RNLI through the tough times

The RNLI has survived through wartime and peace, boom and bust. Thanks to you – our supporters – we’re always on the frontline, ready to launch to the next rescue.
A West Kirby crew member wearing a face mask

Photo: David Edwards

We’ve been through a lot together. For nearly 200 years you have helped us through the tough times. For generations, our supporters and volunteers have shown courage, adaptability and resilience in the face of adversity. 

Even in these times of the coronavirus, we’ve still been there for you and yours – and you’ve still been there for us. Our lifesavers have shown unfailing courage and selflessness – still willing to launch to the rescue – even though doing so puts them at risk. This year we’ve had to make some swift changes in order to protect people from coronavirus and to safeguard the future of the charity when income is down. 

This will go down as a defining moment in our long, lifesaving history. But it’s not the first and, with you by our side, it certainly won’t be the last. 

When shipwrecks were rife 

The RNLI was born out of a need for change. In the early 19th century, there was an average of 1,800 shipwrecks a year around our coasts. The danger of shipwreck was an accepted way of life at sea. But one man refused to sit by and watch people drown. 

Sir William Hillary saw the treacherous nature of the sea first-hand. He witnessed dozens of shipwrecks around the Manx coast and saved many lives with the help of locals. 

It was thanks to Hillary’s impassioned appeal for a service dedicated to saving lives at sea that the lifesaving charity was eventually founded in 1824. But only because of a change in tack.

A painting of the shipwrecked Ida

Photo: William Hall

1877: Thanks to lifeboat crew and supporters, there was hope for those shipwrecked. Here, 14 crew of the wrecked Glasgow barque Ida were rescued by Brighton lifeboat volunteers

In hardship and prosperity 

Hillary’s original appeal to the nation a year earlier in 1823 fell on deaf ears. Although sympathetic, the Admiralty did not help. It was only when Hillary approached the more influential and philanthropic members of London society, that it worked. 

The Institution was ‘to be supported by donations and annual subscriptions’, which is still the case today. The RNLI’s first year of fundraising was hugely successful, bringing in almost £10,000 – the equivalent of over £570,000 today. However, by 1849, the charity’s income had dropped to just £354 (around £28,000 today). 

Tragedy touches the hearts of the nation 

Fundraising efforts focused on the wealthy until the late 1880s when one of the worst lifeboat tragedies in RNLI history changed the face of fundraising forever. On 9 December 1886, 27 lifeboatmen from Southport and St Annes were lost at sea while attempting to rescue the crew from the German barque Mexico

The tragedy sent shock waves throughout Victorian England. Local cotton merchant Sir Charles Macara and his wife Marion took the RNLI’s cause to heart. They wanted to do more for the charity and the families left behind. 

A milestone in charity fundraising 

Charles and Marion launched a successful fundraising appeal to the general public in 1891. Later that year, on 10 October, they organised Lifeboat Saturday, the world’s first recorded charity street collection and raised £5,000 (£410,000 today). 

‘The first Lifeboat Saturday changed charity fundraising forever,’ says Hayley Whiting, RNLI Heritage Archive and Research Manager. ‘Now ordinary people were being asked to help and were clearly happy to do so.’

1891: Appealing to the wider public at Lifeboat Saturday, a groundbreaking street collection at Manchester, 10 October

Photo: RNLI

1891: Appealing to the wider public at Lifeboat Saturday, a groundbreaking street collection at Manchester, 10 October

In war and peace 

Throughout the First and Second World Wars RNLI lifeboat volunteers bravely continued to save lives. Against the odds, the crew rescued more people than ever before – including the enemy.

The Great War (1914–1918)

As more and more young men were called up to join the war effort, older people became the backbone of local lifeboat crews. The average age of an RNLI crew member rose to around 55. With most lifeboats being launched by hand or by horse from exposed beaches, and most rescues relying on plenty of oar and windpower, saving lives at sea was gruelling. 

The Lifeboat Journal of 1918 was full of admiration for them: ‘Old men, grey-haired and bent – and the majority afflicted with the ills of old age – struggling in the darkness against the wind and rain to answer the call, without a moment’s thought of the dangers that they had to face.’ 

Changing casualties 

The First World War also brought with it different types of casualties. Our crews were called out to many ships that had struck mines or been torpedoed. This would sometimes include the unenviable task of recovering bodies, like after the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania off Co Cork in May 1915, which caused the deaths of over 1,000 people. 

When the hospital ship Rohilla struck Whitby Rock in October 1914, six lifeboat crews battled high seas and storm-force winds for 50 hours to save 144 lives. 

The aftermath 

This war took its toll on the lifeboat service. Come peacetime, volunteer recruitment wasn’t a problem – young men eagerly returned to their crews and others signed up for the first time. 

But it would cost £500,000 to resurrect the broken and outdated lifeboat fleet – around £27M in today’s money. By 1919, thanks once again to overwhelming public support, our ambitious boatbuilding programme resumed and 50 new motor lifeboats joined the RNLI fleet.  

1914: The older generation stepping up – Scarborough crew launching the lifeboat Queensbury, one of six lifeboats that went to the rescue of the Rohilla

Photo: RNLI

1914: The older generation stepping up – Scarborough crew launching the lifeboat Queensbury, one of six lifeboats that went to the rescue of the Rohilla

Second World War (1939–1945)

Once again, the older generation willingly stepped up to save lives at sea. This time it was less gruelling thanks to the modernised lifeboats and their launching tractors, funded by the public. 

Dangerous rescues for dangerous times 

It was still hazardous though. Rescue missions during this war involved towing vessels loaded with explosives and top-secret information; navigating minefields; rescuing downed aircrew; ferrying food to remote villages; bringing doctors to the injured; and taking priests to the dying. 

Perhaps the most challenging of these was Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk on 30 May 1940. Seventeen RNLI lifeboats crewed by the Navy and two lifeboats crewed by RNLI volunteers from Ramsgate and Margate joined the armada of Little Ships that helped to evacuate Allied troops off the beaches of Dunkirk. 

Rebuilding the fleet 

During the 6 years of war, only 17 new lifeboats were sent to the coast because of the demands on shipyards by the military. This figure would normally have been up to 70. The crews around the coasts had to make do and mend until boatbuilding got back up and running.

1940: Sheringham lifeboat crew landing the crew of the bombed SS Boston Trader

Photo: RNLI

1940: Sheringham lifeboat crew landing the crew of the bombed SS Boston Trader

In times of disaster 

On 20 August 1989, another drowning disaster brought about change at the RNLI. 51 people lost their lives on the River Thames when the pleasure boat Marchioness collided with the dredger Bowbelle and sank. 

An inquiry into the disaster recommended that London should be served by a dedicated rescue service on the Thames. And in 2002, the RNLI stepped up, establishing new lifeboat stations at Teddington, Chiswick, Tower and Gravesend – the first stations to specifically cover a river rather than estuarial waters or the sea. 

Adapting to changing times: our E class inshore lifeboat was specially designed for London’s busy River Thames

Photo: RNLI/Harrison Bates

Adapting to changing times: our E class inshore lifeboat was specially designed for London’s busy River Thames

Out of darkness comes the light 

‘All of our crew are very aware of the Marchioness disaster and how it led to the RNLI being present on the Thames,’ says Jon Chapman, Helm at Teddington Lifeboat Station. ‘The tragic events of that night played a part in my decision to join the crew at Teddington, 7 years ago. 

‘Some of our crew are too young to remember the tragedy – some weren’t even born – but we make sure that everyone knows what happened and understands why we’re there.’ 

We can all learn from our history – the highs and the lows. What’s clear is that the RNLI spirit prevails, through thick and thin. Together, we’ll save lives for generations to come. 

Want to learn more? Delve deeper into our fascinating history through our heritage section.

Categories