RNLI Heritage Archive and Research Manager Hayley Whiting

Hayley joined the RNLI in October 2013 as the first ever professional archivist to look after the charity’s archive collection. We catch up with Hayley to find out more about her role in preserving and unlocking the potential in our 190-year-old heritage.

Hayley Whiting, the RNLI’s Heritage Archive and Research Manager

Photo: RNLI / David Welton

Hayley Whiting, the RNLI’s Heritage Archive and Research Manager.
I believe that preserving our past is so important for our future and that the archive can be used by the RNLI to educate and inspire.
Hayley Whiting
Heritage Archive and Research Manager

What does your job involve?

The Heritage Team manages a collection of over 20,000 objects and archives, which include everything from the first ever minutes of the meeting hosted by Sir William Hillary to set up the institution back in 1824, through to merchandise, artwork and collection tins:

My role is to safeguard and preserve our archive collection so it is here for future generations and to ensure that it is added to. The archive isn’t a closed store – every aspect of the RNLI today will one day be reflected in the archive. This involves carrying out preservation work, such as making sure items are stored in the appropriate way and in the right conditions. It also involves removing things like paperclips, elastic bands, post-it notes, which over time will corrode and cause damage to the original paper.
Another very important part of my role is about making our archive accessible so people have an opportunity to learn about our history. We want the RNLI and the public to be able to learn from it and unlock its potential.

Archivists also catalogue collections, which means describing each item so we can easily search for items and respond to research requests. We still have large parts of our archive that we need to fully explore, so cataloguing is a key priority.

And of course all of this is building on the incredible work that our archive volunteers Barry Cox and Peter Moorman have been doing for so many years. Barry started looking after the library and archive in 1987 and they are both key in supporting our enquiry service.

Where do we keep the RNLI archive?

Our central records are stored in a purpose built facility on the ground floor of the Sir William Hillary Building in Poole support centre. Alongside the archive, we have a library that includes books on the RNLI and lifeboats, journals and other research resources which are available to everyone to use if they’d like to learn more about our heritage.
We also have RNLI museums around the country and many lifeboat stations have their own archives that tell the story of the station and the RNLI in that area.

What’s the most unusual thing we have in our archive?

There are so many wide-ranging items and records. A particularly interesting item is a letter written by a stewardess to her husband while she was on the Titanic. Mary Roberts survived the disaster, and then went on to work on HMHS Rohilla. This ship also sank after striking rocks in 1914, and Mary was one of the 144 to be rescued by RNLI crews.

Why do you think preserving the history of the RNLI so important?

The RNLI’s history is about innovation and pioneering new ideas – we were the first national lifeboat organisation to be established. In order to move forward you need to look back at our past, learn from it, recognise our achievements and remember the sacrifices that people have made. The history of the RNLI is a fascinating one, and something that is so powerful and really captivates members of the public. I believe that preserving our past is so important for our future and that the archive can be used by the RNLI to educate and inspire.

How can supporters learn more about our heritage?

We're very happy to help with any heritage-related enquiries. We assist with a wide range of internal and external enquiries relating to the history of the RNLI which can include station histories, family history research, research on lifeboats and much more! We’re always very happy to help provide access to information for these and other research projects. There’s a wealth of information at our fingertips and we want to make sure everyone can access it.

All enquiries can be sent to Heritage@rnli.org.uk

What’s the best thing about your job?

It’s the unique opportunity I have to work on a collection that has so much potential. Plus I’m looking forward to working with more and more people across the RNLI to help them all unlock the potential in our archive.

How did you become an archivist?

I studied history at university and for my dissertation I did some work at the Berkshire Record Office. I found it fascinating working with original records, so after graduating I went to work at Oxfam in their archives. I went on to study for a Masters in Archiving, which then led me to work at the Bank of England Archive. Prior to joining the RNLI I worked at the University of Reading on a First World War commemoration project.

What made you want to work for the RNLI?

I’ve always worked at large public institutions and have found it so rewarding. The opportunity to work with such a unique and fascinating archive really appealed to me. Plus I grew up in Poole, and have always been a supporter of the RNLI, so it’s fantastic to come back to my roots as well as to be a part of such an inspiring charity.

If you could have another job within the RNLI for the day, what would it be?

I’d be a crew member. I have two young boys and lifeboat crew are their heroes. When I got the job here my sons were very disappointed to discover that I wouldn’t actually be going out on a lifeboat all the time!
It would be amazing to experience first-hand what our crew do, and it would help me to understand more about their stories that will one day become a part of our archive.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Try and do something every once in a while that makes you nervous. It will push you and take you out of your comfort zone, but will mean you experience new things and take on the new challenges that life can offer!