Marking 199 years of lifesaving

Saturday 4 March 2023 marks the RNLI’s 199th Anniversary.

Painting of Henry Greathead's boat The Original, with oars
Painting of Henry Greathead's boat: The Original

Following his involvement with the HMS Vigilant rescue in October 1822 where all were saved, and the very sad loss of life of a number of Manx men on the HMS Racehorse in December 1822, Sir William Hillary became compelled to act. 

In this video, our Chief Executive Mark Dowie reflects on Sir William’s campaign for action at this time in 1823, looks ahead to 2024 and beyond, and introduces a new film which identifies ‘Why?’ we need to seize the moment during our 200th anniversary. 

In 1823 Sir William released an appeal to the nation calling for ‘humanity and policy of forming a Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck’. 

Just 700 copies were initially printed but he subsequently issued a revised edition when he finally started to get some support from Lloyds, Thomas Wilson MP and others who were willing to contribute. 

It’s unclear from the records exactly how many lifeboat stations were operational at this time but we do know there were 37 stations open in 1823 that were being run by local organisations. Most historians agree the earliest known lifeboat stations to be Formby (1777) and Bamburgh Castle (1786).  

Whilst there is no longer a station in Bamburgh, just 3 miles down the coast is Seahouses Lifeboat Station, home to a Shannon class lifeboat, and a D class lifeboat, and in Bamburgh village itself is the RNLI’s Grace Darling Museum and shop – a very busy and modern outlet, engaging new generations in our lifesaving work of the past and present. 

It is difficult to pinpoint the RNLI’s first lifeboat station, as we worked in partnership with existing establishments whilst building our own stations. By 1825, the RNLI had commissioned 15 new lifeboats and established the first RNLI lifeboat stations at: 

  • Bideford (now served by Appledore)
  • Blyth
  • Boulmer (now an independent rescue service)
  • Bridlington
  • Brighton
  • Courtmacsherry
  • Douglas (Isle of Man)
  • Gibraltar Point, Boston Deeps (now served by Skegness)
  • Newhaven 
  • Penzance (Penlee)
  • Plymouth
  • Rossglass (now served by Newcastle)
  • Weymouth. 

You can read more about the history of lifeboats on our website, including Henry Greathead’s model (pictured above).  

Inspiring the next generation 

As we now approach the RNLI’s 200th year, the RNLI 200th Team has been working hard to build a programme of activity across all of our nations that will commemorate our incredible past, celebrate the remarkable RNLI of today, and inspire the next generation of lifesavers that will take our organisation into its next 200 years.  

For a moment consider that only a 100 years ago, wooden lifeboats powered by oar were still in operation, and now consider where we are as an organisation today, and what could then be possible for our future generations. The plans being shared today are not all confirmed, but as there are a number of plans coming together across the RNLI communities, providing visibility of the activities in planning is important.  

A major 200th update has launched on the Volunteer Zone today: a timeline of activity and a presentation have been shared for each region, led by the 200th Regional Panels, as well as a timeline of activity and presentation for the activity that is spanning all our nations and regions.  

To find out more regarding the 200th Regional Panels and any of the activity led by the 200th Team please visit the 200th Volunteer Zone page.  

For those already planning their community activity for the 200th year, please send any requests for celebrity involvement to the Press Office, who will then advise on the suitability/feasibility of any request. 

If you are interested in learning more about our history and what you’ve read today, please visit the RNLI's website. For any questions regarding the activity in 2024, please email [email protected]