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Wooden lifeboat attempts to rescue the crew of a sinking ketch

Our history

The brave volunteers of the RNLI have been saving lives at sea since 1824. Across the years many things have changed, but the courage and commitment of our lifesavers has continued to the present day, as we work towards our goal of saving every one.

The story of the RNLI is one of courage and dedication. Across our 200-year history, RNLI lifesavers have answered the call to rescue. Day or night. On calm seas or into ferocious storms. If someone is in peril at sea, the RNLI will do all we can to save them.

Since the charity launched its first lifeboat in 1824, the RNLI has saved more than 146,000 lives at sea.

North country’s Zetland lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/Grahame Farr Archives

Our timeline

Take a look back at some of the major milestones in the story of the RNLI. Read stories of incredible courage and heartbreaking tragedy, and learn about some of the many lifesaving innovations the RNLI has pioneered across its history.

Men on shore prepare to haul the lifeboat Elizabeth and Albina Whitley onto a Yorkshire beach.

Photo: RNLI

200th anniversary

2024 sees the RNLI celebrate 200 years of saving lives at sea and we have lots of exciting things lined up to commemorate this milestone. Take a look at what we have planned and find out how you can get involved in the celebrations.

Lots to see and do at the Grace Darling Museum

Find my nearest museum

Get a closer look at some of the many amazing artifacts and exhibits from our history by visiting an RNLI museum.
1932: Three lifeboat crew collectors on London Lifeboat Day
London Lifeboat Day in 1932

Contact our heritage team

Have a question about the history of the RNLI? Want to learn more about a specific lifeboat, rescue or lifesaver? Or have a piece of memorabilia that you want to share with us? The RNLI's heritage team are ready to answer your questions.

Delve deeper into RNLI history

Painting of RNLI founder, Sir William Hillary. Oil on canvas. Artist unknown. Circa mid 19th century.
Since 1824 we’ve pioneered developments in lifesaving at sea. And our lifesavers have shown unfailing courage and selflessness.
Explore the RNLI's history
Men on shore prepare to haul the lifeboat Elizabeth and Albina Whitley onto a Yorkshire beach.
200 years and counting – on you
2024 marks 200 years of the RNLI saving lives at sea. See how you can commemorate our past, celebrate our present and support our future.
More on our Bicentenary
1932: Three lifeboat crew collectors on London Lifeboat Day
Contact us
Use our online enquiry form to ask a question, arrange visits, donate items and more.
Get In touch
A Lifeboat Saturday poster from the RNLI archive
Archive and library
Preserving our rich heritage through our archive, library and collections means our story can be shared for years to come.
Learn more
Model of Clovelly RNLI’s self-righting pulling and sailing lifeboat, Alexander and Matilda (Boetefeur) from the RNLI historic collections at Poole
We celebrate our history through our historic collections based at our Support Centre in Poole and at our six museums.
Discover more
The Story of the Life-boat Coronation Number
The RNLI’s Patrons: a history of royal heritage
In 2017, the RNLI received a gift of £2,500 from The Patron’s Fund to catalogue and digitise records in the archive relating to our Royal Patrons.
Learn more
Black and white image of RNLI display in Charing Cross Underground Station
Forgotten photos of the RNLI
Forgotten photos brings thousands of historic photographs back to life.
Learn more
Black and white image of Donaghadee lifeboat, Sir Samuel Kelly, while on trials
Calm Before the Storm exhibition

Calm Before the Storm: The Art of Photographing Lifeboats marks the digitisation of 850 glass plate negatives of lifeboats. It celebrates significant moments in the life of individual lifeboats and their volunteer crews, from starting service to saving lives at sea.

Learn more
1940 war damage on Eastbourne lifeboat Jane Holland
Dunkirk: Relied upon then, relied upon now
Take a look back at the RNLI and Dunkirk, and read more stories of lifesaving courage, as shown by our volunteers then and now.
read on
Entrance to the RNLI Whitby Museum
Our museums
Our museums bring some of our incredible stories of courage to life. Use our search to find your nearest RNLI museum.
Come visit
RNLI Memorial sculpture, depicting a person in a boat saving another from the water
RNLI Memorial 
Designed to be a beacon of hope, the RNLI Memorial honours the courage of all those lost at sea while endeavouring to save others.
Learn more
Whitby RNLI’s historic William Riley lifeboat with Tynemouth’s all-weather Severn class lifeboat and Sunderland’s B class Atlantic 85 lifeboat
Looking for an overview of our courageous history? Our downloadable resources are full of useful information for you to print and share.
Take a look
1933: Newquay RNLI’s self-righting class lifeboat,  Admiral Sir George Back,  being towed through the streets on a carriage by horses
Where was our first lifeboat station? Do we provide lifeboat plans for model makers? Find the answers to these questions and more.
Browse questions