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Letitia French: A quiet revolutionary

Looking for female role models? Look no further than the RNLI’s very own Letitia French, who was the first woman to manage a lifeboat station way back in 1904.

A black and white austere photograph of Honorary Secretary Letitia French standing beside a wooden chair with a book in her hand

Photo: RNLI

Letitia French, the first female honorary secretary, from Lifeboat magazine in 1927

Letitia in charge

Years before women even got the vote, Letitia French was in charge of the RNLI Palling Lifeboat Station and crew, in Norfolk. In 1904 Letitia became honorary secretary – responsible for the efficiency of the lifeboats and crews at Palling, ensuring they were ready to launch 24/7. It’s a crucial volunteer role known today as lifeboat operations manager.

For years, Letitia volunteered at the station alongside her father, Edward French. He was honorary secretary until he died, in 1904. Letitia was keen to continue his work, so she took up the reins officially. 

At that time, it was unusual for women to hold these kinds of positions of responsibility in society. At a few stations, women helped to launch the lifeboats (famously at Dungeness and Newbiggin) and many other women were fundraisers, forming ladies lifeboat guilds. Before Letitia, it was unheard of to have a woman in charge of the lifeboat station and crew. 

There’s now an independent lifeboat station at Sea Palling, and we asked Chris Ball from the Sea Palling Independent Lifeboat what it would have been like for Letitia: ‘Sea Palling is a very small village now, back in the early 1900s it would have been tiny. Almost certainly the lifeboat would have been manned by local fishermen. Letitia would have worked closely with the coxswain to get things done.’

Humbly saving lives

Letitia was honorary secretary officially for 24 years, from 1904 to 1928. On her watch, the Palling lifeboat crews launched to the rescue 169 times and saved 209 lives.

Like many lifeboat volunteers, Letitia was humble. When she was asked to appear in a Lifeboat magazine article in 1927, she requested that it was written about her father instead. 

On her watch: Silver Medal rescue

A slide for a magic lantern, depicting the men of the Palling lifeboat in action over 100 years ago

Photo: RNLI

More than 100 years ago, the hirsute men of the Palling lifeboats launched to the rescue, ably supported back at the station by Honorary Secretary Letitia French

While Letitia French was in charge, a Silver Medal was awarded to one of the Palling crew, James Pestle. On 9 March 1907 in a strong gale, six men were shipwrecked on a sailboat called Vixen. It was 5am and the crew battled through the surf, in darkness, to reach the men on the wreck. 

The lifeboat crew got five of the men off the sailboat, but one man was stuck in the rigging, incapacitated by the cold. Crew Member James Pestle boarded the wreck, climbed the rigging and got the man down into the lifeboat. But the waves drove the lifeboat away from the wreck, leaving James clinging on for dear life. It was some time before the lifeboat crew were able to retrieve James and get everyone safely back to Palling. 

For his courage and bravery, James Pestle received an RNLI Silver Medal – a proud moment for everyone at the station including the woman in charge, Letitia French.

Inspired by Letitia to take a leading role

Other women followed in Letitia’s footsteps, volunteering to run lifeboat stations. They included Jane Hay at St Abbs (who started in 1911), Minnie Sutherland at Longhope (who started in the 1940s) and Maire Hoy at Clogherhead (who started in 1961). 

Some people still found it challenging to see a woman in charge. In Lifeboat magazine in 1979, it was suggested that women being involved in RNLI roles other than fundraising might make people ‘a little nervous at such revolutionary proceedings’. Maire Hoy, who was honorary secretary at that time, was rather more down to earth about it: 'I didn't find any difficulty taking over … I just take it in my stride.'

21st century lifeboat operations managers 

These days the honorary secretary role is called lifeboat operations manager. Today there are 17 women in the lifeboat operations manager role and it’s increasing.

Buckie Lifeboat Operations Manager Anne Scott in an RNLI blue jacket smiling, with an RNLI crew changing room behind her

Photo: Northern Scot Newspaper

Inspired by Letitia: Buckie RNLI Lifeboat Operations Manager Anne Scott

Anne Scott has been Lifeboat Operations Manager at Buckie Lifeboat Station since 2020. She tells us how the role has changed since Letitia’s day: ‘The technology, of course, and there’s more paperwork! But there’s a lot that has stayed the same. We still ensure that the crew and the station have everything they need to be in the best possible position to save lives. We still have responsibility for sending the boat and crew out. They’re my crew and I care for them. The bravery of the crew stays the same whether they’re male or female.’ 

The rise in the number of women on the lifeboat crew in the last 40 years is likely to lead to more female lifeboat operations managers too. ‘It’s a natural progression,’ reflects Anne. ‘I think it encourages people to volunteer if they see individuals from all backgrounds in various roles within the station.’

Letitia: Humble, capable, revolutionary 

‘Letitia French inspired by example,’ says Anne. ‘She sounds like a formidable lady who would have fought many battles against stereotyping. In the early 1900s It wouldn’t have been a “woman’s place” to have been part of a lifeboat station. But the fact that she did the role for many years shows what a capable person she was.’ 

Letitia managed the station until her death in 1928 – the year, incidentally, that all women finally got the vote. In her obituary in Lifeboat, it read simply: ‘The Institution has lost a most valued helper and one who had the distinction of having been, for a number of years, the only woman Honorary Secretary of a Station'.

If you’re inspired by Letitia to join our RNLI lifesaving crew, whether that’s on a lifeboat or from shore, check out our volunteering opportunities. 

How you can volunteer