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History

RNLI history photo of crew rowing

Saving lives at sea since 1824

​The RNLI has saved more than 140,000 lives since its foundation in 1824.

The islands of Britain and Ireland have always been at the mercy of the sea. In the early 19th century, there was an average of 1,800 shipwrecks a year around our coasts, and this danger was an accepted part of life onboard. Coastal communities often watched helplessly as vessels foundered.

After witnessing the destruction of dozens of ships from his home on the Isle of Man, and getting involved in rescue attempts himself, Sir William 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’. Our charity was founded on 4 March 1824.

Through the 19th century, volunteers in sail and oar-powered lifeboats took on high seas in rescue after rescue, and the Institution supplied the equipment they needed, including the introduction of cork lifejackets in 1854.

The 20th century saw the RNLI continue to save lives at sea through two world wars. Lifeboats moved from sail and oar power to petrol and diesel, and the first women joined their crews.

Recent years have seen a significant expansion of the service, with the introduction of RNLI lifeguards and the first lifeboat station on an inland waterway, both in 2001.

Read more about key events in the RNLI’s lifesaving history in our interactive timeline or in our downloadable factsheet.