Manchester’s key role in RNLI charity heritage celebrated at Histories Festival

Lifeboats News Release

The 125th anniversary of an event which helped shape the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and still underpins charity fundraising across the world will be celebrated during Manchester Histories Festival this week.

An exhibition in Manchester Town Hall this Saturday (11 June) will focus on the world’s first charity street collection, which took place in Manchester on behalf of the RNLI on Saturday 10 October 1891. Organised by successful cotton merchant Sir Charles Macara, the collection was a huge success and raised more than £5,000 - equivalent to almost £250,000 today.

He was inspired to act after witnessing the RNLI’s worst ever lifeboat disaster five years earlier, when 27 men died in an attempt to rescue the crew of the stricken German barque Mexico during a violent gale off the Lancashire coast.

RNLI volunteers launched from Lytham, St Annes and Southport but tragically the Eliza Fernley from Southport and Laura Janet from St Annes capsized and 27 lifeboat crew members drowned. Lytham’s Charles Biggs lifeboat launched on her maiden rescue and saved all 12 of Mexico’s crew.

A disaster fund raised £30,000 for the families of those lost but Charles wanted to do more. He discovered RNLI finances were low, with over two-thirds of the charity’s income coming from just a handful of wealthy people, so he decided to hold ‘a grand cavalcade to make the public at large aware of the service provided by the brave volunteer lifeboat men and the need for widespread financial support’.

The Manchester collection was supported by an impressive parade through the city, when 30,000 people lined the streets to watch bands, colourful floats and two horse-drawn lifeboats. Charles’s wife Marion, with many of her friends, went along the crowds collecting money and Charles arranged for lifeboat crew members to carry sacks on long poles to reach those watching from windows and the tops of buses and trams.

The event inspired regular Lifeboat Saturdays, not just in Manchester but around the country, and became a major source of fundraising for the RNLI. Other charities later followed suit and street collections are still a regular and vital source of charity income.

Hayley Whiting, RNLI Heritage Archive and Research Manager, said: ‘The first Lifeboat Saturday was hugely influential and changed charity fundraising forever. Before that, fundraising used to be quite private, and charities tended to approach only influential people and wealthy philanthropists. This was different - ordinary people were being asked to help, and were clearly happy to do so.

‘The RNLI has some wonderful photographs and artefacts from the first street collection and we will be bringing these together for an exhibition during the Manchester Histories Festival Celebration Day at the Town Hall on Saturday 11 June. Manchester played such a key role in RNLI history and we are thrilled to be a part of this wonderful event which celebrates the city’s heritage.’

During the event, RNLI volunteer presenter Tom Ridyard MBE will talk about the Mexico disaster through the eyes of a lifeboat crew member on the night of the tragedy and will also discuss Greater Manchester's links with the RNLI. The exhibition will be used later in the year at the charity’s headquarters in Poole for further celebrations of the 125th anniversary of the first Lifeboat Saturday.

And the newly formed City of Manchester RNLI fundraising branch will be holding a ‘heritage’ street collection to coincide with the festival and to celebrate Lifeboat Saturday.  RNLI volunteers will dress up in cork lifejackets and oilskins from the 1891 era and collect funds in one of the first of many activities to push the boat out in the 125th anniversary year.

Manchester Histories is a small charity that celebrates and reveals the unique histories and heritage of Greater Manchester. It delivers Manchester Histories, a 10-day festival, and also projects and events during the year that help people to learn about past histories and take part in creating tomorrow's histories, This year’s festival runs from 3-12 June. For more information go to  

Picture captions
1. The volunteers involved in the first street collection outside Manchester Town Hall in 1891.
2. Sir Charles Macara.

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Key facts about the RNLI

The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates over 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and, in a normal year, more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.

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