Heroes of the RNLI: celebrating International Women’s Day

How many inspirational women can you name? If you get stuck after Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa, the RNLI can help.
Daisy Jarvis, Crew Member at St Ives, one of the many women volunteering/working at the RNLI in 2019

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Daisy Jarvis, Crew Member at St Ives

Picture a lifeboat hero at sea. The odds are that you’re imagining the iconic image of an old bearded lifeboatman. But you don’t have to have copious amounts of facial hair to be a lifeboat legend. RNLI history is bursting with stories of women’s bravery.

200 years of female lifesavers

For generations, women have launched lifeboats, heaved people out of the water and fundraised millions to help keep the charity afloat. Women have played a hands-on role in lifesaving since the RNLI was formed in 1824. 

Twenty-two women have been awarded Medals for Gallantry by the RNLI. Nineteen of these medals were presented in the 19th century, awarded to women who rescued or helped to rescue those in peril on the sea.

Dedicated Dungeness women helping launch the lifeboat in the late 1950s

Photo: RNLI

For generations, women of Dungeness hauled their lifeboat over the shingle to launch 

One of those women you may have learned about at school is Grace Darling, from the Victorian era. In 1838, she risked her life rowing to rescue the stranded survivors of the wrecked steamship Forfarshire. She was the first woman to be awarded an RNLI medal.

Other lifesaving heroes are less well known. Like May Stout Hectorson Moar, who saved two men who had capsized in a boat off the Shetland Islands in 1858. She attached a rope to herself and climbed down a cliff to throw a lifebuoy to the men. May hauled them through the surf, safely to the shore.

And then there’s the seriously impressive Margaret Armstrong who helped at every single launch of Cresswell lifeboat, saving lives for 50 years – until her death in 1928. You can learn about these women and others like them in Sue Hennessy’s book, Hidden Depths.

Grace Darling holding the boat steady during the rescue of the survivors of the SS Forfarshire

Photo: RNLI

Grace Darling by Thomas Brooks, 1868. Oil on canvas painting. 

First woman joins the lifeboat crew

Then in 1969, Elisabeth Hostvedt, an 18-year-old Norwegian student at Atlantic College, became the first woman qualified to command an RNLI inshore lifeboat.
 
Her request to join the crew met some resistance. Despite evidence to the contrary, some still doubted whether a woman would have the strength to pull heavy bodies from the water, and the stamina needed in strong gales.

A ‘special case’ was made for Elisabeth to become a trained crew member, after she proved that she had the ‘physique to stand up to an arduous service’. 

Official RNLI crew: Elisabeth Hostvedt at the helm at Atlantic College

Photo: RNLI

Elisabeth Hostvedt, the first woman qualified to command an inshore lifeboat 

Women at the RNLI today

Things have changed rapidly at the RNLI since Elisabeth joined the crew. Today, the RNLI’s lifeboat crews include more than 300 women; there are 5 female coxswains and 44 female helms; and around a third of lifeguards are women.

Officially heroes: medal-winning women of the RNLI

There are still ‘firsts’ for women happening in this century. In 2005, Aileen Jones became the first female crew member to receive an RNLI Bronze Medal. Aileen, Helm on the Porthcawl lifeboat, braved gale force conditions and gigantic waves to rescue two fishermen. 

One year later, Lifeguard Sophie Grant Crookston was awarded the Bronze Medal for saving a stranded surfer in dangerous seas off Perranporth Beach. Sophie was the second lifeguard, and first female lifeguard, to receive this award. 

Bronze medal-winning women Aileen Jones and Sophie Grant Crookston

Photo: RNLI/Derek King, Jon Stokes

Medals for Gallantry for Aileen Jones and Sophie Grant Crookston

International lifesaving women 

Alongside our female lifesavers in the UK and Ireland, stand many strong women in different parts of the world. Our RNLI International Team are working with partners to combat drowning globally. Women around the world are saving lives – teaching children to swim, lifeguarding on beaches and inspiring others to defy stereotypes. 

These women include Soda Camera from Senegal who, when she first trained as a lifeguard, was the only woman in a group of 45.

Lifeboat Mary: a true RNLI hero

There are others who choose to not get their feet wet, who are bona fide RNLI heroes. Thousands of women of the RNLI in the UK and Ireland have shown initiative, determination and stamina to raise thousands to help our charity save lives at sea.

Mary Taylor – affectionately known as Lifeboat Mary – was one much-loved fundraiser. Mary started fundraising for Padstow lifeboat when she was 5 years old and continued until she died in 2015. In the last 20 years of her life Mary raised over £70,000 by knitting, embroidering, cooking, making toys, collecting and other fundraising activities.

Mary Taylor, known as Lifeboat Mary, fundraising for her beloved RNLI

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Lifeboat Mary saved lives from her living room – fundraising for the RNLI

Breaking the mould 

In 1990, Sarah Fulford started work as an engineer as she didn’t want to be another Florence Nightingale: ‘My mum was a nurse, and my sister, and basically there were too many nurses in the family. I thought I’d go for something different.’

Sarah was the first RNLI female mechanical engineer at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre in Cowes and one of the first female helms to run lifeboat trials. 

She’s now in charge of a team at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre, and proud of all the work they’ve done – developing new lifeboats and inversion-proof engines. 

While others might see her a role model, she doesn’t. She counts herself ‘lucky’ to have a job she loves, with fantastic colleagues: ‘I don’t feel like I’ve ever faced any challenges by just being the only female here. I was made to feel welcome from day one.’

Sarah Fulford onboard a B class lifeboat at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre, Cowes

Photo: RNLI

Sarah Fulford, who leads a team of RNLI electricians and fitters 

Ensuring a warm welcome for everybody at the RNLI

‘There’s more work to do,’ says Sue Kingswood, RNLI Inclusion and Diversity Manager. ‘We’re working to make sure that when people do come forward to volunteer or work at the RNLI, they’re made to feel welcome and stay, like Sarah.’ 

There’s a Women’s Network at the RNLI, a group of staff and volunteers from across the RNLI who are passionate about inspiring, supporting and empowering women at the charity. Their aim is a more inclusive culture. 

Sue adds: ‘What we’re doing to encourage greater representation of women is a microcosm of what we need to do to get people with diverse experiences and perspectives joining the RNLI.’ 

Women and men work together to pull a lifeboat over a shingle beach

Photo: RNLI

RNLI volunteers pulling together 

Many hands make light work

There’s a lifesaving volunteer role to suit everyone. If you haven’t got the sealegs of Grace Darling or the endurance of Lifeboat Mary, do some micro-volunteering for the RNLI – short, simple tasks, mostly online, that take just minutes to complete.  

By sharing our stories we can encourage people to volunteer and become lifesaving heroes. We’ll teach our children about Mother Teresa and Florence Nightingale, but let’s keep adding more inspirational women to the list.

To join our lifesavers, go to RNLI.org/volunteer

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