Since 1824 we’ve pioneered developments in lifesaving at sea. And our lifesavers have shown unfailing courage and selflessness. Delve into the history of the RNLI through our timeline and discover key events and innovations in our lifesaving history.
The first lifeboats
Lionel Lukin paved the way for the first purpose-built lifeboat when he designed the world’s first unsinkable boat and patented it in 1785.
Sir William Hillary’s vision for a service dedicated to saving lives at sea became a reality in Bishopsgate’s trendy London Tavern on 4 March 1824.
First RNLI Gold Medal
In 1824, Charles Fremantle was awarded the first RNLI Gold Medal for bravery when he swam out to a Swedish brig stranded off the coast of Christchurch.
Grace Darling became a national heroine after risking her life to save the stranded survivors of the wrecked steamship Forfarshire in 1838.
RNLI Inspector, Captain Ward, broke new ground in lifesaving in 1854 with his invention of the cork lifejacket.
Whitby lifeboat disaster
During a huge storm on 9 February 1861, a Whitby lifeboat capsized, throwing the crew overboard. Only one member of the crew, Henry Freeman, survived.
The Zetland’s final launch
Built in 1802, the Zetland is the oldest surviving lifeboat in the world and saved over 500 lives during her service.
Design of the RNLI flag
In 1884, Leonora Preston designed the RNLI flag after her brother was rescued by Ramsgate lifeboat volunteers.
Southport and St Annes lifeboats disaster
On 10 December 1886, 27 lifeboatmen lost their lives whilst attempting to rescue the crew from the German barque Mexico.
First steam-driven lifeboat
Between them, the RNLI’s three hydraulic steam-driven lifeboats were in service for over 40 years and saved 570 lives.
First street collection
After the Mexico disaster and the loss of 27 lifeboatmen, a small team organised an event in Manchester that changed the face of fundraising forever.
Launch from Porlock Weir
During a severe gale, Lynmouth volunteers dragged their lifeboat for 13 miles to launch in aid of a vessel in distress.
First motor lifeboat
The evolution from sail to petrol, and later petrol to diesel, revolutionised the RNLI’s lifesaving capacity.
The Suevic rescue
The Suevic rescue in 1907 set the record for the largest number of people saved in a single operation in RNLI history – a record that still stands today.
The Great War
During the First World War (1914–1918), lifeboats launched 1,808 times and saved 5,332 lives.
First RNLI Bronze Medals
Introduced in 1917, the first RNLI Bronze Medals for Gallantry were created for Cromer lifeboat crew members who rescued 33 people in a 14-hour shout.
Foundation of the Irish Free State
When the Irish Free State was established in 1922, RNLI volunteers at lifeboat stations all around the island continued to save lives at sea.
First fast motor-powered lifeboat
The first fast motor lifeboat to arrive at the newly reopened Dover Lifeboat Station in 1930 was one of a kind.
Last horse-powered launch
The arrival of the motor lifeboat Royal Silver Jubilee at Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk marked the end of the iconic sight of horses pulling lifeboats.
Daunt Rock rescue
On 7 February 1936, Ballycotton lifeboat volunteers endured 49 hours at sea in a gale and bitter cold to save the crew of the Daunt Rock lightship.
Second World War
Despite having to contend with extremely dangerous conditions, RNLI lifeboat crews saved 6,376 lives between 1939 and 1945.
Dunkirk little ships
On 30 May 1940, two RNLI crews joined an armada of little ships for one of the Second World War’s greatest rescues: Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk.
Henry Blogg retires
In 1947, at the age of 71, RNLI legend Henry Blogg drew 53 years of service as a lifeboat crew member to a close.
Inflatable lifeboats were introduced to our fleet to help crews reach areas close to shore, cliffs and caves and remain the workhorse of the RNLI today.
First trained woman on the crew
Eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Hostvedt became the first woman qualified to command an inshore lifeboat.
Rigid inflatable lifeboats
Research in the 1960s produced the RNLI’s first rigid inflatable lifeboat, the B class Atlantic 21, allowing more agile rescues closer to shore.
Bronze, Silver and Gold
Former Humber Coxswain, Brian Bevan MBE, is the only crew member to receive Bronze, Silver and Gold Medals for Gallantry at the same awards ceremony.
Penlee lifeboat disaster
On 19 December 1981, the crew of the Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne were lost attempting to rescue the crew and passengers onboard a stricken coaster.
The Tyne class lifeboat
Twice as fast as the motor lifeboats she was designed to replace, the first fast slipway boat – the Tyne class lifeboat – launched in 1982.
The Mersey class lifeboat
The Mersey class lifeboat – the RNLI’s first fast carriage lifeboat - is a lightweight sea-going boat designed for launching from the beach.
The Trent class lifeboat
Built to provide the quickest possible response service, the new 25-knot Trent class lifeboat proved a swift and enduring addition to the RNLI fleet.
The Safety at Sea initiative
In 1995, sea safety bodies and marine industries joined forces with the RNLI to ensure prevention messages reached those most in danger at sea.
The Severn class lifeboat
In the late 1980s, the RNLI realised that its fleet needed upgrading in order to save more lives saved at sea. Enter the 25-knot Severn class lifeboat.
Formation of the RNLI Flood Rescue Team
After helping in the Mozambique floods of 2000, the RNLI formed its own Flood Rescue Team to respond to emergencies in the UK, Ireland and beyond.
First inland lifeboat station
Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, is home to the RNLI’s first non-tidal inshore lifeboat station.
RNLI lifeguards starting patrolling beaches in 2001 and are now an essential part of our seamless rescue service from the beach to the open sea.
Lifeboats on the Thames
RNLI lifeboats have been operating on the River Thames since 2 January 2002 from our lifeboat stations at Chiswick, Gravesend, Teddington and Tower.
Hovercraft joins the RNLI fleet
Introduced in 2002, the RNLI inshore rescue hovercraft has enabled us to carry out our vital rescue work in areas inaccessible to conventional lifeboats.
First gallantry medal for lifeguarding
In May 2003, Rod MacDonald became the first RNLI lifeguard to receive an RNLI Medal for Gallantry.
RNLI College opens
RNLI College is the home of RNLI training and was opened by Her Majesty The Queen on 28 July 2004, when it was known as the Lifeboat College.
First lifeboatwoman awarded gallantry medal
In 2005, Aileen Jones became the first female lifeboat crew member to receive an RNLI Medal of Gallantry.
The Tamar class lifeboat
Our new Tamar class lifeboat was designed with speed and crew safety in mind.
RNLI Memorial Sculpture
The RNLI Memorial sculpture brings together the names of each and every RNLI crew member who sacrificed their life to save the lives of others.
Flood Rescue Team receives first gallantry medals
After a brave rescue in treacherous conditions, the Flood Rescue Team were awarded their first medals for gallantry.
The Shannon class lifeboat
In-house manufacture of the Shannon class lifeboat brings a new era of lifesaving to the RNLI.
The All-weather Lifeboat Centre opens
Our All-weather Lifeboat Centre brings the construction, repair and maintenance of our all-weather lifeboats under one roof for the first time in RNLI history.