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200 years of RNLI history as charity prepares to mark March 4 anniversary





Sat around the table of a London tavern in 1824 – 30 eminent gentlemen put their name to a fledging charity that was to help save the lives of the shipwrecked at sea.

It would become, says the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, ‘the best thing to come out of a pub’ – and ahead of its 200th birthday senior reporter Lauren Abbott looks back at two remarkable centuries of lifesaving service.

An RNLI crew pictured in their kit in 1936. Image: RNLI.
An RNLI crew pictured in their kit in 1936. Image: RNLI.

On Monday, March 4 the RNLI will celebrate its 200th anniversary.

Funded by public donations – its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have to date saved more than 144,000 lives.

Borne from one man’s vision for a rescue service to save the shipwrecked - the RNLI now runs 238 lifeboat stations and lifeguard services on 242 UK and Irish beaches in an around-the-clock modern day operation helping an average 45 people a day.

Staggering figures for a charity powered by volunteers.

Starting life as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck -renamed the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1854 – in 2022 the charity cost more than £188 million to run which is a hefty budget nobly met by dedicated supporters.

Lifeboats on the River Thames became operational in January 2002 and pictured here are E class fast rescue boats including from the station at Gravesend moving towards Tower Pier lifeboat station. Image: RNLI.
Lifeboats on the River Thames became operational in January 2002 and pictured here are E class fast rescue boats including from the station at Gravesend moving towards Tower Pier lifeboat station. Image: RNLI.
Norwegian student Elizabeth Hostvedt in 1969 became the first woman qualified to command an RNLI inshore lifeboat after passing a full medical and proving she had the ‘physique to stand up to an arduous service’. Image: RNLI.
Norwegian student Elizabeth Hostvedt in 1969 became the first woman qualified to command an RNLI inshore lifeboat after passing a full medical and proving she had the ‘physique to stand up to an arduous service’. Image: RNLI.

From triumphs to tragedies; from oar-powered vessels to boats packed with cutting-edge technology; from the first lifeboats on the River Thames, the first woman to command a boat to the rolling-out of a UK beach lifeguard service; the charity has a remarkable 200-year story to tell.

Long gone now are lifejackets made of cork. sou’wester hats and boats dragged into the sea by horses, police escorts or teams of women known as ‘lady launchers’.

While pioneering developments – such as the launch of the RNLI’s own flood rescue service in 2000 – mean the charity is now frequently summoned inland as well as out at sea.

A horsedrawn launching trailer pulls a lifeboat towards the sea escorted by policeman. Image: RNLI.
A horsedrawn launching trailer pulls a lifeboat towards the sea escorted by policeman. Image: RNLI.
Teams of women launchers were once used to move the lifeboats. Image: RNLI.
Teams of women launchers were once used to move the lifeboats. Image: RNLI.
Crews launch Hunstanton RNLI lifeboat. Picture: Chris Bishop/Hunstanton RNLI.
Crews launch Hunstanton RNLI lifeboat. Picture: Chris Bishop/Hunstanton RNLI.

But while over the course of two centuries innovation may have changed how the charity saves lives – it says one thing has remained a constant and that’s the volunteering ethos at its heart.

Everything the RNLI has achieved since 1824 has been made possible thanks to the generosity of people who have formed crews or funded the kit, boats and fuel needed needed to save lives.

Coxswain William Brown gets his lifejacket fastened during 50-years of service on Cresswell Lifeboat from 1875, where by the age of 70 he’d rescued nearly 100 people - earning him a Certificate of Service on retirement and his wife a gold brooch for her services as a launcher and fundraiser. Image: RNLI.
Coxswain William Brown gets his lifejacket fastened during 50-years of service on Cresswell Lifeboat from 1875, where by the age of 70 he’d rescued nearly 100 people - earning him a Certificate of Service on retirement and his wife a gold brooch for her services as a launcher and fundraiser. Image: RNLI.

RNLI Chief Executive, Mark Dowie, explained: “For a charity to have survived 200 years based on the time and commitment of volunteers, and the sheer generosity of the public donating to fund it, is truly remarkable.

“It is through the courage and dedication of its incredible people that the RNLI has survived the test of time, including tragic losses, funding challenges, two World Wars and, more recently, a global pandemic.”

Grace Darling, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper, became a national heroine after risking her life along with her father to save the stranded survivors of a wrecked steamship in 1838. Image: RNLI.
Grace Darling, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper, became a national heroine after risking her life along with her father to save the stranded survivors of a wrecked steamship in 1838. Image: RNLI.

How it all began

Sir William Hillary’s vision for a service dedicated to saving lives at sea became a reality in Bishopsgate’s City of London Tavern on March 4, 1824.

Living on the Isle of Man, Hillary witnessed dozens of shipwrecks where such danger had become an accepted way of life at sea.

His vision for a national lifeboat service manned by trained crews didn’t initially garner the desired response – with the likes of the Navy and government ministers showing little enthusiasm for his ideas.

But a rebrand of his appeal for the more philanthropic members of London society worked wonders and many of the resolutions passed at that first public meeting in the city remain part of the charity’s charter today.

Cork lifejackets were the first lifesaving devices to be issued to crews but had to be flexible enough for men as they rowed. Pictured are Whitby crews circa 1900 with their kit. Image: RNLI.
Cork lifejackets were the first lifesaving devices to be issued to crews but had to be flexible enough for men as they rowed. Pictured are Whitby crews circa 1900 with their kit. Image: RNLI.
At the turn of the century, a fine cotton-like material called kapok, more commonly used to stuff cushions replaced aging cork lifejackets. Image: RNLI.
At the turn of the century, a fine cotton-like material called kapok, more commonly used to stuff cushions replaced aging cork lifejackets. Image: RNLI.

The first ever street collection

Keeping a modern day fleet of lifeboats ready to rescue is an expensive business and the charity costs tens of millions to run each year.

Two hundred years ago, fundraising also started out very successfully – bringing in almost £10,000. But by 1849 efforts had stalled, its income dropped to as little as £300 and the charity was being kept afloat by just a small handful of benefactors.

St Anne's lifeboat the Laura Janet, was lost with most of her crew in the 1886 Mexico disaster however the tragedy prompted the public to begin involving themselves heavily in fundraising. Image: RNLI.
St Anne's lifeboat the Laura Janet, was lost with most of her crew in the 1886 Mexico disaster however the tragedy prompted the public to begin involving themselves heavily in fundraising. Image: RNLI.

However it would take until the late 1800s for the RNLI to realise just how generous the public could be with a huge swell of support prompted by the tragic loss of 27 crew members who were trying to rescue the crew of the German sailing boat Mexico.

A public appeal to support their widows and children was launched, followed in October 1891 by the first ever street-based fundraiser known as ‘Lifeboat Saturday’.

An example of a Lifeboat Saturday parade fundraiser - this one at Southsea where crowds lined the streets in 1902. Image: RNLI.
An example of a Lifeboat Saturday parade fundraiser - this one at Southsea where crowds lined the streets in 1902. Image: RNLI.
Children in 1939. in Plymouth, sitting in a model lifeboat with posters advertising the next ‘Lifeboat Saturday’ fundraiser. Image: RNLI.
Children in 1939. in Plymouth, sitting in a model lifeboat with posters advertising the next ‘Lifeboat Saturday’ fundraiser. Image: RNLI.

Bands, floats and lifeboats were paraded through the streets of Manchester, followed by volunteers collecting money. More than £5,000 was taken that day and it became the first example on record of a charity street collection.

With failure not an option, one half of the couple behind it – Marion Macara – had formed a Ladies’ Guild to ensure the street collection got off the ground. So successful was it that within 10 years more than 50 Ladies’ Guilds had sprung up around Britain helping to double the RNLI’s income!

A Ladies’ Guild in 1913 – this image has been painstakingly cleaned and colourised using digital technology to shine new light on 200 years of the RNLI. Image: RNLI.
A Ladies’ Guild in 1913 – this image has been painstakingly cleaned and colourised using digital technology to shine new light on 200 years of the RNLI. Image: RNLI.

In war and peace

‘That the subjects of all nations be equally objects of the Institution, as well in war as in peace’ so says the original 1824 resolution, and being true to its word, RNLI crews continued to launch through both world wars.

That wasn’t without its difficulties and with most young men sent to the front line from 1914, the average age of a crew member throughout the First World War rose to over 50 as others stepped up to the boats.

In 1939, young lifeboat volunteers were yet again called away to war. Nevertheless, by the end of the Second World War in 1945, RNLI crews had saved 6,376 lives around the coasts of Britain and Ireland.

Lifeboat Viscountess Wakefield from Hythe lifeboat station was taken across the Channel, manned by the Navy, to rescue troops at Dunkirk but had to be abandoned after going aground off the French coast. Image: RNLI.
Lifeboat Viscountess Wakefield from Hythe lifeboat station was taken across the Channel, manned by the Navy, to rescue troops at Dunkirk but had to be abandoned after going aground off the French coast. Image: RNLI.

One of the charity’s most significant roles came in 1940 when 19 RNLI lifeboats responded to the call for help to evacuate stranded Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk.

Two boats had RNLI crews onboard, while the others were manned by the Royal Navy. The lifeboats and their stand-in crews saved thousands of lives as part of the armarda, while being relentlessly shelled and bombed for days in the Channel.

The first fast motor-powered lifeboat the Sir William Hillary was stationed at Dover before the Second World War. With electricity onboard for lighting, powering a wireless radio and searchlight, it also had had firefighting equipment and room for 50 casualties. Image: RNLI.
The first fast motor-powered lifeboat the Sir William Hillary was stationed at Dover before the Second World War. With electricity onboard for lighting, powering a wireless radio and searchlight, it also had had firefighting equipment and room for 50 casualties. Image: RNLI.

Gallantry

The concept of awards and medals for rescuers was a desire mapped out by the RNLI’s founding fathers right back in 1824.

The charity rewards rescues of special merit with Medals for Gallantry in Bronze, Silver or Gold.

Two RNLI lifeguards in uniform watch over Bournemouth beach – the charity’s lifeguarding service launched in 2001. Image: iStock.
Two RNLI lifeguards in uniform watch over Bournemouth beach – the charity’s lifeguarding service launched in 2001. Image: iStock.

In 1824, Navy Captain Charles Fremantle was awarded the Institution’s first Gold Medal for his attempts to rescue the crew of the Carl Jean off the Hampshire coast.

The youngest medallist is Frederick Carter - given a Silver Medal at 11 for his part in a rescue in Dorset in 1890 in which he rowed through heavy surf to save men whose boat had capsized.

The most recent Gold Medal went to coxswain/mechanic Peter Hewitt Clark in Lerwick for his part in the gale force rescue of the crew of the Green Lily in 1997. While Aileen Jones from Porthcawl was the first female crew member to be awarded a medal in 2005.

The RNLI’s most decorated crew member Henry Blogg, coxswain of Cromer lifeboat, in his jersey, cap and Kapok lifejacket in 1942. Image: RNLI.
The RNLI’s most decorated crew member Henry Blogg, coxswain of Cromer lifeboat, in his jersey, cap and Kapok lifejacket in 1942. Image: RNLI.

The most decorated volunteer is RNLI ‘legend’ Henry Blogg who completed 53 years of service – continuing to work until he was 74.

Henry, who died in 1954 four years after his retirement, was awarded three Gold Medals and four Silver Medals for Gallantry and with the help of his Cromer crew was responsible for saving over 873 lives.

Two hundreds years of RNLI history
Two hundreds years of RNLI history

For more details about donating to the RNLI, becoming a member or its volunteering roles click here.

A Service of Thanksgiving to mark 200 years of the charity will be held in Westminster Abbey on Monday, March 4 and will be livestreamed through the Abbey’s website.



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