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From the brink of disaster: Richard Lewis and the making of the modern RNLI

The year is 1849. Just 25 years after its founding by Sir William Hillary, the RNLI (then the National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck) is on the brink of collapse.

Richard Lewis and the making of the modern RNLI

Photo: Painting by Thomas Brooks, 1868

It has made no public appeal since 1841 and its finances have declined alarmingly. Its lifeboats are literally rotting away with only around a dozen deemed to be seaworthy. Yet the loss of life from shipwreck around the British and Irish coasts is rising at a terrifying rate.

As if things can’t get any worse, a lifeboat going to the aid of a stricken ship capsizes in December with the loss of 20 men. The institution’s ageing leadership seems to be unable to summon the energy and vision to turn the organisation around.

Changes afoot

All this is to change with the arrival of a dynamic new secretary in 1850, a 28-year-old Welshman named Richard Lewis.

Together with a new President, the Duke of Northumberland; a new Committee of Management; and a new Inspector of Lifeboats, Captain (later Vice Admiral) John Ross Ward RN, Lewis orchestrated an almost unbelievable transformation in the RNLI’s fortunes over the next 3 decades.

They pursued a three-pronged strategy that resonates with the modern day RNLI’s priorities in the 21st century.

Building a world class search and rescue service

With the loss of 20 out of the 24 crew members of the South Shields lifeboat (many of whom were the best pilots of the Tyne) when it capsized in December 1849, the safety of its volunteers was uppermost in the minds of the new leadership of the RNLI.

Whilst they had ambitions to extend the ring of safety around the coast of Britain and Ireland by increasing the number of lifeboat stations, they also knew that they had a moral duty to ensure the safety of their volunteer crews in the dangerous business of rescue.

The introduction of cork lifejackets designed by the innovative Captain Ross Ward for lifeboat volunteers is well known, as is the development of the self-righting lifeboat in the 1850s.

Other changes listed below are less well known but have played no lesser part in laying the foundations of the modern RNLI and ensuring the capability of its volunteers and lifeboats to save lives.

  • retainers for coxswains
  • regular inspections and exercises
  • station regulations

Saving more lives through prevention and education

We tend to think that the RNLI’s focus on the role of education through campaigns such as Respect the Water is a recent development. But Richard Lewis and his colleagues also recognised that lives could be saved by preventing ships and their crews getting into trouble in the first place.

  • Barometers at stations
  • Lifejackets for all
  • Safety fishing boats
  • Restoration of the apparently drowned
  • Swimming lessons in schools
  • Raising awareness, raising funds
  • The 1851 Great Exhibition
  • Launching The Life-Boat Journal
  • Media relations
  • The 50th anniversary history

Richard’s legacy

Richard Lewis and his colleagues not only succeeded in turning around the fortunes of the RNLI, but they shaped it into the amazing organisation that we know today.

The figures tell the story of their transformation over three decades between 1850 and 1883.

  • In 1849/1850, the RNLI’s annual income was just over £354.
  • By 1883, it had risen to over £40,000.
  • In 1850, there were 96 lifeboats under the institution’s care but barely a dozen were serviceable.
  • At the time of Richard Lewis’s death, there were 274 lifeboats in service, ready to be launched at a moment’s notice with trained crews.
  • Despite its challenges, the RNLI still managed to save 470 lives in 1850. This had risen to 955 souls in 1883.

See how the RNLI is run today.

Who gets your #BraveTag?

It took great courage for Richard Lewis and his colleagues to turn the RNLI around; to innovate and set the precedent for many of the safety and fundraising initiatives we follow today.

But there are all kinds of brave. If you had to give someone you know recognition for their courage, who would it be, and why?

Give a #BraveTag to the most courageous people you know. Get involved on Facebook or Twitter.