199 years of lifesaving women

Discover the incredible trailblazing women of the RNLI throughout history.

Top left to bottom right - Medals for Gallantry for Aileen Jones and Sophie Grant Crookston, The Rescue of the SS Forfarshire by Grace Darling. Oil on canvas painting by artist F. S. Lowther in 1886, Elizabeth Hostvedt, student at Atlantic College, and first qualified woman to command an inshore lifeboat, Letitia French, the first female honorary secretary, from Lifeboat magazine in 1927

Photo: RNLI

Clockwise from the left: Medals for Gallantry for Aileen Jones and Sophie Grant Crookston, The Rescue of the SS Forfarshire by Grace Darling. Oil on canvas painting by artist F. S. Lowther in 1886, Elizabeth Hostvedt, student at Atlantic College, and the first qualified woman to command an inshore lifeboat, Letitia French, the first female honorary secretary, from Lifeboat magazine in 1927

As we continue to celebrate women across the RNLI for International Women’s Day and start the countdown to our 200th birthday in 2024, we wanted to share some inspirational women who have been saving lives at sea since our founding.

Women launching lifeboats 

Since the RNLI was formed in 1824, women have played an integral role in saving lives with our charity. So far, 23 women have been awarded Medals of Gallantry, most of which were awarded in the 19th century to women who carried out and assisted with rescues.

Before tractors and launch equipment were introduced, generations of women supported the launch of every lifeboat, pulling on ropes to bring every boat to the water and wading into the sea to help it launch to the rescue. 

Margaret Armstrong of Northumberland became the first known woman to help launch and recover lifeboats, doing so from a young age. Margaret helped at every single launch of Cresswell lifeboat and was awarded the Gold Brooch by the RNLI in recognition of her long service. Margaret contributed to saving lives for 50 years – until her death in 1928.

Letitia French was the first woman to manage a lifeboat station after becoming honorary secretary of the RNLI Palling Lifeboat Station in 1904. Leticia had volunteered at the station for years alongside her father and once he died, she became responsible for the launching of each lifeboat from the station.  

Campaigning for new lifeboat stations 

In 1907, Jane Hay watched as the Alfred Erlandsen sank in the sea near St Abbs. There were no lifeboat stations within reach of the ship as it foundered, and this inspired Jane to campaign for a lifeboat to be stationed there. Her campaign was successful, and Jane went on to become responsible for the launching of the lifeboat as the station honorary secretary.  

Celebrating the first female crew  

Many of us know the heroic story of Grace Darling, one of the Victorian era’s most celebrated heroes. In 1838, she risked her life rowing to rescue the stranded survivors of the wrecked steamship Forfarshire – and became the first woman to be awarded a RNLI medal. 

In 1969, Elizabeth Hostvedt, an 18-year-old Norwegian student at Atlantic College in Llantwit Major, became the first woman qualified to command a RNLI inshore lifeboat. Atlantic College had its own Lifeboat Station within the grounds which was manned by staff and students. Elizabeth requested to join as crew but her request was met with resistance as it was thought that she may not be strong enough. A special case was made for Elizabeth and after a medical test confirmed she had the ‘physique to stand up to an arduous service’, she became the first woman to be trained as a crew member at the RNLI. 

In 1981, Frances Glody became the first qualified woman to crew an all-weather lifeboat. No stranger to breaking down barriers for women, Frances joined Dunmore East RNLI after becoming the first woman in Ireland to be appointed pilot station master. When asked about her achievements, Frances said:   

‘I don’t feel it’s different for me because I’m a woman. I know the sea and I have the qualifications to do the job… I wouldn’t say I’m courageous, but I think the greatest satisfaction is the thought that some day you will be able to save a life’

(Hennessey, S. Hidden Depths: Women of the RNLI, 2010, p. 33)

In 2005, Aileen Jones, Helm at Porthcawl RNLI became the first female crew member to receive an RNLI award. Aileen was awarded the Bronze Medal for Gallantry for her part in the rescue of two fishermen amidst gale force winds and gigantic waves. 

In 2006, Lifeguard Sophie Grant Crookston was awarded the Bronze Medal for Gallantry for saving the life of a surfer off Perranporth Beach. Sophie was the second lifeguard, and first female lifeguard, to receive this award. 

Raising money to save lives at sea 

On Saturday 1 October 1891, Sir Charles Macara and his wife Marion, put together the first Lifeboat Saturday – an event that would kick start the tradition of street collecting and significantly contribute to the charity’s income. After the success of the first event, Marion took the initiative to start up several committees with the purpose of raising extra funds. This was the start of what was soon to be known as the Ladies’ Lifeboat Auxiliary. Through perseverance and hard work, Marion succeeded in influencing women across the UK and Ireland to start their own committees. 

In May 1921, the Ladies’ Lifeboat Guild was established to bring the women who were part of the Auxiliary Committees together as one national network of fundraisers. The Duchess of Portland, Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, a long-time supporter of the RNLI, agreed to be President. 

The Ladies’ Lifeboat Guild played an important role in celebrating the centenary of the RNLI in 1924, organising a range of events from concerts, garden parties, lifeboat demonstrations to carnivals and balls. Many guilds still exist to this day and have evolved to become fundraising branches with both men and women joining as members. These branches continue to raise considerable funds for our lifesaving charity. 

Royal support  

The founder of the RNLI, Sir William Hillary, had royal connections, having been equerry to George III’s sixth child, Prince Fredrick Augustus. When Hillary established the RNLI on 4 March 1824, King George IV became Patron. Since then, the reigning monarch has always held the position.

Queen Victoria was the first woman to become Patron of our charity upon her succession to the throne in 1837. 

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was the longest-serving Patron in the near 200-year history of the RNLI, becoming our charity’s Patron after ascending to the throne in 1952 until her death in 2022.  

One Crew 

Here are just some of the incredible women who have held positions as the first women in their roles at the RNLI. 

Holly Phillips, currently a Principal Engineer for the RNLI, started working at our charity in 2002. Holly was the first woman to hold the position of principal naval architect after being the first woman to join the crew at Poole Lifeboat Station and the 100th woman to join the RNLI crew overall. 

Helena Duggan and Jill Hepburn joined the RNLI as the first woman in a divisional assessor trainer role and the first woman employed as a senior trainer respectively. Both have significant experience at sea as RNLI crew members. 

Alison Saunders became the first woman to join the RNLI’s Board of Trustees in 1994 after many years as a member of the Central London Ladies’ Committee. Alison retired in 2009 after 36 years’ service to saving lives at sea.  

In 1990, Sarah Fulford became the first woman to hold the position of mechanical engineer at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre (ILC) in Cowes and one of the first female helms to run lifeboat trials. Sarah now works as a Section Leader at the ILC. While others might see her as a role model, she doesn’t. She counts herself ‘lucky’ to have a job she loves, with fantastic colleagues:

'I don’t feel like I’ve ever faced any challenges by just being the only female here. I was made to feel welcome from day one’ 

Author of the book and the inspiration behind this article Hidden Depths: Women of the RNLI, Sue Hennessy became the first principal of the Lifeboat College after several years working as a regional manager and personal donations manager for the RNLI.

Looking to the future 

Women across the RNLI continue to celebrate ‘firsts’ today. Di Bush took up the position of Coxswain for Harwich RNLI in the summer of 2021, the first woman to do so in our almost 200-year history. In March 2022, Denise Lynch of Fenit RNLI became the first woman in Ireland to qualify as a Volunteer Coxswain

In May last year, an all-women lifeguard team were operational for the first time in the history of RNLI Lifeguards on Weymouth Beach and in January, Cullercoats RNLI launched their first all-women crew followed swiftly by Kessock RNLI in February.  

Learn more about what it means to be a woman who volunteers or works for our lifesaving charity by listening to this #WomenInSAR podcast and watching the recording of the International Women's Day Panel featuring inspirational women from across the RNLI who talk about their lives, experiences, and career development.