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Friday, 12 April, 2002, 13:14 GMT 14:14 UK
Cleric's collapsing boat resurfaces
The Berthon boat being tested in the water
The Berthon dinghy caught the imagination of sailors
A collapsible dinghy invented by an eccentric vicar after a shipping disaster in 1849 has been unearthed in Brodsworth Hall, near Doncaster.

The portable lifeboat, made from waterproof canvas stretched over 14 feet of hinged timber, was created by the Reverend Edward Berthon.

Mr Benthon, a prolific inventor with 25 patents to his name, attracted the attention of Queen Victoria and caused a stir by neglecting his religious duties.

His boat, quality-tested by letting armies of ants and termites loose on the fabric, had been lost for decades amongst discarded family possessions at the hall.

'Archetypal eccentric'

Virginia Lloyd, a curator from English Heritage, said: "Berthon was full of extravagant ideas, but at the time of his death some regarded him as a genius.

"He was certainly the archetypal English eccentric."

The cleric's other brainwaves included a fiery magnesium torch to light up stained glass, a mount to help people track stars with a telescope, and a collapsible bandstand.

Experts were baffled by the discovery of his boat in Brodsworth Hall's disused stable block.

The Reverend Berthon
The Reverend Berthon employed 100 men

But it had a brass label, stating: "Berthon Boatworks Romsey".

These words were recognised in Romsey, Hampshire, where members of an archaeological study group happened to be researching the life of Reverend Berthon.

He was Romsey's vicar in the mid to late 19th Century.

The cleric set up his own company in a small boatyard behind his vicarage, employing up to 100 men.

Locals became annoyed at the amount of time he dedicated to his inventions and one Sunday school teacher resigned in protest.

Survivors

But the collapsible Berthon Boat attracted royal attention.

It was designed in response to a shipping disaster off the Scottish coast in 1849, when 100 people drowned with the sinking of the SS Orion.

By making the vessel compact he hoped to persuade ship owners to carry it as a lifeboat.

Shown at the Great Exhibition in 1851, it intrigued Queen Victoria so much that she asked for a private demonstration on the Isle of Wight.

The Prince Consort commended it to the Royal Navy, but the Admiralty complained there was nowhere to mount a gun.

Retired marine engineer Geoff Hawksley with the boat
A model of the boat has been specially created

After the Titanic disaster of 1912, new lifeboat regulations were introduced and the Berthon boat sunk forever.

Mr Berthon died in 1899, although his company continued until 1918.

The Brodsworth example is one of only five Berthon boats known to have survived.

It was bought by a relative of Charles Sabine Augustus Thellusson, the builder of Brodsworth Hall, and a keen yachtsman.

Mr Thellusson inherited the Brodsworth estate in 1859, and partly inspired Charles Dickens' book, Bleak House.

The boat is now on display at Brodsworth Hall.


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