South Shields man helped saved seamen’s lives

Many seamen will have made it home to the River Tyne (pictured in 1966) during the war thanks to the Chipchase Raft.
Many seamen will have made it home to the River Tyne (pictured in 1966) during the war thanks to the Chipchase Raft.

Almost 74 years to the day, a national newspaper featured an article about a new invention which, at that time, was helping to save the lives of British seamen during the Second World War.

The device, a life raft, was not only invented by a South Shields man – it was also produced here on South Tyneside.

Here historian, Dorothy Ramser tells the story of the Chipchase Raft, the man and his invention.

Robert Stanley Chipchase was born in South Shields in 1886, the son of James William and Sarah Jane Chipchase

In 1918, after serving as an officer in the Royal Engineers during the First World War, Robert married Margarita J. Reed, and a year later their son Kenneth Reed Chipchase was born. The family lived at 190 Sunderland Road.

Robert obviously did very well for himself, for he eventually became chairman and managing director of the Tyne Dock Engineering Co. Ltd. in South Shields.

As the dark clouds of war gathered in Europe, Robert embarked on a project to create a device that would help safeguard the lives of British seamen.

As Dorothy explains: “Robert invented this raft in his spare time.

“He had worked so hard on it because he was certain that Germany would use U-Boats as they did in the last war, and he wanted Britain’s seamen to have the best means for their protection for the peace of mind of their families back at home.

“Robert completed a model of it just before war broke out.

“Unusually it had a method of launching that required no more than the kick of a boot, and no matter which way it hit the water, it remained afloat.”

Dorothy says the finished design was sent to the Government which “seized upon it with enthusiasm”.

“This, in turn, was sent to America, but there was a legal problem with the patent, as there were uncertainties as to whether it could be copied.

“However, Robert did a very noble thing and surrendered all his patent rights and profit on the design.

“He said ‘I couldn’t make money out of peoples’ lives’.”

The Chipchase Rafts were made in two sizes for the different sized Merchant ships.

The larger one was over 13ft by 6ft and was fitted with bulletproof buoyancy tanks, filled with Kapok. There was storage for water, medicine, rations, ropes and an 8ft mast. They were made of wood and painted grey.

Dorothy goes on to say that when a reporter from a national newspaper visited South Shields and the assembly area where the rafts were being made, accompanied by Robert, she noticed that ”the female workers didn’t even pause or look up, so intent were they to concentrate on their work”.

Robert told her: “You see they are saving lives – that is what gives them the energy and the will.

“Most of these women have husbands or sons at sea, and some have lost family members in the navy or merchant marine.”

Speaking of his own endeavours, Robert told the reporter: “Nothing’s too good for seamen, nothing I can think of – the thanks of men, not money, that’s all I want.”

Dorothy said Robert was never happier than when South Shields men visited the premises to tell him that his raft had saved their lives.

“In fact he made a point of talking to survivors to find out ways the raft could be improved through practical experience.

Despite its initial success, the feedback from surviving seamen revealed ways in which to make the rafts even better, and modifications followed, as Dorothy explains.

“By speaking to seamen, whose lives had been saved by one of his rafts, he discovered that the worst thing they suffered was that their legs swelled due to frost bite and salt water.

“He came up with a very simple solution – a long canvas bag that six men could sit in, peg at the top, to keep the water out, and gain warmth from each other.”