Tower Lifeboat Station: A lifesaving landmark
When Tower Lifeboat Station was established in the heart of London, the crew never imagined they would become the busiest of all the RNLI’s 238 lifeboat stations – and the first to reach a milestone 10,000 launches. Here’s their story.
Many people, even in central London, are unaware of the lifesaving service Tower crew provide, right on their doorstep. It’s a service that is run predominantly by volunteers, in a lifeboat station that is crewed 24/7, 365 days of the year.
These volunteer crews may not have to deal with big waves or hideous storms like their coastal counterparts, but they have to battle huge tides, fast-moving water, bridges, piers, vast numbers of people and constant river traffic.
Watch this video to find out more about the station:
These orange lifeboats are part of London life – like black cabs and red buses. But not everyone realises we’ve been here, rescuing Londoners and visitors alike, since 2002.
How did lifesaving on the Thames begin?
On a warm evening in August 1989, guests celebrated a birthday party onboard the Marchioness pleasure boat, travelling down the River Thames. A few hours later, the pleasure boat and a dredger, Bowbelle, collided. The Marchioness sank. Fifty-one people lost their lives in the waters of the Thames that night.
An inquiry into the disaster recommended that London should be served by a dedicated rescue service on the Thames. The RNLI were asked by the government to provide lifeboat cover.
And so, in 2002, the RNLI began its lifesaving service on the Thames, with four lifeboat stations at Teddington, Chiswick, Gravesend and Tower. They’re the first lifeboat stations to specifically cover a river.
Tower Lifeboat Station was originally placed by Tower Millennium Pier, next to the Tower of London. But, in 2006, it moved to the Victoria Embankment next to Waterloo Bridge – a location with a fascinating history.
Waterloo Police Pier
While Tower Lifeboat Station sounds relatively new, the floating pier by Waterloo Bridge on which it sat was around 150 years old, dating back to the 1860s.
In fact, people have been saving lives from that pier since 1874 – when Thames Police took up residence. Back then, it was called Waterloo Police Pier and the police relied on Thames Specials – volunteers with boathandling experience. They adopted a Navy-like culture, having to remain in uniform at all times and request shore leave.
In 2004, Waterloo Police Pier was bought by the RNLI for a nominal sum of £1. The building and pier underwent essential work to convert it into a lifeboat station, which was generously funded by several donors. It was renamed Lifeboat Pier when Tower RNLI moved there in 2006.
Lifesaving on the Thames
The Thames is more than just a river. It’s a commercial, tourist and transport artery that touches the lives of millions of people. It’s also a killer.
The river’s cold temperature, rapid pace and changing tides make it incredibly dangerous. Speed is of the utmost importance and anyone in the water must be reached within minutes, especially given the constant heavy traffic from passing watercraft of every kind.
That’s why Tower lifeboat crew must launch within 90 seconds of the Coastguard’s request. It’s also why the crew is on duty around the clock. Ten full-time crew members live and sleep at the station in 4-day shifts, working alongside 55 volunteers. They’re ready to launch at a moment’s notice, 24/7, 365 days of the year.
These volunteers come from all walks of life. They train and work hard in 12-hour shifts, which takes commitment and the understanding of their family members and employers.
The station takes a battering
While the station was perfectly placed for saving lives on the Thames, the building began to show its age. The cramped, old barge, which sat on Victorian ironworks and was held in place with timbers, was bashed around with the washing of passing traffic. It suffered so much wear and tear that it was beyond economic repair.
Not only that, but the station was too small and lacking in proper facilities. There was no privacy for vulnerable casualties and no dedicated space to dry kit or welcome visitors.
So, in 2021, the RNLI launched the Tower Appeal to build a new floating lifeboat station. This project was supported by the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and other generous donors, and work soon began.
The old Tower Lifeboat Station was floated down the River Thames, to be used by Thames Marine Services as one of six electrical charging facilities. While their new station was being completed at King George V Dock, the crew worked from HMS President – the Royal Naval Reserve’s training facility in London.
In March 2023, the new station was finished and floated to Waterloo Bridge – the same location as the previous station. Only this time, it would be further away from the wall of the Grade l listed Victoria Embankment.
Meet the new Tower Lifeboat Station
On 28 April 2023, the crew moved into their new station, ready to meet the challenges of keeping London safe for generations to come. On that very night, they had their first shout.
Station Manager Kevin Maynard says: 'We're such a busy lifeboat station, keeping people on the Thames safe day and night, that I wasn't surprised that we went on our first shout just hours after moving into our brand-new station. We're the busiest crew in the country, and having this incredible new lifeboat station means we have everything we need, ready to save lives and care for casualties here in the heart of London.’
The station was officially opened on 23 June by RNLI President HRH The Duke of Kent.
What makes the new lifeboat station a better place for our lifesavers and those they rescue? It has:
- a private casualty care area to provide first aid care away from public view
- dedicated spaces for training and a visitor centre to welcome the public and educate people about water safety
- an expanded crew changing area with a specialist drying cabinet for their kit
- more spacious and modern accommodation, including a better kitchen, dining and lounge area for the live-in crew – so they have room to rest, recuperate and keep fit during those long shifts
- a new structure that will set the building off the embankment and reduce slamming, making a big difference to crew wellbeing
- a workshop that opens directly onto the pier, making it easier to carry out routine maintenance on lifeboats.
A lifesaving milestone
On 6 June 2023, Tower RNLI hit the incredible milestone of 10,000 lifeboat launches – the first lifeboat station to reach that number.
At 1.09pm, the crew launched after receiving multiple reports of a person in the water around Battersea. After a swift launch, they spotted the person, pulled them into their E class lifeboat and carried out initial care, before passing them to the London Ambulance Service.
Volunteer Laura Lewis, who has been on the crew since 2015, says: ‘As soon as the call came in and we knew a person was in the water, we attended as fast as we could. I knew the 10,000th shout was approaching as we have a board up in the station but none of us thought of that at the time – we were just focusing on the job at hand.’
Neil Ceconi, who has been RNLI crew for 6 years, was also on the shout that day. ‘It is a big milestone for the station and the crew. As always, I’m proud of seeing all the crew working together and using their training to help save a life,’ he says. ‘It seems fitting we reached this historic number in our new home.’
In the 21 years since its formation, Tower RNLI volunteers have saved 381 lives over their 10,000 shouts. Find out more about the station.Learn more about Tower Lifeboat Station