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World Photography Day: 12 striking images from the RNLI archive

This World Photography Day, let’s take a look at some of the most memorable and emotive photos from inside the RNLI’s film and image archive.

Black and white photo of a lifeboat launching into the sea


Lifeboat photography: Padstow’s Oakley class lifeboat launching from a slipway

Photography has long been a part of the RNLI – and we don’t just use it for fundraising. Over the years, thousands of photographs have been taken, capturing RNLI lifesavers and their supporters doing all they can to help save lives at sea. Here are 12 of the most evocative images from the RNLI photography archive.

The earliest photograph

Black and white image of lifeboat station, lifeboat crew and guests in Victorian garb

Thorn of Bude

Lifeboat naming ceremony at Bude, sometime in the 1860s

The earliest photo in our collection was taken in the 1860s at a lifeboat naming ceremony in Bude, Cornwall. You can see the lifeboat crew wearing cork lifejackets and holding oars, as well as members of the local community who have come out to show their support.

The wreck of the SS Rohilla

Black and white photo of a lifeboat being launched, with a shipwreck in the background


The wreck of the SS Rohilla

One of the most dramatic rescues in RNLI history is captured in this image – the wreck of the SS Rohilla. The hospital ship, on its way to Dunkirk, ran aground a mile off the North Yorkshire coast.

Lifeboat crews from Whitby, Tynemouth, Upgang and Scarborough battled terrible seas over 3 days to try and rescue those onboard. 146 of the 229 passengers onboard were saved. You can read a report on the rescue written at the time over at the lifeboat magazine archive.

Women of The Mumbles

Black and white photo of seven women dressed in black


Widows and family members of those lost in The Mumbles lifeboat disaster

The history of the RNLI is filled with triumph and tragedy. This photo is of the widows and family of The Mumbles lifeboat crew who were lost in a hurricane, April 1947.

Pictured are Ella Gammon, the coxswain's widow, Elsie Noel, Irene Davies, Eileen Thomas and Mary Griffin, who also lost their husbands, and Dorothy Smith, sister of crew member Richard Smith, who was due to marry a few days after the tragedy.

The lady launchers of Newbiggin

Portrait of Mrs Louisa Taylor pulling a rope to launch a lifeboat


Louisa Taylor was one of Newbiggin's famous lady launchers

Women have played a vital part in lifesaving at the RNLI since the very beginning. Louisa Taylor was one of the famous ‘lady launchers’ at Newbiggin Lifeboat Station. She and her fellow lady launchers were awarded the Institution’s Thanks on Vellum for helping haul the lifeboat up a cliff, over a moor and through a sand-dune in a gale on 4 February 1940, when the lifeboat was called to aid a small ship in distress. Eleven lives were saved.

Tractor trials

Black and white photo of a tractor with caterpillar tracks

British Illustrations

A tractor trial taking place on the sand dunes at Hunstanton

Innovation and the RNLI go hand-in-hand. Finding new, quicker, safer ways to launch lifeboats has been a key part of that. This image shows a rather dapper gentleman testing out a new type of tractor on the sand dunes at Hunstanton Beach.

Legendary lifesaver caught on camera

Black and white photo of a lifeboat crew with a film camera

Associated Press

Cromer lifeboat crew, including Henry Blogg, wait to be filmed

This image captures Cromer lifeboat crew being filmed in 1937. Among the crew, and pictured centre, is Henry Blogg, the most decorated lifeboat crew member in RNLI history. In his 53 years of service, Henry was awarded three Gold Medals and four Silver Medals for Gallantry, helping to save more than 873 lives.

Read more about Henry’s incredible story.

A family tradition

An elderly woman sits knitting items next to a fireplace

RNLI/Nigel Millard

‘Lifeboat Mary’ knitting to raise money for the RNLI

Affectionately known as ‘Lifeboat Mary’, Mary Taylor has supported the RNLI for over 70 years, following the tradition set by her father and grandfather, who were both coxswains at Padstow Lifeboat Station. From baking biscuits and cakes to knitting and making toys, Mary has raised thousands of pounds for the RNLI.

Battling the elements

Severn class all-weather lifeboat in rough seas

Paul Appleton

Newhaven’s Severn class lifeboat during storm St Jude

Newhaven’s Severn class all-weather lifeboat battles the elements during the St Jude storm. The lifeboat crew were called out to search for a 14-year-old boy who had been swept out to sea in hurricane force winds. Sadly, the boy was never found.

Saving lives on the beach

A lifeguard wearing a helmet onboard a rescue watercraft next to a pier

RNLI/Nathan Williams

An RNLI lifeguard trains onboard a rescue watercraft

The RNLI have been saving lives on beaches since 2001, when the lifeguard service was first introduced across the UK and Channel Islands. Today, over 1,600 lifeguard patrol 245 beaches, sharing safety advice and saving lives. This image shows a lifeguard in Boscombe, Dorset, training on a rescue watercraft.

Saving lives abroad

Four children swim in front of an adult swim teacher

RNLI/Mike Lavis

An RNLI instructor teaches children how to swim in Zanzibar

Every other minute, someone in the world drowns. These deaths are preventable. The RNLI has been working with communities across the globe to try and reduce this needless loss of life. This image shows an RNLI instructor teaching children how to swim in Zanzibar, Africa.

All-weather lifeboat service

Five lifeboat crew members walk across a snowy beach with a castle in the background

RNLI/Nigel Millard

Seahouses lifeboat crew return from a search exercise

Lifeboat training takes place all-year round, no matter what the weather conditions might be. This photo shows Seahouses lifeboat crew members returning from a search exercise in the snow on a beach near Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland.

Protective equipment

Lifeboat crew member in inshore lifeboat kit wearing a mask and blue gloves

RNLI/Nathan Williams

Poole Crew Member Joe Manning wearing PPE

When lockdown hit the UK and Ireland, RNLI lifeboat crews were still on call. So as well as their usual protective equipment, lifeboat crews wore masks and gloves to provide extra protection.

Inspired by these World Photography Day images? Do you have a photo of the RNLI you’d like to share with us? You can submit your photos and videos of RNLI lifesavers and help preserve our history for years to come. Visit the photo page and submit your image today.