‘For the benefit of the Life Boat Institution’

Since the 1860s, a range of distinctive RNLI collection boxes have been raising money to help save lives at sea. What’s your favourite?
The ‘RNLI Fish’, found at Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire
This collection box has been saving lives since 1886

If you’ve ever visited a seaside village or town, chances are you will have spotted an RNLI collection box at some point. Often found in pubs and shops, they come in all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s just a simple wooden box with a coin slot or something more elaborate that’s shaped like a lifeboat and springs into life with each donation, the collection box has been a staple of fundraising since the middle of the 19th century.

A brief history of fundraising

When Sir William Hilary founded the RNLI in 1824, his appeal to the nation for donations was primarily directed to the Royal Navy and the Government. But when they were unable to provide the funds needed, he turned his attention to the wider public, especially wealthy and influential members of society.

It wasn’t until 1886 that the RNLI truly became a cause for the wider public to rally behind. It changed after the loss of 27 lifeboat crew members from St Annes and Southport Lifeboat Stations. The men died while they were attempting to rescue the crew of the Mexico. The tragedy spurred local businessman Sir Charles Macara to organise an appeal to raise money for the 16 widows and 50 orphans left behind by the disaster. An incredible £10,000 was raised in just two weeks. The first ever charity street collection soon followed in 1891, organised by Macara in Manchester. The community came together, donating money to help save lives at sea.

The oldest collecting box in the RNLI’s collection, it dates from 1860, the year of the RNLI’s Royal Charter, when many independent lifeboat services decided to join the now well-established national charity.
The oldest collecting box in the RNLI’s collection, it dates from 1860, the year of the RNLI’s Royal Charter, when many independent lifeboat services decided to join the now well-established national charity.
Before the RNLI began producing collection boxes for supporters, fundraisers had to create their own, leading to a variety of unique designs and builds. The box pictured here dates from the 1860s and was created by the Poole and Bournemouth Branch. It features a pulling-sailing lifeboat on a beach.
Before the RNLI began producing collection boxes for supporters, fundraisers had to create their own, leading to a variety of unique designs and builds. The box pictured here dates from the 1860s and was created by the Poole and Bournemouth Branch. It features a pulling-sailing lifeboat on a beach.

Collection boxes had been around since the 1860s, but they quickly became a way for the RNLI to raise funds across the year, not just at appeals and events. What started as relatively simple wooden boxes soon changed as supporters used their imaginations to make them stand out. Some had illustrations of lifeboats painted on their side, others were carved into the shape of a lifeboat themselves. One was even built out of cast-iron in the shape of a giant fish.

The RNLI would settle upon a lifeboat-shaped collection box. Based on a double-ended pulling lifeboat, it has changed in size and material over the years but the shape has remained relatively the same. It has become something of an icon. Eagle-eyed viewers may have spotted it popping up in television shows across the years, from resting on the bar of the Queen Vic in Eastenders¸ to being seen on the bookshelves at 221b Baker Street in Sherlock.

Not all collection boxes are boat-shaped. This lifering shaped collection box was made in the late 19th century. But its unusual design wasn’t very practical, and was soon replaced by the more common lifeboat shape.
Not all collection boxes are boat-shaped. This lifering shaped collection box was made in the late 19th century. But its unusual design wasn’t very practical, and was soon replaced by the more common lifeboat shape.
The shape of a pulling–sailing lifeboat would go on to be the basis of most collection boxes produced by the RNLI, even after the introduction of engines and more modern lifeboat designs. This classic example features the tan sails that powered lifeboats for many years.
The shape of a pulling–sailing lifeboat would go on to be the basis of most collection boxes produced by the RNLI, even after the introduction of engines and more modern lifeboat designs. This classic example features the tan sails that powered lifeboats for many years.

Is the future just collecting dust?

As we move towards a possible cashless society, what does the future hold for the humble collection box? The answer might well be contactless collection boxes. The RNLI has been working to harness the technology to help ensure the collection box doesn’t become a thing of the past. Soon you will be able to tap and make a donation with your bank card or mobile phone. But as long as there is spare change, there will be collection boxes.

It’s hard to calculate just how much money collection boxes have raised over the years. They’ve certainly played such a vital part of the fundraising process, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. There’s no better symbol of just how important any donation is to our lifesaving service. Even a few pennies can make a difference, when added to the thousands of other pennies put in collection boxes. It all goes towards providing our lifesavers with the equipment, training and support they need to save lives at sea. 

This classic collection box from 1955 features the painting On Service by the artist Francis Russell Flint. Flint specialised in maritime subjects and was an official War Artist during the Second World War.
This classic collection box from 1955 features the painting On Service by the artist Francis Russell Flint. Flint specialised in maritime subjects and was an official War Artist during the Second World War.
Not all collection boxes are simple devices. This version from the 1980s comes to life when you insert a coin. Place a coin in the top and the lifeboat crew will start rocking as they collect the money to save lives at sea. Well worth the donation.
Not all collection boxes are simple devices. This version from the 1980s comes to life when you insert a coin. Place a coin in the top and the lifeboat crew will start rocking as they collect the money to save lives at sea. Well worth the donation.

The RNLI Fish

One of the oldest, definitely the strangest collection boxes is the ‘RNLI Fish’. Found at Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, the RNLI Fish is a cast-iron painted sculpture of a cod standing on its tail. Anyone wishing to make a donation simply pops their coins in the fish’s mouth, who swallows it whole.

First put in place back in 1887, the fish stands 1.2m tall and weighs a little over 110kg. Its unique design and the length of its service saw the fish being recognised as a Grade II listed item by Historic England.

Still collecting money today, you can find the fish at the top of the slipway that was once used by the crew of Robin Hood’s Lifeboat Station to launch their lifeboat. The station has since closed, but the money raised continues to help save lives in the local community and beyond.

The RNLI Fish

Photo: Laura Rainbow

Some collection boxes are weird and wonderful

Betty’s 5p pots

You don’t always need a fancy collection box. Betty Frith was treasurer at the Herford fundraising branch for over 20 years when she came up with her 5p pots idea. Betty took used jam jars from a local hotel, cleaned them and removed the label, slapped on an RNLI sticker and created a unique approach to the collection box. The idea was based on 5p pieces generally being unwanted, and that it doesn’t feel like you are donating too much when you give them away. Hence, ‘Betty’s 5p pots’ were born!

The first pots were available from a local pet shop. When Betty sadly passed away, the fundraising branch carried on her idea. Soon other branches began giving them out too. What started out as a unique fundraising idea in a local branch has now spread across the country. Herford Branch has raised £20,000 from the pots and branches in north-east England have used the idea to raise over £100,000.

Betty's 5p pots

Photo: RNLI/Tom Collins

It all adds up, with Betty's 5p pots

No collection box? No problem. There's always making a donation the newfangled way - online!

You can help save lives at sea with a donation today. From kit to crew training to kids’ education, you’ll be making a real difference to our volunteers – and the people they save.

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