RNLI lifeboat in action
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When Sir William Hillary was born in 1771, England was starting to go through some major changes, both socially and economically and with our growing hunger to discover what lay beyond our own shores; ship transport and sea travel was becoming increasingly important, with longer voyages and an increase in sea going traffic.

Human life was also becoming more valued with the Abolition of Slavery Act; reforms of the death penalty, reducing the number of crimes punishable by hanging and Robert Peel establishing the first modern police force.

The foundations were being laid for a more caring and conscientious society.

But with so much happening on terra firma, what made Sir Hillary think help was needed off land; what was the catalyst that set Sir William Hillary on the road to sea rescue?

When Hillary moved to Douglas on the Isle of Man, he was horrified to hear about the many tragic disasters that happened at sea. The destruction of the Manx fishing fleet in September 1787, when some 50 ships were lost and 161 crew members drowned in Douglas Bay, had a profound effect on him and left him feeling deeply saddened. He couldn’t believe that it hadn’t occurred to anyone to try and help the floundering vessel, even the families of the crew merely stood at the shoreline waiting for the bodies to be washed ashore.

However it was as a result of Hillary’s personal involvement in the rescue of 97 crew members from the Royal Navy Cutter ‘Vigilant‘ in the early hours of 6 October 1822, that he decided something had to be done to not only highlight the tragedies that were happening unnoticed but also to do what he could to help anyone who was in difficulties whilst at sea.

Hillary’s reputation amongst the movers and shakers of the early 19th century was already well established, so when he put his plans in motion, he didn’t hesitate in approaching the navy, government ministers and even the royal family.

His aim was to establish “a national institution for the preservation of lives and property from shipwreck”.

His first attempts were met with a respectable nod of agreement but nothing more; however Hillary had the courage of his convictions and continued to canvass the authorities until he eventually persuaded them to assemble at the City of London Tavern in Bishopsgate on 12 February 1824.

It was finally on 4 March 1824 that a charity was founded with royal patronage from King George IV; the Prime Minister became the charity’s president and a host of other dignitaries gave their full support. The famous 19th century reformer, William Wilberforce, said of the group “for such is it the duty of the opulent to provide”.

The National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was born.


Over the years the organisation grew in size and importance and it was due to another major breakthrough in 1854, when life jackets made of cork were issued to members that the safety of the crew was greatly improved and their importance truly recognised.

It was also in 1854 that the name of the organisation was changed to the more familiar Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the RNLI.

Some 30 years later, a Miss Leonora Preston designed the RNLI’s flag; based on St George’s Cross, the flag was formally adopted in 1908. Interestingly enough, the original flag had the Tudor style crown pictured above the anchor, but this was changed to the St Edward’s crown in 1953.

The Institution now has more than 40,000 volunteers and there are 235 lifeboat stations in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland and since its formation in 1824, the RNLI have saved more than 139,000 lives.

The RNLI continued to operate throughout both world wars, helping with the incredible Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. Codenamed Operation Dynamo, 338,000 troops were rescued from French beaches.

The design of the boats inevitably evolved over time, changing from man power to steam to petrol with hovercrafts appearing in 2002.

RNLI lifeguards were introduced in 2001 along with the first inland waterway lifeboat station in Enniskillen.

A rather surprising statistic is the number of rescues carried out on inland waterways. The Tower lifeboat station that is situated on the River Thames directly below Waterloo Bridge was the busiest RNLI station. There were 380 rescue missions and 148 people rescued in 2009.

The second busiest station is a little less surprising; Poole where they also have their headquarters and training facility. The third busiest station is another inland waterway; Chiswick who launched 186 times and rescued a total of 78 people.

If it wasn’t for Sir William Hillary, it is unlikely that the RNLI would exist and many thousands of lives would have been lost, but their continued existence is entirely due to fundraising and the generosity of their supporters, as they have no financial assistance from the Government.

“The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness”.
Joseph Conrad (English novelist)

For more information on the RNLI or to make a donation, please visit their web site www.rnli.org.uk

You can also follow them on Twitter @RNLI; these are just 3 rescues carried out in the space of a few hours:

Off-duty #RNLI lifeboat crew member leads rescue of man overboard from tanker, found clinging to anchor chain

RESCUE: Second ‘shout’ in three days for #RNLI Port Talbot lifeboat in search for two missing surfers

RESCUE: Redcar #RNLI lifeboat launched after man is seen climbing Transporter bridge over River Tees in Middlesborough

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution – The Heroes Of The Sea

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