The brave volunteers of the RNLI have been saving lives at sea since 1824. Across the years many things have changed, but the courage and commitment of our lifesavers has continued to the present day, as we work towards our goal of saving every one.

The story of the RNLI is one of courage and dedication. Across our almost 200 year history, RNLI lifesavers have answered the call to rescue. Day or night. On calm seas or into ferocious storms. If someone is in peril at sea, the RNLI will do all we can to save them.

Since the charity launched its first lifeboat in 1824, the RNLI has saved 143,900 lives at sea. 

North country’s Zetland lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/Grahame Farr Archives

Our timeline

Take a look back at some of the major milestones in the story of the RNLI. Read stories of incredible courage and heartbreaking tragedy, and learn about some of the many lifesaving innovations the RNLI has pioneered across its history.

Men on shore prepare to haul the lifeboat Elizabeth and Albina Whitley onto a Yorkshire beach.

Photo: RNLI

200th anniversary

2024 sees the RNLI celebrate 200 years of saving lives at sea and we have lots of exciting things lined up to commemorate this milestone. Take a look at what we have planned and find out how you can get involved in the celebrations.

RNLI heritage photographs

Contact our heritage team

Have a question about the history of the RNLI? Want to learn more about a specific lifeboat, rescue or lifesaver? Or have a piece of memorabilia that you want to share with us? The RNLI's heritage team are ready to answer your questions.

Delve deeper into RNLI history

Our history
Timeline
Since 1824 we’ve pioneered developments in lifesaving at sea. And our lifesavers have shown unfailing courage and selflessness. Delve into the history of the RNLI through our timeline and discover key events and innovations in our lifesaving history.
Timeline
1941 black-and-white photo of lifesavers helping a man to shore in rough seas.
2024
2024
Contact our Heritage Team
Contact our Heritage Team
Contact
Contact our Heritage Team
Collection of items from the RNLI archive and library
RNLI archive and library
With almost 200 years of lifesaving history, we take great pride and care in preserving our rich heritage.
RNLI archive and library
Model of Clovelly RNLI’s self-righting pulling and sailing lifeboat, Alexander and Matilda (Boetefeur) from the RNLI historic collections at Poole
RNLI collections
The diverse range of objects in our historic collections date back to our foundation in 1824 right through to present day.
RNLI collections
The Story of the Life-boat Coronation Number
The RNLI’s Patrons: a history of royal heritage
In 2017 The RNLI received a gift of £2,500 from The Patron’s Fund to catalogue and digitise records in the archive relating to our Royal Patrons.
Learn more
Black and white image of RNLI display in Charing Cross Underground Station
Forgotten photos of the RNLI
Forgotten photos is a 12-month project to bring thousands of historic photographs back to life
Learn more
Black and white image of Donaghadee lifeboat, Sir Samuel Kelly, while on trials
Calm Before the Storm exhibition

Calm Before the Storm: The Art of Photographing Lifeboats marks the digitisation of 850 glass plate negatives of lifeboats. It celebrates significant moments in the life of individual lifeboats and their volunteer crews, from starting service to saving lives at sea.

Learn more
1940 war damage on Eastbourne lifeboat Jane Holland
Dunkirk: Relied upon then, relied upon now
In May 1940, a fleet of hundreds of pleasure boats, fishing boats and other civilian vessels gathered, at the Admiralty’s request, to take part in the evacuation of British troops from the French port of Dunkirk. Nineteen RNLI lifeboats were part of this unusual and daring force, known as the Little Ships. Discover stories of lifesaving courage, as shown by our volunteers then and now.
Dunkirk: Relied upon then, relied upon now
RNLI memorial sculpture in Poole, Dorset.
RNLI Memorial

Designed to be a beacon of hope, the RNLI Memorial honours the courage of all those lost at sea while endeavouring to save the lives of others.

RNLI Memorial
resources
History resources
Looking for an overview of our history? Here you can find useful downloadable materials, such as posters and factsheets, to learn more about our lifesaving history.
History resources
FAQs
FAQs about RNLI history
Find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions we receive about RNLI history.
FAQs about RNLI history