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Will you rescue a lifesaving London landmark?

Our busiest lifeboat crew urgently need your help if they’re to continue saving lives on the River Thames in London. 

Tower lifeboat crew in their E class lifeboat on the River Thames with Tower Bridge in the background

Photo: RNLI/Laura Lewis

When Tower Lifeboat Station was established on the River Thames in 2002, little did we know that it would become the busiest of all the RNLI’s 238 lifeboat stations. 

Almost 20 years on and this iconic London landmark, situated on the Victoria Embankment next to Waterloo Bridge, is in desperate need of modernisation if it is to sustain future years of lifesaving. Here’s why.

View of Tower Lifeboat Station on the River Thames in Central London from Waterloo Bridge

Photo: RNLI/Harrison Bates

Now around 150 years old, the building and pier of Tower Lifeboat Station is constantly battered against the embankment wall

Why Tower needs a new floating lifeboat station

Tower Lifeboat Station may only be 20 years old from an operational perspective, but the floating pier on which it sits is around 150 years old, dating back to the 1860s.

It’s lifesaving use began in 1874 when Thames Police took up residence. They adopted a Navy-like culture, having to remain in uniform at all times and request shore leave.

The police relied on Thames Specials - volunteers with a good knowledge of boathandling. Three steam launches were stationed at the pier. The one pictured below was called Chowkidar after an Indian night watchman. 

Black and white photo circa late 19th century. View from the River Thames of Waterloo Police Pier in Central London with a steam launch moored outside and some policemen on deck.

Photo: Courtesy of the Thames Police Association

Tower’s floating pier and building was originally built in the 1860s and was used as a police station from 1874 

The floating police station, which became known as Waterloo Police Pier, was bought by the RNLI in 2004 for a nominal £1. The building and pier underwent essential work to convert it into a lifeboat station - work generously funded by several donors. It was renamed Lifeboat Pier when Tower RNLI moved there in 2006. But the station kept the name from its original location, at Tower Millennium Pier next to the Tower of London.

View from Waterloo Bridge of Waterloo Police Pier on the River Thames in Central London, the former floating police station before it became Tower Lifeboat Station


1965: Waterloo Police Pier, the former floating police station, before it became Tower Lifeboat Station in 2006

Currently the RNLI's only floating station in its entirety, Tower takes a battering from the wash of passing traffic due to its proximity to the embankment wall. This constant bashing has taken its toll on the station and the crew - the structure is now beyond economical repair, and the crew find it difficult to rest on their long shifts or concentrate on their training. 

Inside the lifeboat station, facilities are dated, cramped and no longer fit for purpose for the 65-strong lifeboat crew and the many people they rescue each year.

A unique service for a unique river 

The dynamic nature of the tidal River Thames in London means it needs a dynamic search and rescue lifeboat service to match. 

The tidal stretch of the River Thames runs for over 90 miles from the North Sea to Teddington. Tower lifeboat crew cover 16 miles of this stretch, from Barking Creek Barrier in the east to Battersea in the west. 

It’s an incredibly busy and challenging stretch and presents a variety of dangers both above and below its fast-flowing waters. 

On the surface, there’s a constant stream of commercial and leisure traffic, including tugs and tows, fast commuter ferries, sightseeing boats and smaller recreational watercraft such as motorboats, canoes, rowboats and dinghies. Add to this floating rubbish and debris, and the risk of collision is extremely high.

Below the surface, the tide rises and falls, twice a day, by up to 7m. It flows as fast as 5mph, overpowering even the strongest of swimmers who may accidentally fall in. That’s if they don’t succumb to the river’s icy cold temperatures first. And eddies and undertows caused by the uneven riverbed, bridge pillars, piers and moored vessels can suck people under in seconds.

Tower Lifeboat Station Manager Kevin Maynard in full RNLI crew kit outside the station with the River Thames and the station’s E class lifeboat in the background

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Kevin Maynard, Tower Lifeboat Station Manager 

If there’s an emergency on the river, speed is of the essence. Tower lifeboat crew must launch within 90 seconds of the Coastguard’s request. That’s why there’s always a full crew of four on station, 24/7, 365 days of the year, ready to launch at a moment’s notice.

To make this work, Tower’s 55 volunteer crew members, supported by 10 full-time crew members, work at least two 12-hour shifts per month, instead of responding to pagers like their fellow lifeboat crews on the coast.

The RNLI’s E class lifeboat was specially designed to meet the demands of the River Thames. With a top speed of 40 knots, it’s the fastest lifeboat in the RNLI fleet. It’s the first modern lifeboat to be propelled by waterjets instead of propellers, making it more manoeuvrable in the fast-flowing waters. And it lies afloat on station for the quickest response possible.

Tower lifeboat crew in their E class lifeboat on the River Thames, heading straight towards the camera

Photo: RNLI/Harrison Bates

The fastest in the RNLI fleet, our E class inshore lifeboat was specially designed for London’s busy River Thames

How lifeboats on the Thames began

In the early hours of 20 August 1989, 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 River Thames. And in 2002, four RNLI lifeboat stations were introduced at Teddington, Chiswick, Tower and Gravesend - the first stations to specifically cover a river rather than estuarial waters or the sea.

Never forgotten

The presence of RNLI lifeboats on the River Thames has helped to make the river a safer place for everyone to enjoy and work on. Between them, the four stations have launched 15,658 times, helped 5,280 people and saved 610 lives since 2002*.

RNLI crews have never forgotten the reason behind introducing lifeboats on the Thames. 

Following the naming ceremony of the RNLI’s fifth E class lifeboat in 2004, 51 roses were laid on the Thames, one for each of the 51 people who lost their lives in the Marchioness disaster. The lifeboat was named The Legacy in their memory, and was shared between Tower, Chiswick and Gravesend. Today she still serves as a relief boat at Chiswick.

2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the Marchioness tragedy and on the evening of 19 August, representatives from the RNLI attended a riverside vigil in memory of those involved in the incident.

‘The tragic events of 20 August 1989 are very much at the front of our minds for those of us who operate the RNLI’s lifesaving service on the Thames,’ says Kevin Maynard, Station Manager at Tower RNLI. ‘People are often surprised to hear that there are lifeboats on the Thames, and even more surprised when they learn that Tower is the busiest of the charity’s 238 lifeboat stations.

‘When we started the lifeboat service on the Thames on 2 January 2002, we anticipated 100 or so call-outs every year. Today, we launch an average of 509 times a year at Tower alone, which highlights the importance of having lifeboats on the River Thames.’ 

*Rescue statistics 2 January 2002–31 July 2021

Two photos, one showing Tower lifeboat crew in The Legacy E class lifeboat laying roses on the River Thames in memory of those lost in the Marchioness disaster and the other showing a red rose floating upriver

Photo: Bankside Press Ltd

May 2004: The naming ceremony of RNLI E class lifeboat The Legacy E-005 - named in honour of those lost in the Marchioness disaster. Tower lifeboat crew laid 51 roses on the River Thames in their memory from the lifeboat. 

Why we need your help

We can’t fund a new lifeboat station for Tower without your support.

As a charity, we rely on the generosity of supporters like you to save lives at sea and on the River Thames.

Many people, even in Central London, are unaware of the lifesaving service Tower provides, right on their doorstep. A service that is run predominantly by volunteers.
They’re unaware that, on average, 100 of their fellow Londoners need Tower lifeboat’s help each year, and that 345 people are alive today because Tower lifeboat crew reached them in time.  

They’re unaware that, in addition to Tower, there are three more RNLI lifeboat crews protecting people like them along the tidal River Thames, two of which are also stationed in London.

You can help raise money and awareness with a donation to the Tower Appeal today, and by sharing this article on social media. Whether you’re a Londoner passionate about saving lives in your local community, or someone who simply wants to support lifesaving on the River Thames, you can rest assured that your donation will make a huge difference and mean so much to the crew at Tower.  

Crew members like 26-year-old Holly McGlinchey.

Your support will save lives on the Thames

Holly saved the life of a man in the River Thames while working on a Thames river bus in the summer of 2017. The rescue inspired Holly to become a volunteer crew member at Tower Lifeboat Station later that same year.

Watch the rescue footage and Holly’s incredibly brave part in it in a clip from the BBC’s Saving Lives at Sea documentary on the BBC YouTube channel. And read Holly’s account of the rescue below.

Holly McGinchey, standing by Tower Lifeboat Station, in full all-weather lifeboat kit

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Holly McGlinchey is one of 55 Tower lifeboat volunteers saving lives on the River Thames

‘I was on a night shift with my captain Paul, my younger sister Fay and a young lady who was a barista behind the bar. We were heading back to our base at Trinity Buoy Wharf for a break when Paul said: “We need to go and help at North Greenwich. Someone’s in the water.”

‘We were getting closer and closer and my nerves were building because I’d never had to deal with a situation like that before. I did everything I remembered from training; I got our radios and lifesaving equipment ready, and I made sure the talkback system was on so that I could talk to Paul from the deck.’

‘I didn’t know whether he was alive or dead’

‘The casualty was in a lifering but face down and lifeless. Our boat was quite high above the water level, so we used a boat hook to get hold of the lifering and pull the casualty closer to the boat. Then we laid on our fronts, leaning over the boat, trying to pull him up out of the water. But he was like a dead weight between me and my sister.

‘That was literally all we did until Tower lifeboat crew arrived - tried to keep his head above water and stop him from drowning.’

View from Tower’s E class lifeboat of Holly and lifeboat volunteer Ian leaning over the Thames river bus and hanging onto the unconscious casualty who is in a lifering in the river

Photo: RNLI/Tower

Still from rescue footage: Holly kept the casualty above water, saving his life

‘The lifeboat was lower down, closer to the water, making it much easier for the crew to pull him aboard. As soon as the casualty was out of the water, I just sat back and cried. I felt so emotional and absolutely exhausted. I didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. 

‘One of the lifeboat crew, Ian, who had boarded our boat, checked on me and my sister. He told us how well we’d done, that the casualty had come round, and that we’d saved his life.

‘I felt really proud of myself and my sister. You don’t think you can do something like that until it happens. And I felt like I wanted to do it again - and do it better. So I applied to become a volunteer at Tower Lifeboat Station and did my 12-hour shifts during my days off. The lifesaving, the first aid, working together as a team - that’s what I enjoy the most about being a lifeboat volunteer.’ 

‘We can’t save lives without a station’

‘Before the rescue, I didn’t know anything about the RNLI. I just knew there was a boat that saved people on the river and dealt with incidents. Now it’s become a massive part of my life. It’s like being part of a little family at Tower. And I feel really proud that I’m able to volunteer while working and now being a mum!

‘Being the RNLI’s busiest lifeboat station, Tower really does need all the support it can get. Being on a pier on the river makes it unique and unlike any other lifeboat or emergency services station. But it’s so old and battered, it desperately needs replacing - and we can’t save lives without a station. 

‘A new pier and lifeboat station will make a massive difference and mean so much to the crew. It will make it more comfortable and practical. The crew need something fit for the future - busier times.' 

The difference your support will make

Our Tower Appeal aims to build a new floating lifeboat station. The new station will be in the same location as the current one but further away from the wall of the Grade l listed Victoria Embankment. It will be constructed at Tilbury Docks and floated to Waterloo Bridge.

Photos showing the current position of Tower Lifeboat Station on the Thames River next to Waterloo Bridge and how the new lifeboat station will look positioned on the river away from the embankment wall

Photo: RNLI/Kevin Maynard and Studio Four Architects Ltd

Left: The current position of Tower Lifeboat Station. Right: How the new lifeboat station will look positioned away from the embankment wall

It will give the crew at Tower the modern and comfortable facilities they need and deserve, such as: a landing area and canopy for casualty privacy; dedicated spaces for visitors, training and fundraising; an improved kitchen, dining and lounge area for the live-in crew; and, above all, better rest and concentration. 

By donating to the Tower Appeal, you’ll not only be investing in the future of Tower Lifeboat Station and its selfless volunteers, you’ll also be investing in our lifesaving legacy on the River Thames. That makes you a lifesaver too.

We’re here for London. Will you be here for us?

Thank you for reading and sharing this article and, if you’re able to, for donating to our Tower Appeal.

Any funds raised over the full cost of the project will be used to fund other lifesaving activity. If not enough money is raised then general funds will be used for the balance of the project.