Celebrating the birth of a remarkable man with a remarkable idea

Lifeboats News Release

Sir William Hillary, 1st. baronet, was an English militia officer, author and philanthropist. January 4 is the 250th anniversary of his birth. He is best known as the founder, in 1824, of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.


RNLI Rye Harbour paying tribute to Sir William Hillary

William was the son of Yorkshire merchant Richard Hillary and in 1822 he witnessed the wreck of HMS Racehorse and was inspired to draw up plans for a lifeboat service using trained crew, intended not only for the Isle of Man, where he resided, but the whole of the British coastline. He proposed a national, voluntary service that would encompass new techniques of rescuing people such as Frederick Marryat's signal codes.

The response to his scheme from the Admiralty was poor, so he appealed to philanthropists in London including Thomas Wilson, MP for the City of London. On March 4 1824 the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was founded, with the King as its Patron. The first lifeboats were built and stationed at Douglas on the Isle of Man.

Six years later, at the age of sixty, Hillary took part in the rescue of the packet steamer St George. He commanded the lifeboat and was washed overboard with all the crew. Happily he and the crew survived and went on to rescue all the passengers on board the St George with no loss of life.

Hillary died on January 5, 1847 and was buried in St George's churchyard, Douglas.

RNLI Rye Harbour is very proud to be part of the RNLI family that he began in 1824. What a wonderful legacy of so many lives saved at sea.

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.