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Unique Photography Project to Celebrate Past and Present RNLI

Lifeboats News Release

A unique photographic archive of lifeboats is to be preserved for future generations – and shared with the public in an exciting new exhibition celebrating the past and present of the RNLI.


One of the Beken RNLI images acquired by the charity

The life-saving charity received £30,100 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to preserve and digitise a collection of nearly 1000 glass plate negatives of lifeboats dating back to the turn of the 20th Century.

The images are from the historic archive of the famous Beken family in Cowes, who have been photographing maritime activity off the Isle of Wight for generations .

A team of six enthusiastic volunteers were brought into RNLI Headquarters in Poole, Dorset, to clean, scan and repackage the fragile glass plates. They also carried out valuable research on the images, in particular exploring the histories of individual lifeboats.

Now a selection of the Beken lifeboats images are to go on show at Poole Museum from 26 January 2019 to 22 April 2019, in an exhibition entitled ‘Calm before the Storm: The Art of Photographing Lifeboats’.

The work will be shown alongside glass plate images of current lifeboat stations and crew by photographer Jack Lowe, creator of The Lifeboat Station Project.

The Project involves Jack travelling to all 238 RNLI lifeboat stations, travelling in an ambulance converted into a mobile darkroom, and making photographs using Wet Plate Collodion, a Victorian process that creates stunning images on glass.

Jack’s glass plate images of today’s lifeboat volunteers complement the historical Beken photographs, prompting reflection on generations of lifesaving. The exhibition will also explore the stories of individual lifeboats and their volunteer crews, from starting service to saving lives at sea.

Jack, grandson of Dad’s Army star Arthur Lowe, is also involved in a wide programme of outreach activities running through 2018 and 2019 that will include talks and workshops. The aim of the programme is to use the Beken archive and glass plate photography to engage communities with the RNLI’s long history.

Hayley Whiting, RNLI Heritage Archive and Research Manager said: “The project will ensure the long-term preservation of a unique collection and result in innovative and exciting ways to engage the public with the heritage of the RNLI.”

Volunteer Kat Broomfield said: “Being part of the Beken project is valuable and inspiring. I've never worked with glass plates before and it has been fascinating getting to grips with the care and conservation required to preserve them. I love the thought of being able to make this wonderful content more accessible to the public through digitising the images. Using the library and on-site resources to research the lifeboats in this collection brings to life the unique journey of each boat, from the builders yard to lifesaving at sea.”

The project has all been made possible by money raised by National Lottery players and a generous gift from Christopher Andreae and The Scorpion Trust.

Nerys Watts, Head of HLF South West, said: “Thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, we’re delighted to support this project which will provide a fascinating glimpse into our maritime heritage – from coastal communities to crews at sea. As well as ensuring the survival of this unique collection, this project will give people of all ages the opportunity to get involved in exploring their heritage.”

The RNLI’s heritage archive dates from the charity’s foundation in 1824 right through to the present day. They are largely held at RNLI Headquarters in Poole, and relate to the administration, key figures, crew, lifeboats, gallantry medals, fundraising activities, legacies and publications.

The name Beken has been synonymous with marine photography since 1888 when Frank Beken started photographing yachts and ships on the Solent. Frank was responsible for capturing the final image of the Titanic before her fateful voyage in 1912. The family also photographed RNLI lifeboats built by JS Whites on the island from the late 19th century until the early 1980s.

The Beken family were originally pharmacists, but the sight of yachts sailing past his bedroom window made such an impression on a young Frank that he decided to capture these images on film.

Frank tried the photograph the yachts from his own boat, but the cameras available at the time were not suited to rough seas, so he designed a new style of camera in a wooden box-frame that he fired by biting a rubber ball held between his teeth!

The Beken Pharmacy sold these photographs alongside their medicines and perfumes, and Frank was joined by his son Keith in the 1930s. Keith had qualified as a chemist and during WWII skippered an Air Sea Rescue launch based in Cowes. Keith photographed the famous J-Class boats and started colour photography in the 1950s.

Frank died in 1970 and it was decided that the pharmacy should be sold and the photography side of the business should stand alone. Keith was joined by his son Kenneth, who continued the business after his father's death. Between them, the Bekens have recorded all the major events on their home stretch of water, the famous Solent, and also travelled the world to many renowned regattas like the America’s Cup, the Tall Ships Race, offshore powerboat races and the Olympics.

The Beken company has held three Royal Warrants from Queen Victoria, King George V and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Kenneth Beken has now retired from active photography but continues to act as custodian of the Beken archive, from their iconic gallery shop in Cowes.

Notes for Editors

'Calm Before the Storm: The Art of Photographing Lifeboats' celebrates the digitisation of over 800 Beken plate negatives. It will be a display of Beken RNLI images along with glass plate images by Jack Lowe, of The Lifeboat Station Project.

It will be at Poole Museum from 26 January–22 April 2019.

A small display of RNLI Beken images are also on show at The Shipwreck Centre, Arreton Barns Craft Village, Arreton, Isle of Wight, from July 28- October 7.

A full press release about The Lifeboat Station Project is available here or go to the Project website here:

For more information about the Beken family go here:

For press enquiries or additional images, please contact Joanna Quinn or Dave Riley in the RNLI Press Office: 01202 336789/ [email protected].

RNLI/Nathan Williams

Heritage volunteer Kat Broomfield with a Beken glass plate


Kenneth Beken in the Beken archive in Cowes.


Frank Beken and his specially designed camera


Kenneth and Keith Beken outside Beken of Cowes

Duncan Davis

Photographer Jack Lowe and his glass plate camera

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 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and 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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Contacting the RNLI - public enquiries

Members of the public may contact the RNLI on 0300 300 9990 (UK) or 1800 991802 (Ireland) or by email.