in our history. They stand as a focal point for remembering those who lost their lives in the December 1981 disaster, including the eight RNLI crew members. The story they tell, as well as the architectural interest of the buildings and the slipway, mean their listing at Grade II is well deserved.
Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive Historic England
Penlee Lifeboat Station serves as a poignant reminder of the disaster that took place in Cornwall and the brave and noble sacrifice made by the RNLI crew that night. The listing of the station will mean that it can stand in tribute to all those who so sadly lost their lives for generations to come.
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, Heritage Minister
Standing quietly inside the old Penlee lifeboat station, which remains as it was in 1981, you can’t help but feel the incredible courage, determination, and selflessness of the crew of the 'Solomon Browne'. The fact that building will forever stand in testament to the sacrifice the eight crew made that night, is comforting to all those connected to Penlee RNLI and the wider RNLI community.

The architectural interest is also significant and displays the great engineering that was at the forefront of the RNLI over 100 years ago, but also how far the charity has come over the last century in both engineering and lifeboat technology.
Adrian Carey, Head of South West Region RNLI

The Penlee Lifeboat disaster

On 19 December 1981, the cargo vessel Union Star suffered engine failure on its maiden voyage. Facing hurricane conditions, it was driven towards the rocky Cornish coast. Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne, led by coxswain Trevelyan Richards and seven crew launched to try and save the stricken ship. The lifeboat managed to reach the Union Star before all contact was lost with both ships. The eight crew of the Solomon Browne and the eight onboard the Union Star died in the disaster.

Penlee Point lifeboat station will ever be associated with the final launch of Solomon Browne. The pain of the disaster was felt nationally. The remembrance service at Paul Church in Mousehole was attended by the Duchess of Kent and the national memorial service at Truro Cathedral in 1982 was attended by Prime Minister of the time, Margaret Thatcher.

Messages of sympathy poured in from around the world, and a disaster fund raised £3 million for the crew’s families. The crew was granted posthumous awards for gallantry – rare in the history of the RNLI.

Learn more about the disaster

An online remembrance book was published in 2021, on the 40th anniversary of the Penlee Lifeboat disaster, which includes a foreword from the President of the RNLI, The Duke of Kent.

A BBC documentary ‘The Cruel Sea’ was made for the 25th anniversary of the disaster, which is also remembered each year on the 19 December when the Christmas lights at Mousehole are switched off.

The Penlee Lifeboat disaster happened at a time when the RNLI was developing a new lifeboat, the Tyne class, which although remaining a ramp-launched vessel had a steel hull and was self-righting. It was launched in November 1982. It is unknown whether the Penlee disaster influenced the rapid implementation of the new design. As Solomon Browne was a timber lifeboat, vulnerable not only to the waves and weather but also obstacles - including the steel container ship it went to rescue - it made the point that new boat-technology was quickly needed.

The memorial garden

In 1985, the Town Council created a memorial garden on land to the north-west of the lifeboat station and along with the building are cared for by a team of local volunteers. The walls are set with several plaques commemorating those lost in the disaster of December 1981.

More about the RNLI building

In early 1911 the RNLI decided to build a lifeboat station at Penlee Point. Plans for the building and its slipway were drawn up in May 1911 by the RNLI’s engineer and architect William Tregarthen Douglass (1857-1913) a prolific and innovative designer of maritime structures.

Penlee Point lifeboat station was formally opened on 25 October 1913 with the launch of the wooden lifeboat the ‘Elizabeth and Blanche II’.

In 1922 the lifeboat house and slipway were adapted to accommodate The Brothers - a boat with a six-cylinder 90hp engine and the first motor lifeboat at Penlee station. These new, motor-powered lifeboats affected the design of lifeboat houses nationwide, with many of them needing to be extended or altered. Despite this, Penlee Point’s earlier features have survived, because in 1983 the station was moved to Newlyn to accommodate the new, larger Arun class lifeboat, as a mark of respect, once the lifeboat station closed, the buildings were kept much as they were on 19 December 1981.

The slipway

The slipway at Penlee Point largely dates to its 1911-1913 construction and is noted for its reinforced mass-concrete structure with a ‘roller-slipway’ with angled, pre-cast sections of reinforced concrete grids, and may be an early example of its type in England.