Save Lives at Sea: Campaign! Make an Impact

Teach your pupils about Sir William Hillary’s campaign for a national lifeboat rescue service around the coast of Britain with this free education resource. Suitable for KS4 pupils.

The historic Whitby lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/Grahame Farr Archives

The historic Whitby lifeboat

Subject: History, English

Description: Inspire your pupils with the story of Sir William Hillary and how he campaigned for the launch of a national lifeboat rescue service. Teach your students campaign skills they can use to run their own campaigns about issues that affect them.

There are three steps to participating in the ‘Save Lives at Sea: Campaign! Make an Impact’ project in conjunction with the British Library:

  • Step 1: Study the historical campaign to establish a national lifeboat service to save lives at sea.
  • Step 2: Explore the skills and tactics necessary to run a successful campaign.
  • Step 3: Create a campaign on a topic of our own choice.

Suggested session plans

The first step of the Campaign! Make an Impact model is to study an historical campaign and understand how it works. Here, an RNLI historical campaign leads you through the process.

The session structures provided illustrate one way to study this historical campaign. Schools and groups will have different class sizes, timetable allocations and lesson durations and should therefore adapt the suggested session plans, number of groups and group sizes to suit their needs. Session 2 allows for differentiation as some source materials are more challenging than others.

Download suggested session plans - PDF - 1.4MB

Blank campaign grid

This blank campaign grid is designed to be used alongside the session plans, allowing pupils to fill in what they've learnt from each stage of the campaign.

Download blank campaign grid - PDF - 2.1MB

Audio recording

This audio recording of Sir William Hillary's Appeal to the British Nation is designed to be used as part of the session plans.

Download video - MP4 video - 58MB (lasts 48 minutes 58 seconds)

You can also listen to the specific extracts cited in Source 9: Appeal to the British Nation

Video clip

This video clip is designed to support the session plans.

Step 1

Step 1: Sir William Hillary's campaign provides a summary of the campaign for a national lifeboat service by breaking it into seven stages. These stages are a useful tool for analysing the tactics and also the success of the campaign. For each stage there is information about the campaign as well as links to historical source material. This summary page can also be downloaded as a grid in PDF format.

Download campaign grid - teacher's summary of the historical campaign (PDF - 1.3MB)

Painting The life boat in the act of saving by Elmes

Photo: RNLI

In the 1700–1800s (before the invention of motor vehicles, planes and trains) the seas around Britain were used by all types of vessels for transport, fishing, naval defence and leisure. While trying to earn a living from the sea, many of these vessels were shipwrecked around the coast, often driven ashore by the frequent onshore gales, by mistakes made by the Captain or crew and/or because the vessels were in poor condition. 

At the time there was no countrywide provision or organisation that coordinated the rescues and many people’s lives were lost at sea, often leaving their dependents poverty-stricken.


Source 1: Shipwreck! - PDF - 4.5MB

Source 2: HMS Racehorse - PDF - 589KB

The late 18th century was a busy time for shipping around the coast of Britain. Shipwrecks occurred and often thousands of onlookers watched helplessly as they broke up, unable to save the crews.

The fatalistic view that shipwrecks were caused by the hand of God was replaced by an attitude of saving life at all costs. Greater value was placed on people’s lives and the idea of having special boats stationed at various points on the coast, with a skilled crew who could go to the rescue if a ship got into distress, dates from this time.

Appalled at the number of shipwrecks and loss of life he saw from his home on the Isle of Man, Sir William Hillary, a retired soldier, introduced the idea of a national lifeboat service, which would dramatically reduce the danger of sea travel.


Source 3: Early lifeboat stations - PDF - 1MB

Source 4: How to solve the problem of shipwreck - PDF - 2.6MB

Source 5: Lukin's 'unimmergible' boat - PDF - 2MB

Source 6: The original lifeboat - PDF - 4.2MB

Source 7: Captain Manby’s lifesaving apparatus - PDF - 9.1MB

North country’s Zetland lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/Grahame Farr Archives

After witnessing first-hand the destruction brought by shipwreck, campaigners were moved to action to introduce the first lifeboats and develop a nationally coordinated lifeboat institution. They were also inspired by the initial inventions and efforts for saving lives at sea. By collecting and publishing eye-witness accounts, as well as gathering facts about loss of life and property to shipwreck, campaigners gained further support for their point of view.


Source 8: HMS Vigilant - PDF - 274KB

Source 9: Appeal to the British Nation - PDF - 3.3MB

Sir William Hillary gained support for the victims of shipwreck from his local community, the Isle of Man press and officials, and to some extent the British Admiralty. Around Britain, pioneering local lifeboat organisations had already sprung into existence, with more coordinated countywide organisations inspired by Sir William Hillary's Appeal pamphlet – An Appeal to the British Nation on the Humanity and Policy of Forming a National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property From Shipwreck. Hillary's campaign was also supported by Trinity House, Lloyd's (the marine insurer) and the Royal Humane Society. 


Source 10: Organisations supporting the cause of saving lives at sea - PDF - 939KB

Source 11: Newspapers praise appeal - PDF - 517KB

Source 12: Establishment of the Norfolk Association for Saving the Lives of Shipwrecked Mariners - PDF - 1MB

Many people at the time believed that it was up to the individual to take care of themselves, believing that people who chose to travel at sea knew the risks and should accept their fate. Some people even stood to gain from shipwreck through salvage. Even those organisations that acknowledged a sense of duty to help fellow human beings did not want the burden of creating a national lifeboat service that would need a lot of money to set up.


Source 13: Response to Sir William Hillary's letter to the Admiralty - PDF - 1.2MB

Thomas Wilson, MP for London, joined the campaign and recommended that, in the absence of support from the Government and Admiralty, Sir William Hillary should seek funding for the national lifeboat service from wealthy philanthropists. He stirred up support in his constituency and in parliamentary circles, while another campaigner, George Hibbert, Chairman of the West Indies Merchants Company, sought support from shipping businesses. 

Both worked to raise the profile of the campaign by convincing influential people to attend their second meeting in London on 4 March 1824. At this meeting, the National Society for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (today's RNLI) was formed.


Source 14: Letters from Sir William Hillary to The King and the Admiralty - PDF - 4.2MB

Source 15: National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck - PDF - 7.7MB

Source 16: Consultation with other maritime organisations - PDF - 2.9MB

Portrait of former RNLI chair Thomas Wilson

Photo: RNLI

Supporters of the campaign were numerous. They included royalty, politicians, shipping companies and the press, as well as fishing communities throughout the country. Pledges of £25,000 were made at the first meeting. Lifeboats were needed all around the coast and this meant that the message about the campaign needed to be communicated in a variety of different forms.


Source 17: Sir William Hillary’s Gold Medal - PDF - 933KB

Source 18: The wreck of the St George - PDF - 2MB

Source 19: Praise for Sir William's rescue - PDF - 1.6MB

Source 20: Rising Sun supports fledgling organisation - PDF - 778KB

Source 21: Sir William Hillary receives support from the King of Denmark - PDF - 314KB

Many people and organisations contributed to the production of this resource. Credit has been given where it is known but the RNLI would be grateful for any information where errors or gaps remain.

Download Bibliography and acknowledgements - PDF - 1.4MB

Step 2

Explore the skills and tactics for successful campaigning via the British Library's Make yourself heard page.

Step 3

Use the guidance on the British Library's Run your campaign page to create your own campaign.