Celebrating 70 years of service

Looking back at 70 years of support for the RNLI from our Patron, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 

The Queen attends a naming ceremony for a lifeboat

Things have come a long way since the 1950s, but some things remain the same. The courage of the RNLI’s lifeboat crews is one of those things. And another? The steadfast support and example of our Patron, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

On ascending to the throne in 1952, our young Queen took on a lot of responsibilities. And one of those was being the Patron of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. It’s a role that’s been held by every reigning British monarch since King George IV in the 1820s. And it’s an important role, giving credibility and support to the lifesaving charity.

The Queen has been by our side throughout her reign, granting awards for services to lifesaving, and sending her heartfelt sympathy when – sadly – we’ve lost crew members to the sea. She and her family have named lifeboats, opened stations, and given cheer, inspiration and a well-deserved sense of pride to generations of lifeboat crews.

A royal escort

One memorable visit from early in Her Majesty’s reign came on 29 June 1958, when she and The Duke of Edinburgh visited Holy Island, Northumberland. RNLI lifeboat crews from Berwick and North Sunderland launched to proudly escort the royal barge. But you never know what the North Sea has in store, and duty called. The coxswain of the North Sunderland lifeboat Grace Darling spotted a broken-down motorboat with 14 people onboard and in need of help. The lifeboat crew changed course and took the motorboat, Lady Francis, under tow to the nearest safe harbour. They then returned to complete the royal escort.

On arrival at Holy Island lifeboat slipway, The Queen and The Duke were welcomed ashore and into the station. Lifeboat and fundraising volunteers were presented to our Patron and her husband, on a day that lives on in many happy memories.

New lifeboats inspected

The 1960s were famously a time of change, and one of those changes was in the way we use the sea. More dinghy sailors and swimmers needed help, and traditional deep-sea lifeboats were not quite right for these jobs. RNLI engineers began developing inshore lifeboats – smaller, faster craft that could reach people quickly and in shallower waters. And the staff and students at Atlantic College in South Wales were a big help in this project.

On 25 June 1965, The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh visited Atlantic College and inspected some of these next-generation lifeboats. The D class got the royal seal of approval, and has since gone on to save 17,859 lives.

The Queen greets sailors at a naming ceremony

I name this lifeboat …

On 17 July 1972, The Queen became the first reigning monarch to name a lifeboat. Members of the Royal British Legion had raised £51,000 towards a new Solent class lifeboat, to celebrate the Legion’s 50th anniversary. The Queen is also that charity’s Patron, and was glad to name the lifeboat The Royal British Legion Jubilee.

The naming ceremony took place at the Henley Royal Regatta, some distance from the sea, and The Queen said that the unusual location showed ‘a recognition of the wonderful support which the Royal National Lifeboat Institution receives from its inland branches as well as from the coastal towns and villages’. Her Majesty’s recognition of the tireless work of the RNLI’s inland fundraisers has continued throughout her patronage. In 2019, for example, she awarded the British Empire Medal to Gordon Schofield from the Stockport Fundraising Branch. Gordon had been volunteering with the RNLI for more than 70 years. It seems even The Queen still has a little catching up to do!

The Royal British Legion Jubilee lifeboat joined the relief fleet and saw service at stations around the UK. It also had spells as the official station lifeboat at Fraserburgh and Peterhead. And The Queen has named four more lifeboats since: The Scout at Hartlepool in 1977, Her Majesty The Queen at Ramsgate in 1993, Richard Cox Scott at Falmouth in 2002 and Sybil Mullen Glover at Plymouth in 2003.

This year, the RNLI is honouring The Duke of Edinburgh's longstanding commitment to maritime services and a lifetime of support to The Queen by naming a new lifeboat Duke of Edinburgh.

The biggest day in training

By the turn of the century, further societal change was afoot. Maritime industries were employing fewer people in the UK and Ireland, and therefore more and more lifeboat volunteers were joining the RNLI without professional seafaring experience.

The RNLI established a training centre – the Lifeboat College – in Poole on the south coast of England. Volunteers could visit from across the RNLI to immerse themselves in week-long residential courses on high-level skills from sea survival to casualty care. With a high-tech training pool, lifeboat bridge simulator, live engine workshop and fire simulation tank, the College was equipped to train lifesavers, and has been the central meeting point for the RNLI family for almost 20 years.

On 28 July 2004, The Queen officially opened the College. It was a momentous occasion, with 233 coxswains and senior helms – one each from every RNLI lifeboat station – coming together in the same place, for the first time ever.

The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh were joined by the RNLI’s President, The Duke of Kent, for a tour of the College, including a capsize demonstration in the pool. They were then welcomed aboard the new Severn class lifeboat destined for Castletownbere, Co Cork, by that station’s Coxswain, Brian O’Driscoll, for a short trip around Poole Harbour.

The Queen said: ‘Having just seen some of the excellent training that is already being delivered, I am certain that the Lifeboat College will play a vital role in helping the RNLI to save even more lives.’

The Queen greets a young girl at a naming ceremony for a lifeboat

Some fun at Cowes

‘It wasn’t the stuffy, formal thing I’d imagined it would be. It was really nice,’ says Cowes Lifeboat Operations Manager Mark Southwell. He’s talking about 25 July 2012 – the day The Queen opened the new lifeboat station at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. ‘When you speak to The Queen, she’s genuinely interested in what you’re saying and makes you feel relaxed.’

The new station’s location meant that the lifeboat crew could get out into the Solent faster when they were needed most. The royal visitors had some fun on the day, signing the station’s lifeboat maintenance log book. The Queen signed everything off as shipshape in the space marked ‘Coxswain’, while The Duke of Edinburgh signed as ‘Mechanic’.

A life of service

RNLI Chief Executive Mark Dowie says: ‘On behalf of all of the Institution’s volunteers, staff and supporters, I’d like to wish The Queen our very best on her Platinum Jubilee. Her Majesty is a vital part of our crew – inspiring us all to do everything we can for the people of this country and beyond. It’s an honour to be involved in the celebrations. We thank Her Majesty for all she has done to support the RNLI’s lifesavers throughout her reign, and look forward to her next engagement with us.’

A lot has happened in the past 70 years, and we’ve come a long way under The Queen’s patronage. Since she took the throne, RNLI lifeboats have launched 330,401 times, and saved 65,886 lives. We introduced a lifeguard service that has saved 1,796 lives. We brought jet-propelled lifeboats to the Thames, and helped other lifesaving organisations around the world with their programmes. None of this would have been possible without generous and caring supporters. People like you. And like Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Robbie Maiden meets The Queen

A starstruck young crew member

Hartlepool lifeboat naming ceremony in 1977 was part of The Queen’s Silver Jubilee, marking 25 years on the throne. Ten-year-old Robbie Maiden, the Hartlepool coxswain’s son, had the honour of meeting the special guest.

‘It was a very proud day for me, and one that I still remember,’ he says today. ‘The lifeboat crew had arranged for me to have my own RNLI Guernsey jumper and red woolly hat, so I looked like part of the crew. The Queen asked me that day if I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. The answer was a resounding yes – and here I am today as the current coxswain!’

The party’s not over – watch this space! Enjoy your own celebrations, and let us know what you get up to.