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Three female crew members, training on an inshore lifeboat, smile and laugh

15+ influential women of the RNLI

Photo: RNLI/Harrison Bates

As the RNLI celebrates 200 years of saving lives at sea, we look back at how women have helped shape the charity into the mighty lifesaving service it is today.

1. Grace Darling: 1838

The first female RNLI medallist

A portrait of Grace Darling by Thomas Brooks (1818-1891)

Photo: RNLI Grace Darling Museum

An oil on canvas portrait of Grace Darling by Thomas Brooks

When Grace Darling and her father William braved a raging North Sea in a wooden rowing boat to save the lives of nine stranded survivors of the wrecked ship Forfarshire, it was Grace who hit the headlines.

Why? Because she was a woman. A woman showing tremendous strength and courage in a daring rescue that put her own life at risk. This was unheard of at the time and made her an unlikely hero in most people’s eyes.

‘Is there in the field of history, or of fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment, with this?’ wrote The Times in 1838. 

And the Life-Boat Journal dated 1 October 1856 read:

‘To have braved the dangers of that terrible passage would have done the highest honour even to the well-tried nerves of the stoutest of the male sex. But what shall be said of the errand of mercy being undertaken and accomplished mainly through the strength of a female heart and arm!’ 

Grace was the first woman to be awarded an RNLI Medal for Gallantry. She paved the way for future female lifesavers. And to this day, she remains a lifesaving icon to people of all genders and ages. 

2. Margaret Armstrong: 1874

The first known woman to help launch and recover lifeboats

A sepia photo of the launch of Cresswell lifeboat. Margaret Armstrong and four male crew members are holding the rope to slowly release the lifeboat from the boathouse. The coxswain onboard the lifeboat looks ahead.
November 1921: Margaret Armstrong never missed a lifeboat launch at Cresswell in 50 years. She is pictured here aged 73.

Before tractors, launching and recovering a lifeboat without moorings in the 19th and early 20th centuries was an arduous task. It relied on the brute strength of volunteers and horses, physically pulling the lifeboat into and out of the water.

At stations such as Cresswell, Newbiggin and Hauxley in Northumberland, and Dungeness in Kent, this brute strength came from women as well as men in the community. These brave, dependable women helped to launch and recover the lifeboats for more than a century, from the 1850s until the 1970s. 

Margaret Armstrong, née Brown, of Northumberland was the first known woman to help launch and recover lifeboats. She never missed a single launch of the Cresswell lifeboat, saving lives for 50 years - until her death in 1928, aged 79. 

Margaret’s unfailing dedication to saving lives at sea was driven by an unimaginable tragedy. In 1873, the fishing coble with her father and three brothers onboard capsized in a storm close to shore. With the help of her fellow female volunteers, Margaret desperately pulled their lifeless bodies ashore. It was this tragedy that led to an RNLI lifeboat station being placed at Cresswell. 

In 1922, Margaret was presented with a Gold Brooch and an Inscribed Record of Thanks by the RNLI, in recognition of her service to saving lives at sea. She was the first woman in Britain to receive this honour.

You can read more about Margaret, including why she was described as the ‘second Grace Darling’, in this article from the February 1922 edition of The Life-Boat magazine.

3. Dungeness Lady Launchers: 1977

The last station where women helped launch and recover lifeboats

Dedicated Dungeness women helping launch the lifeboat in the late 1950s

Photo: RNLI

For generations, women of Dungeness hauled their lifeboat over the shingle to launch 

Generations of women launched the Dungeness lifeboat for more than a century until 1977, when the station received its first launching tractor. The women would drag heavy wooden skids across the shingle beach and lay them under the keel of the lifeboat before taking to the ropes to haul the lifeboat into the water. 

The Tart and Oiller families formed the backbone of this group - with Doris Tart (née Oiller), her mother-in-law Ellen Tart and aunt Madge Tart serving as launchers for around 50 years. They did this in all weathers, day and night, with no more protective clothing than their own coats and scarves. And then did the whole procedure again to recover the lifeboat.

In recognition of their long service as shore helpers, they were each awarded an RNLI Gold Badge. Ellen and Madge were awarded theirs in 1953, and Doris and Joan Bates received theirs in 1979.

4. Marion Macara: 1891

Founder of the RNLI Ladies Lifeboat Guild

A group sepia photo of the Macara family. Lady Marion Macara and the young female family members are all dressed in long, dark dresses. Sir Charles Macara and the young male family members are dressed in suits. They are standing outside the grand entrance of a building.
Lady Marion Macara (far left), her husband Sir Charles Wright Macara (back row, far right) and their family

The worst lifeboat disaster in RNLI history changed the face of fundraising forever. Shocked by the loss of 27 lifeboatmen off the Lancashire coast, a grieving nation felt compelled to help the families left behind, which included 16 widows and 50 orphaned children.   

A public appeal was launched, and a small group of fundraisers organised the world’s first recorded street collection in aid of it. The fundraising event, which featured a parade of bands, floats and lifeboats, took place in Manchester on 10 October 1891. It attracted thousands of people and raised an incredible £5,000 in one day (around £522,000 in today’s money). 

The event was so successful, it became the first of many Lifeboat Saturdays that would go on to raise vital funds for the charity and the families that save lives at sea.  

The masterminds behind the fundraising group were Marion Macara and her husband Charles. They brought an impassioned nation together, giving people the opportunity to fulfil their need to help. And in doing so, Marion and Charles discovered the true meaning of fundraising. 

Gone were the days of relying solely on wealthy philanthropists to help fund the charity. Moving forward, the RNLI would survive on the compassion and love of its greatest supporters - the general public.  

After forming a group of women to help organise the street collection, Marion championed the formation of more local fundraising groups. Within 10 years, more than 40 ladies’ groups, or auxiliaries as they were known, had sprung up around the UK and Ireland, and the RNLI’s income had doubled. 

In 1921, the fundraising groups were renamed the Ladies Lifeboat Guild. Marion Macara is celebrated as the founder of this remarkable women’s movement in charitable fundraising, and as the gamechanger of the RNLI’s lifesaving future. 

5. Letitia French: 1904

The first woman to manage a lifeboat station

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

Before Letitia French, having a woman in charge of the lifeboat station and crew was unheard of. In fact, in society at the time, it was unusual for women to hold any kind of position of responsibility like this. 

But Letitia wasn’t worried about conforming to the norm. All she wanted to do was continue the great work of her father, Edward French.

Edward was honorary secretary at RNLI Palling Lifeboat Station in Norfolk until he died in 1904. He was responsible for the smooth running of the station, ensuring the crew and the lifeboats were ready to launch 24/7. It’s a crucial volunteer role known today as lifeboat operations manager.

After volunteering for years alongside her father, Letitia was keen to follow in his footsteps. And she did so admirably. 

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, including an RNLI Silver Medal-worthy rescue, which was a very proud moment for Letitia, the crew and everyone at the station.

Letitia inspired other women to take on this leading role at their local lifeboat stations. They included Jane Hay at St Abbs in the Scottish Borders who started in 1911, Minnie Sutherland at Longhope in Orkney who started in the 1940s, and Maire Hoy at Clogherhead in County Louth who started in 1961.  

Today, there are 130 female lifeboat operations managers or launch authorities at RNLI lifeboat stations around the UK and Ireland … and counting.

6. Elizabeth Hostvedt: 1969

The first official female crew member

Elizabeth Hostvedt, the first woman qualified to command an inshore lifeboat, and the rest of the Atlantic College RNLI lifeboat crew
Elizabeth Hostvedt was the first official female crew member

When the D class joined the fleet in 1963, this smaller and lighter inshore lifeboat became more than the workhorse of the RNLI. It was the catalyst for women being accepted on the crew. 

The first of these women was 18-year-old Elizabeth Hostvedt. Elizabeth was a Norwegian student at the Atlantic College, an international boarding school set on the rugged shores of the Bristol Channel in South Wales. The college was one of nine experimental inshore lifeboat stations created by the RNLI in 1963 and, uniquely, its volunteer crew were made up of the college’s students and teachers. 

When Elizabeth asked to join the crew, her request was met with some resistance. Did a woman have the stamina to handle the lifeboat in strong gales? Or the strength to pull heavy bodies from the water?

To dispel these misconceptions, Elizabeth had to prove that she was just as capable as any of her male counterparts. In 1969, after passing a full medical test and showing that she had the ‘physique to stand up to an arduous service’, Elizabeth became the first official female crew member at the RNLI. 

7. Penelope Sutton: 1971

The first female crew member on a shout 

Although Elizabeth Hostvedt set the precedent for more female crew members, the first callout involving a female crew member didn’t take place until 2 years later on 20 May 1971.  

Penelope Sutton, who was also a student and a lifeboat volunteer at the Atlantic College, was part of the inshore lifeboat crew that launched to help a Swedish motor cruiser. The emergency turned out to be a false alarm after the cruiser’s Red Ensign flag was mistaken for a distress signal. 

8. Frances Glody: 1981

The first female all-weather lifeboat crew member

Frances Glody standing on the aft deck of Dunmore East RNLI’s Waveney class all-weather lifeboat, looking ahead. She has long, wavy, dark brown hair and she is wearing a red RNLI jacket over a dark patterned jumper. A male crew member is standing to her left looking back towards the bow of the lifeboat.

Photo: RNLI

Frances Glody, the first female all-weather lifeboat crew member, onboard Dunmore East’s Waveney class lifeboat St. Patrick

Ten years later in 1981, Frances Glody took over from her retiring father at Dunmore East Lifeboat Station in County Waterford to become the RNLI’s first female all-weather lifeboat crew member.

In an interview with Marine Journalist Tom MacSweeney that same year, Frances describes one of her first experiences as crew of Dunmore East’s Waveney class all-weather lifeboat St. Patrick:

‘It was like hitting a concrete wall when we struck those big waves - the physical shock was huge. I had no doubt that being on a lifeboat was going to be tough and demanding.’

9 and 10. Karina Hjorth and Jade White: 1996

The earliest known all-female shout

The earliest known all-female shout* was on 26 July 1996 when Atlantic College launched their B class Atlantic 21 inshore lifeboat American Ambassador B-554, crewed by Karina Hjorth and Jade White. A blue-and-yellow inflatable dinghy had been reported drifting 3 miles south of Nash Sands. After locating the dinghy and finding no one on board, the all-female crew recovered it and returned to the station. 

The earliest launch of a three-woman crew was on 6 May 1998 when Flamborough launched their B class Atlantic 75 inshore lifeboat Amy Constance B-734. On the crew that day were Anita Ibbotson, Frances Yardley and Debra Brambles. Cabin cruiser Kit B had suffered a fouled propeller a quarter of a mile off Selwicks Bay. The female lifeboat crew towed the 4m cruiser and its crew of three to the safety of Bridlington Harbour.

Today, almost 14% (1,116) of the RNLI’s frontline lifesavers are women. This includes lifeboat crew, shore crew, launch authorities and lifeboat operations managers. As this number increases, it’s only a matter of time before we see an all-female all-weather lifeboat crew.

* There may have been earlier all-female shouts, but the crew data we have only goes back to 1994.

11. Aileen Jones MBE: 2005

The first lifeboatwoman awarded a gallantry medal

Porthcawl RNLI Helm Aileen Jones with her Bronze Medal for Gallantry
Porthcawl RNLI Helm Aileen Jones with her Bronze Medal for Gallantry

Being awarded an RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry came as a total shock for Porthcawl Helm Aileen Jones. But what made this recognition even more special for Aileen was being the first ever female crew member in RNLI history to receive one.

‘I wanted to join the crew when I was 17,’ she explains. ‘But there just weren’t women on the crew in those days. They weren’t seen as a good thing. It’s very different today. I eventually joined when I was 30 and, when I did, the crew were very supportive. In a way, it was better for me to join then as I’d had my family.’

Aileen was awarded the gallantry medal for her leadership and boathandling skills in a challenging rescue that saved the lives of two fishermen on 24 August 2004. 

‘I was totally shocked and really proud,’ she recalls. ‘It’s a shame the rest of the crew didn’t get a medal with me - I wish they had. Because I didn’t do it on my own. We did it as a crew.’ 

When Aileen joined the crew in 1993, she was Porthcawl’s first female crew member. She went on to become the station’s first female helm. In addition to her gallantry medal, Aileen was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals in 2002 and 2012 respectively, and an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 2016 for her outstanding contribution to the RNLI and our mission to save every one. 

Aileen Jones standing next to the tyre of the station’s Talus launching tractor, which is the same height as her. Aileen wears a yellow crew jacket, a dark top and jeans. She has shoulder-length, light grey hair.

Photo: RNLI/Porthcawl

Nowadays, Aileen drives the launching tractor rather than the lifeboat

Aileen is proud at how far she and Porthcawl Lifeboat Station have come with regards to gender equality. Today, she drives the 9-tonne Talus launching tractor rather than the lifeboat and is also one of the launch authorities at the station, both historically male roles.

‘If I saw myself now at the age of 12 on the beach, I’d say: “You’ve got a long road ahead of you but keep going. You’ll get there in the end!” We’ve got loads of female crew in Porthcawl now and there’s more joining us.’

You can hear more from Aileen in our 200 Voices podcast episode 7: Porthcawl Pioneer.

12. Sophie Grant-Crookston: 2007

The first female lifeguard awarded a gallantry medal

RNLI Lifeguard Sophie Grant-Crookston standing outdoors by a river. Sophie is wearing her RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry on her red RNLI lifeguards jacket. She has long brown hair and a beautiful smile.

Photo: Jon Stokes

RNLI Lifeguard Sophie Grant-Crookston proudly wearing her RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry

When the RNLI started its beach lifeguarding service in 2001, Sophie Grant-Crookston jumped at the chance of putting her years of surf lifesaving club training and pool lifeguarding to good use. She was determined to break the mould and prove that lifeguarding wasn’t just for boys and men - girls and women were just as strong and capable.

‘I could more than keep up with the boys I worked with,’ Sophie says. ‘That was all the RNLI looked for. If you could meet its training standards, then you could do the job. Gender didn’t come into it. Eventually a role came up and I found myself patrolling more challenging seas.’

Fast forward to 2006, and that mould had definitely developed cracks, with more women following in Sophie’s footsteps. But it wasn’t until Sophie became the first ever female lifeguard to receive an RNLI Medal for Gallantry that that mould was well and truly broken.

Sophie was awarded the Bronze Medal for saving the life of a stranded surfer in dangerous seas off Perranporth Beach in September 2006. She was the second RNLI lifeguard to be recognised in this way. The first was Sophie’s colleague and friend Rob MacDonald 3 years earlier in May 2003. 

‘It was a team effort, not an individual effort,’ says Sophie. ‘But I was completely honoured to be recognised, especially when I found out that the medal was the first one ever to be presented to a female lifeguard. My dad would’ve been the proudest person in the world.’

You can hear more from Sophie in our 200 Voices podcast episode 20: Surviving the Surf.

13. Leesa Espley: 2007

The first female rescue hovercraft pilot

A close-up, head-and-shoulders photo of Hunstanton RNLI Rescue Hovercraft Pilot Leesa Espley standing in front of a wood-panelled background. Leesa has long, light brown hair and is wearing her yellow RNLI crew kit including red lifejacket.

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

2007: Leesa Epsley became the first female rescue hovercraft pilot at the RNLI

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Leesa Espley, the RNLI’s first female hovercraft pilot! But she had to do it the hard way – needing laser eye-surgery before she could take flight. 

This superwoman has been flying the female flag at Hunstanton RNLI for more than 20 years since 2003, including 17 years as a pilot of the station’s rescue hovercraft The Hunstanton Flyer

'I always knew I was going to be in it for the long haul,' Leesa says. 'You're doing something for your community, you're doing something that's really worthwhile.’

You can hear more from Leesa in our 200 Voices podcast episode 22: Flying High

14. Di Bush: 2021

The first full-time female coxswain

A close-up, head-and-shoulders photo of Harwich RNLI Full-time Coxswain Di Bush standing outdoors with part of the moored all-weather lifeboat in the background. Di has long, light brown hair and is wearing her yellow RNLI crew kit including red lifejacket.

Photo: RNLI/Richard Adams

After 14 years as a lifeboat volunteer, Di Bush became the RNLI’s first female full-time mechanic and then the first full-time coxswain

Di Bush is no stranger to RNLI firsts. In 2017, she joined Harwich Lifeboat Station as the RNLI’s first female full-time mechanic. Then in August 2021, she became the RNLI’s first full-time female coxswain, taking command of Harwich RNLI’s Severn class all-weather lifeboat Albert Brown

But Di’s RNLI journey actually started back in 2003 when she joined as a lifeboat volunteer at Falmouth Lifeboat Station. In no time at all, Di qualified as a helm of the station’s B class Atlantic 75 inshore lifeboat, and as a volunteer mechanic on the station's Severn class all-weather lifeboat.

Her aim now is to encourage more women to follow in her footsteps. ‘There will be others that come along behind me, without question,’ she vows. 

You can hear more from Di in our 200 Voices podcast episode 30: Blazing a Trail.

15. Janet Legrand OBE KC (Hon): 2023

The first permanent female RNLI chair

A head-and-shoulders shot of RNLI Chair Janet Legrand on a white background. Janet has short, dark hair and is wearing a black suit jacket over a black top and black-rimmed glasses. There are two pin badges on the lapels of her jacket - one is an RNLI flag and the other is a ship’s wheel.

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Janet Legrand is one of three women on the RNLI’s Board of Trustees

In January 2023, Janet Legrand OBE KC (Hon) celebrated a milestone in the RNLI’s 200-year history and in gender equality by becoming the first permanent female Chair of the RNLI. Janet took over from Janet Cooper OBE FCG FGE, who became the RNLI’s first female Acting Chair from July 2022.

Janet joins two other women on the RNLI’s Board of Trustees - Deputy Chair Fiona Fell and Safeguarding Trustee Sonia Modray.

The Trustees are the guardians of the RNLI. They are all volunteers from a variety of backgrounds who influence how the RNLI is run and who carry the full financial and legal responsibility for everything the RNLI does.

Speaking about her appointment, Janet says: ‘I feel honoured and excited to be able to play a role in guiding this wonderful charity into the start of its third century, maintaining its important traditions, while helping to shape it to meet the increasing demands on its modern-day lifesaving service.’

Janet has had an extensive 40-year legal career and was appointed Queen’s Counsel Honoris Causa in 2018, which is awarded to those who have made a major contribution to the law of England and Wales outside practice in the courts. The Lord Chancellor’s citation described Janet as ‘... a pioneer in enhancing the role of women in the law, promoting social mobility, diversity and inclusion within her firm and the wider profession ...’

Janet has been Chair for numerous other not-for-profit organisations, including most recently The Children’s Society. She is Senior Lay Member of Court at The University of Edinburgh, a member of the Board of Advance HE, and a member of the Advisory Board of IntoUniversity. In January 2024, she was awarded an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for services to young people. 

You can hear more from Janet in our 200 Voices podcast episode 162: The Blue Peter Effect.

Firsts for all

Six women of the RNLI standing outside Westminster Abbey alongside three RNLI lifeboats and a lifeguard rescue board. The women include an inshore and an all-weather lifeboat crew member, a lifeguard, and those who work behind the scenes. It’s a bright sunny day.

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Six women of the RNLI outside Westminster Abbey on the RNLI’s 200th birthday. Left to right: Karen Stewart (Lochinver RNLI fundraiser), Jen Payne (Penarth Crew Member), Aine Flynn (Ballycotton Crew Member), Janet Legrand OBE KC (Hon) (RNLI Chair), Nelly Gallichan (Jersey Lifeguard), Jayne George (RNLI Fundraising Director).

This article features just a snapshot of influential women throughout the RNLI’s 200-year lifesaving story. There are many more women in every corner of the RNLI, from our lifesavers on the frontline to our boatbuilders behind the scenes, who are pushing the boundaries, who are challenging what’s gone before, and who are championing positive change for women and the way we save lives at sea. 

As one crew, regardless of who we are and where we are from, we are all guardians of the RNLI and its future. We all have a duty to make our charity as diverse and equitable as possible, and to strive for a world where there are no firsts because of our gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, class, disability, or any other difference.

Want to see more?

Hidden Depths

Grab a copy of Sue Hennessy’s book Hidden Depths: Women of the RNLI. 

As the Founder Principal of the RNLI College, Sue is an influential woman of the RNLI in her own right. Sue was pivotal in the design and build of this centre of training excellence for RNLI lifeboat crew and lifeguards. Once the college opened in 2004, Sue ran it for 4 years before retiring to fulfil her burning ambition - to write a book about women’s invaluable contribution to saving lives at sea.

The book is available online and from all major book retailers. 

Women of the RNLI

Women of the RNLI, a new exhibition to mark our 200th anniversary, has opened at the National Maritime Museum in London. It features striking photography, personal testimony and breathtaking film, proudly celebrating the pivotal role that women have played in saving lives at sea since 1824. You can book your free tickets on the Royal Museums Greenwich website