1824: Our foundation

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.

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.

Living in Douglas on the Isle of Man, Hillary saw the treacherous nature of the sea first-hand. He witnessed dozens of shipwrecks around the Manx coast and saved many lives with the help of locals.

In the early 19th century there was an average of 1,800 shipwrecks a year around our coasts. And the danger of shipwreck was an accepted way of life at sea.

But Hillary refused to sit by and watch people drown.

A year earlier on 28 February 1823, Sir William Hillary made an impassioned appeal to the nation.

He published a pamphlet detailing his plans for a lifeboat service manned by trained crews for all of the UK and Ireland.

He sent the pamphlet to the British Navy, ministers and prominent citizens, appealing for the formation of a National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck.  

At the heart of this institution would be ‘a large body of men … in constant readiness to risk their own lives for the preservation of those whom they have never known or seen, perhaps of another nation, merely because they are fellow creatures in extreme peril.’

The priorities of the institution would be ‘first, the preservation of human life from shipwreck …, secondly (provide) assistance to vessels in distress …, thirdly the preservation of vessels and property …, fourthly the prevention of plunder and depredations in case of shipwreck, fifthly the succour and support of those persons who may be rescued …, sixthly the bestowing of suitable rewards on those who rescue the lives of others from shipwreck or who assist vessels in distress …’

But Hillary’s noble idea fell on deaf ears – the Admiralty refused to help.

A change of tack

Sir William Hillary didn’t give up. Instead he rebranded his appeal for the more philanthropic members of London society. And this time it worked.

The idea caught the eye of Thomas Wilson, energetic Liberal MP for Southwark, and shipping magnate George Hibbert, Whig MP for Seaford and Chairman of the West Indies Merchants.

Despite some personal differences, the three men became a formidable force and the campaign rapidly gathered momentum.

An interim committee was appointed while plans were made for a public meeting.

More and more benefactors came onboard, inspired by the committee’s rigorous face-to-face lobbying and advertising of the public meeting.

King George lV assured royal patronage and the Prime Minister Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, agreed to be President.

4 March 1824 - London Tavern, Bishopsgate

An 1809 engraving of the renowned London Tavern in BishopsgateOver 30 eminent gentlemen put their names to the fledgling RNLI at the inaugural public meeting.

Vice-president and Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Charles Manners-Sutton, presided over the meeting. And among the aristocrats, clerics, politicians, naval officers, brokers, bankers, merchants and philanthropists were anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce and sea safety guru Captain George Manby.

The crowd unanimously passed 12 resolutions, including:

‘That an Institution can now be formed … to be supported by donations and annual subscriptions.

‘That such immediate assistance be afforded to persons rescued as their necessities may require.

‘That the subjects of all nations be equally objects of the Institution, as well in war as in peace [and] that medallions or pecuniary rewards be given to those who rescue lives …’

Little did they know that these 12 resolutions would still stand as part of the RNLI’s charter almost 200 years later.

A further nine resolutions, mainly recognising the efforts of the key players, were also met with eager approval.

The best thing to come out of a pub

Painting of Sir William Hillary, founder of the RNLI from the mid 19th century. Oil on canvas. Artist unknown.

Praised as the ‘Father of the Institution’, it was a landmark moment for Sir William Hillary, whose vision had finally become a reality.

King George lV graciously granted the Royal prefix to the Institution’s name, making it the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck.

Two months later, Sir William Hillary wrote:

‘ … this Institution has been [honoured] by the high patronage of the King … sanctioned by many of the most distinguished characters in the church and state, and sustained by the bounty of a generous nation … 

‘It only remains for me to express the heartfelt satisfaction … that this Institution is now established on principles which will extend its beneficial effects to the most distant shores, and to generations yet unborn.’

A change of name

On 5 October 1854, the Institution’s name was changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – the RNLI – as we are known today.

RNLI and the slave trade

Some individuals linked to the slave trade, as well as abolitionists, helped to create the early RNLI.

Founder Sir William Hillary had friends on both sides, including anti-slave trade campaigners William Wilberforce and Samuel Hoare who were both instrumental in establishing our institution. The RNLI’s first President, Robert Jenkinson (the then Prime Minister Lord Liverpool), was initially against the abolition of slavery but, by 1824, he was strenuously in favour of the abolition of the international slave trade. Hillary’s views on the matter were not documented. We found no evidence to suggest he sought to be involved with slavery, but he did inherit a share of a plantation with slaves in the early 1800s. Hillary was in debt at the time and we understand his holdings were passed to George Hibbert.

Hibbert was a prominent MP, merchant and slave owner. He was also influential in the RNLI's formation and became one of its many Vice Presidents. Other Vice Presidents we know owned slaves included William Manning MP and Nathan Rothschild. The Chairman of the East India Company was also a Vice President, and the RNLI’s first President, Robert Jenkinson (the then Prime Minister), was against abolition. Some early RNLI donors were linked to the slave trade too. Therefore, we think it’s likely that some of the first lifeboats were partly funded by those profiting from slavery. 

That was their watch – but it’s Our Watch now. The RNLI today does not support or tolerate slavery in any way. We are committed to ensuring that modern slavery and human trafficking are not present in any RNLI supply chains. Find out what we’re doing today to make a difference.