Donate now

How the RNLI became an international lifesaver

At the heart of the RNLI is a commitment to saving lives at sea. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or how you got into trouble. The RNLI is there, without judgement, for anyone who needs help.

RNLI training lifeguards in the Philippines

And it’s been this way since our service was founded nearly 200 years ago. It began with one man’s commitment to saving lives around our coast and sharing our expertise worldwide - and it progressed to joining international flood rescue efforts and tackling the global drowning epidemic. (Our international work is funded with just 2p out of every £1 donated.)

1823: Our lifesaving journey begins

In the early 1800s, there were roughly 1,800 shipwrecks every year around our coasts. But one man, someone who had witnessed shipwrecks and participated in rescues, refused to sit by and watch people drown.

On 28 February 1823, Sir William Hillary made an impassioned appeal to the nation. He called for the formation of a National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck.

At the heart of this institution, he called for ‘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.’

He stated that one of the institution’s priorities should be the ‘succour and support of those persons who may need to be rescued’, concluding that ‘every stranger, whom disasters of the sea may cast on her shores, should never look for refuge in vain.’

One year later, in 1824, his vision became a reality when the institution was founded.

1922: Irish Free State

When the RNLI was founded in 1824, the whole island of Ireland was part of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’.

By the time the Irish Free State was established in 1922, there were 24 Irish RNLI lifeboat stations. British Government agencies, such as HM Coastguard, withdrew services from the free state, but the RNLI’s independent, volunteer-driven services remained.

In the March 1926 issue of The Lifeboat Journal, an article on the roll out of motor lifeboats reads:

‘This work in Ireland has not been affected by the political changes and the setting up of an Irish Free State Government with the status of a Dominion. At the express wish of this Government the Institution is continuing to maintain the Service in the Free State as well as in Northern Ireland.’

Lifeboat stations in the 26-county free state (which was declared a fully independent republic in 1949) and in Northern Ireland have carried on saving lives under the RNLI banner since.

1924: ‘One great institution’

Sir William Hillary’s hopes for our charity reached farther afield than saving lives around our coastlines.

He was committed to sharing the institution’s expertise worldwide and recommended that other countries form similar establishments:

‘… those feelings which should incite us to afford our utmost aid to the people of every country who may be in danger of shipwreck on our shores… it is consistent with a wise and enlightened policy, which should extend our views from our own immediate coasts to the most remote quarters of the globe.’

He wanted organisations to work together to save lives at sea, ensuring a reciprocal service for everyone: ‘My utmost wishes would be accomplished by seeing these international regulations established, in connection with one great institution.’

It took until 1924, but Sir William Hillary’s wish came true.

To celebrate the RNLI’s 100th anniversary, the first International Lifeboat Conference was held in London. It was attended by several countries, including Denmark, France, Japan, Norway and the USA.

The attendees unanimously decided that an International Lifeboat Federation should be established to promote cooperation between the world’s lifeboat services and assist in the establishment of new lifeboat services in areas of the world where there were none. Today, it’s known as the International Maritime Rescue Federation.

1940: A ‘miracle of deliverance’

Throughout our lifesaving history, we’ve rescued thousands of seafarers from across the globe. We’ve reunited the crew of a stricken Greek freighter with their families. And we’ve battled gale-force winds to reach the crew of a Swedish ship that had been blown in half by a mine.

We’ve worked with others to save lives too. During World War Two, 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.

A total of 19 RNLI lifeboats were part of this daring rescue mission. Seventeen of them were used by the Navy, but two of the lifeboats were manned by RNLI crew. Dunkirk’s little ships managed to evacuate 98,000 Allied soldiers, exceeding the original target of 45,000. Winston Churchill hailed the rescue as a ‘miracle of deliverance’.

The war also meant that some lifeboat stations had to deal with the fallout from crashed aircraft. In fact, a number of German airmen who had been shot down were rescued by RNLI crews and handed over to the military authorities.

Over 100 years earlier, in his appeal for a National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck, Sir William Hillary advocated giving support to ‘the people and vessels of every nation, whether in peace or war… and the effort to be made, and the recompenses to be given for their rescue, to be in all cases the same as for British subjects and British vessels’.

Four Germans were rescued by Hastings lifeboat volunteers and their lifeboat, Cyril and Lilian Bishop, during the Second World War. The first was a 25-year old airman who had been shot down by a Hurricane. He bailed out of his blazing aircraft, which had been riddled with bullets, and was the only survivor of a crew of five.

1970: An international deployment

During the last century, the RNLI’s focus began to expand. Crews used their courage and expertise to branch out from tackling treacherous seas and stranded seafarers to deal with issues like inland flooding.

Like in January 1937, when the River Dee flooded after 12 days of gales and rain, causing widespread damage and isolating many buildings. Aberdeen lifeboat crew launched their lifeboat to rescue a woman and two men from a farmhouse. During the innovative and unorthodox rescue, the coxswain manoeuvred the lifeboat stern first through the front door to reach the three stranded casualties.

Many years later, in 1970, our flood rescue experience was called upon.

We were asked by the British Red Cross to help flood relief efforts in Bangladesh. A tropical cyclone had struck, stealing 500,000 lives and isolating thousands more, leaving them without food, drinking water or medicine.

And so began the RNLI’s first international deployment. A team of eight crew members, armed with six D class inflatable lifeboats, deployed for search and rescue who ended up providing humanitarian aid to over 10,000 people.

And later on, in 2000, the RNLI deployed abroad once more. This time, to carry out search and rescue in Mozambique after a disastrous flood displaced around 463,000 people. Again, just eight RNLI volunteers, equipped with six D class lifeboats, went - and yet they managed to provide humanitarian aid to around 10,000 people.

This inspired the RNLI to form its own Flood Rescue Team: a unique and highly trained group of lifesavers who provide 24/7 search and rescue in the UK, Ireland and beyond.

How we share our expertise now

Let’s fast-forward to today.

With almost 200 years of lifesaving experience under our belt, we’ve got so much we can share with the rest of the world. And it can make a huge difference.

In too many countries, drowning is the leading killer of children. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 372,000 people drown every year. That’s why we’re working with other lifesaving organisations to provide simple, innovative and sustainable solutions that can break the drowning chain.

Our lifesaving programmes will drastically improve the chances of people surviving in and around water. Here are a few things we’ve achieved together:

  • training flood rescue volunteers and developing safety education and lifeguarding in Bangladesh
  • training volunteers in lifeboat operation, first aid and search and rescue in Uruguay
  • delivering an Aquatic Survival programme in Zanzibar
  • building a stronger rescue service in Brazil through lifeguarding and inshore search and rescue work
  • delivering swim-survival training in Cameroon
  • training lifeguards and instructors in Senegal
  • and providing support and training to the Hellenic Rescue Team in Greece.

We’ve also taken part in exchange programmes with similar rescue organisations in Finland, Iceland, Germany, Holland, Greece and Denmark to learn about how they monitor their coastlines and to share our own experiences.

What would Sir William Hillary think of the RNLI today?

Let’s recap: Sir William Hillary wanted a national institution to provide a rescue service for anyone in trouble around our coast, no matter where they were from. He dreamed it would be a world-leading institution that could share its knowledge and experience with other countries across the globe, encouraging them to develop their own rescue services.

‘…it will become one of the very proudest objects of this Institution to extend [effectual aid] to the vessels of every nation which may be in distress on British shores.’

We think he’d be incredibly proud of the RNLI’s lifesaving work, from our first-class lifeboat and lifeguarding service around British and Irish shores to the work we’ve done to develop lifesaving services worldwide in places like Bangladesh, Lesvos and Zanzibar.