FAQs about RNLI history

Find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions we receive about RNLI history.

Archive and collections

How do I donate an item to the RNLI archive or collections?

We welcome offers of donations and are always looking to build upon and increase our knowledge and diversity of objects relating to the RNLI.

We cannot accept all heritage donations that are offered to us – our collections policy helps us decide which items we accept into our archive and collections.

If you would like to donate an item, please provide a description of the object or item, a photograph and your contact details via our online form. Alternatively please write to: RNLI Heritage Team, RNLI, West Quay Road, Poole, Dorset BH15 1HZ.

Can you carry out research on my behalf?

We’re happy to answer enquiries from researchers. But please be aware the RNLI Heritage Team is small and we rely on our volunteers to carry out research for enquiries. As a result, we can only carry out limited heritage research on behalf of individuals.

The RNLI archive and library in Poole are open to the public by appointment and you are very welcome to arrange a visit to consult material relevant to your research. Researchers can also request to view our collections at Poole. You could also consider using an independent researcher. For details, please visit the National Archives website.

How can I obtain a technical lifeboat plan for a model I wish to make?

To request a technical lifeboat plan please contact us via the Heritage contact form.

What records are held in the RNLI archive?

The RNLI archive holds records from our foundation in 1824. The records relate to the administration, key figures, lifeboats, lifeboat stations, medals, fundraising material, legacies and publications of the RNLI. The collection includes minute books and ledgers, a wealth of photographs, posters, publicity material and correspondence.

Who can visit the RNLI archive, library and collections?

Anyone can visit our archive and library in Poole. Visits are by appointment only and can be arranged by contacting our Heritage Team using our online form.

As we have no exhibition space for our collections at Poole, we unfortunately cannot accept visitors to them. However we will consider requests to view our collections by researchers and these can be made via our online form.

Arrange a visit.

How can I become a heritage volunteer?

There are all sorts of heritage volunteering opportunities at the RNLI. Find out about the types of heritage volunteer roles available here.

We advertise our volunteer vacancies on our volunteering recruitment website.

Lifeboat stations

Where were the first lifeboat stations?

There is no simple answer to this question, as it depends on how you define a lifeboat station.

The first lifeboat station is generally considered to be Bamburgh Castle, where a local coble was adapted for service as a lifeboat in 1786. However, the earliest record of a boat being kept specifically for rescuing the shipwrecked was at Formby, Lancashire, in 1777.

A number of purpose-built lifeboats and stations were established from the late 18th century onwards. From 1789-1804, Henry Greathead’s Original lifeboat design was sent to a number of harbours, which sparked the earliest lifeboat stations. These places can claim to have the first lifeboat stations:

Ayr (now served by Troon)
Bawdsey Haven (now served by Harwich and Aldeburgh)
Christchurch (now served by Mudeford)
Douglas (Isle of Man)
North Shields (now served by Tynemouth)
Penzance (Penlee)
Redcar, Holy Island
St Andrews (now served by Anstruther)
St Peter Port
West Whitby
Whitehaven (now served by St Bees and Workington)

It’s difficult to pinpoint the RNLI’s first lifeboat station, as we worked in partnership with existing establishments whilst building our own stations.

By 1825, the RNLI had commissioned 15 new lifeboats and established the first RNLI lifeboat stations at:

Bideford (now served by Appledore)
Boulmer (now an independent rescue service)
Douglas (Isle of Man)
Gibraltar Point, Boston Deeps (now served by Skegness)
Penzance (Penlee)
Rossglass (now served by Newcastle)

Learn more about the first lifeboats.


Can the rnli help us look after our historic lifeboat?

The RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea. We cannot give financial assistance to any external organisation. We recommend that you work on a plan to look after your boat and consider the following:

  • Are you restoring or conserving your vessel?
  • One of the best sources of advice on this is on the website nationalhistoricships.org.uk.
  • Who are you looking after the boat for? Is it the public or for private interest?
  • How will you keep funding the care of the boat?
  • If you plan to publicly display your boat, have you spoken to museums in your local area?

Can the rnli provide us with the correct paint for our boat?

No. The RNLI does not supply paint for ex-service lifeboats but we may be able to advise on what colours your boat would have been .

Can the rnli give us the plans or boat specifications for the boat we are looking after?

Possibly, but not all lifeboat plans have survived. The RNLI holds very few from before the 1950s and most of these are held by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. 

Find out more at rmg.co.uk.

For post-1950s plans please contact us at heritage@rnli.org.uk.

Please bear in mind that lifeboats were continually modified and improved throughout their service so the original build plans may not exactly match the specifications of the vessel in your care.

NHS UK's Conserving Historic Vessels publication may help you to decide whether to conserve your lifeboat incorporating adaptations, or return it to a previous state.

can the rnli give us the service history of our boat?

Yes. In most cases we can provide you with the service history of your boat but the level of detail will vary.

does the rnli have a crew list for our boat?

No. However, we may be able to provide some names and details within the provision of the Data Protection Act.

Does the RNLI have photographs or film of our boat?

We may be able to offer display images from our photographic archives. Please contact us at heritage@rnli.org.uk to request a search.

can the RNLI publicise our boat on its website?

No. The RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea - we cannot advertise your boat.

can we put an rnli flag on our boat?

No. Only operational RNLI Iifeboats and sites can fly an RNLI flag. If your boat has an RNLI roundel this can be used but no other RNLI markings should appear on a vessel that is no longer in our service.

can the rnli help us set up our lifeboat museum?

No. The RNLI has limited funds for heritage. We run seven museums and cannot support external projects.

Speak to your local museum or get in contact with your Museum Development Officer via the Museum Development Network's (MDN) website at museumdevelopmentnetwork.org/contact/ to find out what support is available in your area. The Association of Independent Museums (AIM) also publish Successfully setting up a new museum - A Guide, which is free to download.

can the rnli help us to find a part for our boat?

No. The RNLI cannot trace parts for non-serving lifeboats.