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Happy birthday RNLI!

It’s time to light the candles, bring out the bunting and warm up the vocal chords for a heartfelt rendition of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ – the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) is 200 years old today! (*Fires off a party popper*). Yes, on 4 March 1824 this lifesaving charity was founded as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck and over the last two centuries has saved thousands of lives at sea – and is still doing it.

As a museum that celebrates all our emergency services we’re very proud to share the story of the RNLI in various ways – through our ‘Guarding the Coast’ exhibition, in our school workshops, and at events like our 999 Day. And the 47 foot lifeboat on display in our backyard is very hard to miss! So of course our blog today had to mark this memorable milestone as we look back at the history of this amazing organisation and the people who put themselves at risk every day to save lives at sea.

The RNLI lifeboat 'City of Sheffield' is one of the museum's most popular exhibits.


The coastlines of Britain and Ireland are treacherous places. Yet the sea has always been crucial to the development, prosperity and history of any island nation, and ships large and small had no choice but to venture out into its dangerous waters. For many years coastal communities had watched helplessly as vessels foundered, despite locals often doing their best to help in small boats with little to no equipment.

Sir William Hillary was the man who decided more had to be done to save those in peril on the sea. After a distinguished career serving as equerry to one of the sons of King George III, and later as the founder of the First Essex Legion of infantry and cavalry, Hillary had settled in the Isle of Man in 1808. From his home he had witnessed the wrecking of dozens of ships, including HMS Racehorse in 1822, and had even taken part in rescue attempts himself.

Convinced a more organised approach was needed, and realising the potential of many of the new lifesaving techniques emerging at that time, Hillary appealed to the Navy, the government and other eminent characters for help in forming ‘a national institution for the preservation of lives and property from shipwreck’. At first there was little interest from the Admiralty. (HM Coastguard had been founded in 1822 but with an emphasis on patrolling the coast to stop smuggling). But with the support of London MP Thomas Wilson and West India Merchants’ Chairman George Hibbert, plus others, he prevailed and the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was founded as a charity on 4 March 1824. It became the RNLI in 1854.

William Hillary

After his plans came to fruition, Hillary continued to aid in rescues on the Isle of Man. He was awarded three medals by the organisation he founded, the last a gold medal in 1830 for his part in the rescue of the St George, when he was 60 years old. He died in 1847, at the age of 76. Almost a century later, in 1937, Sir William’s profile was added to the gold, silver and bronze medals awarded by the RNLI for gallantry – and there it remains to this day.

William Hillary features on the RNLI silver, gold and bronze medal.

Technological leaps

When Sir William Hillary was lobbying for the creation of what would become the RNLI he recognised that new technologies were being developed that could contribute to more effective lifesaving at sea.

In 1785 London coachbuilder Lionel Lukin created an early lifeboat called a  ‘coble’ that used cork and other lightweight materials, pockets of air in watertight bulkheads, and buoyant gunwhales (the top sides of the boat) to make the vessel safer. But it was Henry Greathead who would earn the title of the inventor of the lifeboat with the creation of a self-righting lifeboat, the ‘Original’. Greathead built 31 Original-type lifeboats but never took out a patent, preferring to share his plans for the good of others. In 1851 James Beeching and James Peake produced the design for the Beeching-Peake SR (self-righting) lifeboat which became the standard model for the new RNLI fleet.

The Beeching-Peake lifeboat (L) and the Manby Mortar contributed to more effective lifesaving at sea.

The Manby Mortar was invented by Captain George William Manby. This mortar fired a shot with a line attached from the shore to a wrecked vessel, which was then used to pull heavier rescue ropes to the ship. It could send a line much further than any human could. The first recorded rescue using the Manby apparatus was in 1808. It was estimated that by the time of Manby's death in 1854 nearly 1000 people had been rescued from stranded ships by means of this apparatus.

The advances kept coming. It was an RNLI inspector, Captain Ward, who came up with a new design for a cork lifejacket in 1854. Steam lifeboats arrived in 1890 and the first motor lifeboat in 1905.

Famous faces

The RNLI awarded its first gold medal for gallantry in 1824. The recipient was Charles Fremantle, a member of Lymington Coastguard, who was recognised for swimming out to the stricken Swedish brig Carl Jean in an attempt to free the ship’s lifeboats and rescue the crew. Brian Bevan, former coxswain at Humber Lifeboat Station, is the only crew member in RNLI history to be presented with bronze, silver and gold medals for gallantry at the same awards ceremony for three rescues in the space of seven weeks in 1978-9.

Of the hundreds of people who have been recognised by an RNLI gold, silver or bronze medal over the last two centuries, the most famous is arguably Grace Darling, She was just 22 when, on 7 September 1838, she and her father William, the keeper at Longstone Lighthouse in Northumberland, rowed out in terrible weather to rescue survivors of the SS Forfarshire. The ship had been pulled into Big Harcar Rock, about a mile from the lighthouse, and had broken in two. At first light Grace and William rowed out to the wreck and managed to bring the first group of survivors back to shore. While Grace stayed behind to tend to the injured, William and two of the surviving crewmen went back to complete the rescue. Both Grace and her father received a silver medal and Grave became a national heroine. She is remembered at the Grace Darling museum in Bamburgh.

Grace Darling became a national heroine for her part in the rescue of the SS Forfarshire.

Whereas Grace is remembered for one extraordinary act, Henry Blogg is honoured for a lifetime of lifesaving. Henry is the most decorated lifeboatman in RNLI history, counting a George Cross among his many awards. In an astonishing 53 years with the Cromer lifeboat in Norfolk, including 38 years as coxswain, he is credited with saving 873 lives.

Lives lost

Given the incredible bravery shown by RNLI crews, and the awful conditions they often have to face, it’s no surprise that volunteers have given their lives for the cause in the last two centuries. The single worst incident occurred on 10 December 1886 when 27 lifeboatmen died attempting to rescue the crew of the German ship, Mexico. The vessel was caught in a violent gale and ran aground on the perilous sandbanks in the Ribble Estuary in Lancashire. The Eliza Fernley from Southport and the Laura Janet from Lytham St Anne’s launched but capsized; 27 of the 29 crew members were drowned.

Although this remains the worst loss of crew in a single incident in RNLI history it was sadly not the first, or the last, time that RNLI crew members were lost. As recently as 1981 16 people were killed, including eight lifeboatmen, at Penlee in Cornwall when the Solomon Browne was lost while attempting to rescue the crew of the MV Union Star.

The memorial to the crew of the Penlee lifeboat near Porthcurno, Cornwall.

Changing times

The way people use the sea has changed dramatically since the establishment of the RNLI. Today most people use the water for leisure, meaning the RNLI has had to adapt its lifesaving service accordingly. In 2001 RNLI lifeguards began patrolling some of the more popular beaches around the UK. Today the charity patrols over 200 beaches, rescues thousands of people every year and provides vital first aid and safety advice. 2001 also saw the RNLI’s first station on an inland waterway and a year later four lifeboat stations were set up along the River Thames. One of these, Tower, is now one of the RNLI’s busiest stations.

RNLI lifeboats are a regular sight along the coast and many stations are tourist attractions with museums and even gift shops. But the primary role of these statiions is still to launch the all-essential lifeboat. Modern lifeboats like the Shannon and Tamar are equipped with state-of-the art technology and safety features that take them a world away from the wooden rowing boats of old.

The state-of-the-art Shannon class lifeboat is among the modern fleet of RNLI vessels.

Environmental change has also increased demand on the RNLI. The Flood Rescue Team was formed in 2000 to respond to floods anywhere in the UK or Ireland within six hours. This has since expanded to include an international Flood Rescue Team that can deploy anywhere in the world within 24 hours.

What hasn’t changed is the astonishing bravery and dedication of the amazing RNLI crews, most of whom are still volunteers who will drop everything to respond to an emergency when the call comes in. For two centuries they have risked their own safety to save lives at sea. On the RNLI's 200th birthday, we salute them.

To find out more about the work of the RNLI go to


Guarding the Coast exhibition – National Emergency Services Museum

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