Some pretty odd materials have been used to build boats down the ages, and one of the oddest has to be corrugated iron. But corrugated iron boats, usually known as tin boats, were common round the English-speaking world in Victorian times.
It was Joseph Francis, a Bostonian, who realised that corrugated iron would make strong, cheap boats. He was particularly interested in making lifeboats that would survive coming ashore in a storm.
The difficulty is creating a boat shape from a material that is designed to be rigid – the corrugations allow bending in one direction but not the other. Francis solved the problem by building a huge hydraulic press capable of bending corrugated sheets into boat shapes.
The parts were bolted together and caulked with pitch or other materials. Because assembly was as simple as putting Meccano together, they became very popular in pioneer areas.
Tin boats were shipped all over the world with the corrugated iron bungalows, shops, pubs and churches that colonists built everywhere they went. Rust killed most of them quickly, though tin boats can still be found with plants growing in them on farms all over Australia in particular.
Joseph Francis continued developing iron lifeboats, the first with built-in flotation tanks. One version, the lifecar, was carried on deck ready to be attached to a line shot by cannon from the shore in the event of the ship hitting the rocks. The system saved more than 200 lives when the immigrant ship Ayshire was wrecked off New Jersey in January 1850. Francis also invented a circular yacht and a military vehicle called the amphibious duck, a horse-drawn cart that could be floated across rivers.
The Toms River Seaport Society Museum is now housed in the coach house of Francis’ country house.
Francis was also very involved in developing rowing boats, building many skiffs for competition and inventing a double jointed rowlock, of which more later.