RNLI turns 200 and celebrates over 146,000 lives saved

Ballycotton crew 1936. M.C. Walsh Mech. T Sliney, 2nd Cox, J.L.Walsh, J.S. Sliney. Cox Patrick Sliney, T D Walsh, W Sliney. and a dog. Ballycotton crew 1936. M.C. Walsh Mech. T Sliney, 2nd Cox, J.L.Walsh, J.S. Sliney. Cox Patrick Sliney, T D Walsh, W Sliney. and a dog.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) is marking its 200th anniversary today. The lifesaving charity has released new figures showing its volunteer lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved 146,277 lives in the UK and Ireland during its two centuries of lifesaving — an average of two lives saved every day for 200 years.

Founded in a London tavern on 4 March 1824 following an appeal from Sir William Hillary, who lived on the Isle of Man and witnessed many shipwrecks, the RNLI has continued saving lives at sea throughout the tests of its history, including tragic disasters, funding challenges and two World Wars.

Exmouth station. ON 1012. Solent class. 48-009. 'City of Birmingham'
Lifeboat crew in yellow oilskins and beaufort lifejackets on bow deck of lifeboat, 1974.

Since the charity was founded in 1824, its volunteer crews have launched the lifeboats 380,328 times, saving 144,277 lives, while its lifeguards – who became part of the RNLI’s lifesaving service in 2001 – have responded to 303,030 incidents on some of the UK’s busiest beaches, saving 2,000 lives according to RNLI operational data.

Two centuries have seen vast developments in the lifeboats and kit used by the charity’s lifesavers – from the early oar-powered vessels to today’s technology-packed boats, which are now built in-house by the charity; and from the rudimentary cork lifejackets of the 1850s to the full protective kit each crew member is now issued with.

A black and white photograph from 1916 on the left side of the screen next to the same, colourised, image on the right. They show a seated man dressed in RNLI oilskins and a sou’wester.
Colourised image of the most decorated RNLI lifesaver, Henry Blogg, who was born on 6 February 1876.

Last month, the charity brought some of its rich history to life with the release of a stunning collection of colourised images.

The RNLI’s lifesaving reach and remit has also developed over the course of 200 years. Today, it operates 238 lifeboat stations around the UK and Ireland, including four on the River Thames, and has seasonal lifeguards on over 240 lifeguarded beaches around the UK. It designs and builds its own lifeboats and runs domestic and international water safety programmes.

An early typical Lifeboat Saturday Parade at Southsea, Portsmouth, with crowds lining the streets - 1902. RNLB Heyland?
An early typical Lifeboat Saturday Parade at Southsea, Portsmouth, with crowds lining the streets, 1902.

While much has changed in 200 years, two things have remained the same – the charity’s dependence on volunteers, who give their time and commitment to save others, and the voluntary contributions from the public, which have funded the service for the past two centuries.

‘It has been an honour and a privilege to be at the helm of the RNLI for the past five years, and to see the charity reach its bicentenary,” says RNLI chief executive, Mark Dowie. “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 tests of time, including tragic losses, funding challenges, two World Wars and, more recently, a global pandemic.

Lifeboats on the Thames become operational on 2 Jan 2002. E fast rescue boats from the stations at Gravesend, Tower Pier and Chiswick moving at speed left to right past the location of the Tower Pier lifeboat station.
Lifeboats on the Thames became operational on 2 January 2002.

“Today, we mark the bicentenary of the RNLI. We remember the achievements and commitment of all those who have been part of the RNLI family over the past two centuries; we celebrate the world-class lifesaving service we provide today, based on our 200 years of learning, expertise and innovation, and we hope to inspire future generations of lifesavers and supporters who will take the RNLI into its next century and beyond.

“I am immensely grateful to everyone who is involved with the charity – our volunteers, supporters and staff. This is our watch, and it is our role to keep our charity safe and secure so it can continue to save lives into the future as we strive in our vision to save everyone.’

The Lizard lifeboat of 1907 the Admiral Sir George Back, and its crew of volunteers. The lifeboat went to the aid of the Suevic liner which ran aground on rocks. Black and white photo. Cadgwith.
The Lizard lifeboat of 1907, the Admiral Sir George Back, and its crew of volunteers. The lifeboat went to the aid of the Suevic liner, which ran aground on rocks.

RNLI heritage archive and research manager Hayley Whiting adds: “The RNLI’s founder, Sir William Hillary, witnessed the treacherous nature of the sea first-hand when living on the Isle of Man, and he wanted to take action.

“His first appeal to the nation in 1823 did not have the desired result but, thankfully, he persevered and gained the support of several philanthropic members of society, who put their names to the charity at a meeting in the City of London Tavern on 4 March 1824.

“Twelve resolutions were passed at that meeting, the core of which still stand as part of the RNLI’s Charter 200 years later. This shows how the RNLI’s values and purpose have remained unwavering for 200 years despite the social and economic changes and challenges of the past two centuries.

“Hillary’s vision was ambitious and forward-thinking, and no doubt he would be extremely proud to see the charity he founded still going strong today, and to see how much it has achieved.”

Aberystwyth. Early trials of D class
Early trials of D class vessel in Aberystwyth.

The charity has a history of innovation, and adapting to challenging circumstances, such as:

  • Lifejackets: In 1861, Whitby lifeboat crew launched six times to rescue stricken vessels in a storm, but on their sixth launch, a freak wave capsized the lifeboat and all but one of the crew were lost. The sole survivor was Henry Freeman, who survived because he was wearing a new design of cork lifejacket. After this event, the cork lifejacket became more widely adopted by lifeboat crews.

  • Fundraising: In 1886, 27 lifeboat crew members from Southport and St Annes lost their lives while trying to rescue the crew of the Mexico. A public appeal was launched, driven by local man Charles Macara. An 1891 appeal raised £10,000 in two weeks. On 1 October, Charles and his wife Marion organised the first Lifeboat Saturday. Bands, floats and lifeboats paraded through the streets of Manchester, followed by volunteers collecting money. More than £5,000 was taken on the day, which was the first recorded example of a charity street collection.

  • Lifeboats: In 1914, over 140 people were saved when the hospital steamship Rohilla was wrecked. The ship had been en route to Dunkirk to help wounded soldiers but was broken up when it ran aground on rocks near Whitby. Five lifeboats battled terrible seas to reach the ship. A motor lifeboat (the first of its kind) from Tynemouth, took the last 50 people on board. In total, 144 people were saved by the crews, who worked for over 50 hours in atrocious conditions. The motor lifeboat proved its capabilities and became more widely accepted by lifeboat crews after this event.

  • Wartime: When the First World War broke out, many lifeboat volunteers were called away to fight. The average age of lifeboat crews at home increased to over 50. During 1914-18, RNLI lifeboats launched 1,808 times, saving 5,332 lives. In 1939, young lifeboat volunteers were called away again to war. By the end of the Second World War, RNLI crews had saved 6,376 lives around the coasts of Britain and Ireland.
Lytham Lifeboat 'Charles Biggs' with the men that went to the wreck of the 'Mexico' on the 12th Dec 1886 and rescued her crew of 12. The St Annes and Southport lifeboats both capsized with the loss of 27 men - the RNLI's worst disaster.The man in black is the Master of the 'Mexico', captain Gustave Burmester. Original photo from Lytham Lifeboat Museum archives. Landscape.
Lytham Lifeboat Charles Biggs with the men that went to the wreck of the Mexico in December 1886 and rescued a crew of 12. The St Annes and Southport lifeboats both capsized with the loss of 27 men — the RNLI’s worst disaster.

In 1940, 19 RNLI lifeboats were used to evacuate troops from Dunkirk. Two had RNLI crews onboard, while the others were crewed by the Royal Navy. The lifeboats and their stand-in crews saved thousands of lives while being shelled and bombed for days.

Throughout its bicentenary year, the charity is running events and activities to remember its history and celebrate the modern lifesaving service it is today.

RNLI memorial ceremony. Picture shows the memorial with the Lifeboat College behind. Poole. Flag
RNLI memorial in Poole with the Lifeboat College behind.

A service of thanksgiving to mark 200 years of the RNLI took place at Westminster Abbey in London this morning at 11.30am. It was attended by representatives from RNLI lifesaving communities around the UK and Ireland.

Main image of Ballycotton crew 1936. All images courtesy of RNLI.

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This article was written and/or edited by the UK-based MIN team.

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