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RNLI celebrates 200 years and over 146,000 lives saved

by RNLI 4 Mar 08:29 GMT 4 March 2024
RNLI memorial ceremony. Picture shows the memorial with the Lifeboat College behind. Poole. Flag © Tony Roddam

Today, Monday 4th March 2024, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) celebrates 200 years of saving lives at sea - thanks to volunteers giving their time to save others, all funded by public donations.

On the day the charity turns 200, the RNLI is revealing its volunteer lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved an incredible 146,277 lives during its two centuries of lifesaving.

Since the charity was founded in 1824, its volunteer crews have launched the lifeboats 380,328 times, saving 144,277 lives, while its lifeguards - who became part of the RNLI's lifesaving service in 2001 - have responded to 303,030 incidents on some of the UK's busiest beaches, saving 2,000 lives*. In total, 146,277 lives have been saved by the RNLI - this equates to an average of two lives saved every day for 200 years.

Founded in a London tavern on 4 March 1824 following an appeal from Sir William Hillary, who lived on the Isle of Man and witnessed many shipwrecks, the RNLI has continued saving lives at sea throughout the tests of its history, including tragic disasters, funding challenges and two World Wars.

Two centuries have seen vast developments in the lifeboats and kit used by the charity's lifesavers - from the early oar-powered vessels to today's technology-packed boats, which are now built in-house by the charity; and from the rudimentary cork lifejackets of the 1850s to the full protective kit each crew member is now issued with.

The RNLI's lifesaving reach and remit has also developed over the course of 200 years. Today, it operates 238 lifeboat stations around the UK and Ireland, including four on the River Thames, and has seasonal lifeguards on over 240 lifeguarded beaches around the UK. It designs and builds its own lifeboats and runs domestic and international water safety programmes.

While much has changed in 200 years, two things have remained the same - the charity's dependence on volunteers, who give their time and commitment to save others, and the voluntary contributions from the public which have funded the service for the past two centuries.

RNLI Chief Executive, Mark Dowie, says:

'It has been an honour and a privilege to be at the helm of the RNLI for the past five years, and to see the charity reach its bicentenary. For a charity to have survived 200 years based on the time and commitment of volunteers, and the sheer generosity of the public donating to fund it, is truly remarkable. It is through the courage and dedication of its incredible people that the RNLI has survived the tests of time, including tragic losses, funding challenges, two World Wars and, more recently, a global pandemic.

'Today, we mark the bicentenary of the RNLI. We remember the achievements and commitment of all those who have been part of the RNLI family over the past two centuries; we celebrate the world-class lifesaving service we provide today, based on our 200 years of learning, expertise and innovation, and we hope to inspire future generations of lifesavers and supporters who will take the RNLI into its next century and beyond.

'I am immensely grateful to everyone who is involved with the charity - our volunteers, supporters and staff. This is our watch and it is our role to keep our charity safe and secure so it can continue to save lives into the future, as we strive in our vision to save every one.'

RNLI Heritage Archive and Research Manager, Hayley Whiting, says:

'The RNLI's founder, Sir William Hillary, witnessed the treacherous nature of the sea first-hand when living on the Isle of Man and he wanted to take action. His first appeal to the nation in 1823 did not have the desired result but, thankfully, he persevered and gained the support of several philanthropic members of society, who put their names to the charity at a meeting in the City of London Tavern on 4 March 1824.

'Twelve resolutions were passed at that meeting, the core of which still stand as part of the RNLI's Charter 200 years later. This shows how the RNLI's values and purpose have remained unwavering for 200 years, despite the social and economic changes and challenges of the past two centuries.

'Hillary's vision was ambitious and forward-thinking, and no doubt he would be extremely proud to see the charity he founded still going strong today, and to see how much it has achieved.'

The charity has a history of innovation, and adapting to challenging circumstances, such as:

  • Lifejackets: In 1861, Whitby lifeboat crew launched six times to rescue stricken vessels in a storm, but on their sixth launch a freak wave capsized the lifeboat and all but one of the crew were lost. The sole survivor was Henry Freeman, who survived because he was wearing a new design of cork lifejacket. After this event, the cork lifejacket became more widely adopted by lifeboat crews.
  • Fundraising: In 1886, 27 lifeboat crew members from Southport and St Annes lost their lives while trying to rescue the crew of the Mexico. A public appeal was launched, driven by local man Charles Macara. An 1891 appeal raised £10,000 in two weeks. On 1 October, Charles and his wife Marion organised the first Lifeboat Saturday. Bands, floats and lifeboats paraded through the streets of Manchester, followed by volunteers collecting money. More than £5,000 was taken on the day, which was the first recorded example of a charity street collection.
  • Lifeboats: In 1914, over 140 people were saved when the hospital steamship Rohilla was wrecked. The ship had been en route to Dunkirk to help wounded soldiers but was broken up when it ran aground on rocks near Whitby. Five lifeboats battled terrible seas to reach the ship. A motor lifeboat (the first of its kind) from Tynemouth, took the last 50 people on board. In total, 144 people were saved by the crews, who worked for over 50 hours in atrocious conditions. The motor lifeboat proved its capabilities and became more widely accepted by lifeboat crews after this event.
  • Wartime: When the First World War broke out, many lifeboat volunteers were called away to fight. The average age of lifeboat crews at home increased to over 50. During 1914-18, RNLI lifeboats launched 1,808 times, saving 5,332 lives. In 1939, young lifeboat volunteers were called away again to war. By the end of the Second World War, RNLI crews had saved 6,376 lives around the coasts of Britain and Ireland.
In 1940, 19 RNLI lifeboats were used to evacuate troops from Dunkirk. Two had RNLI crews onboard, while the others were crewed by the Royal Navy. The lifeboats and their stand-in crews saved thousands of lives while being shelled and bombed for days.

Throughout its bicentenary year, the charity is running events and activities to remember its important history and celebrate the modern lifesaving service it is today, while hoping to inspire generations of future lifesavers and supporters.

A Service of Thanksgiving to mark 200 years of the RNLI will take place at Westminster Abbey on 4 March 2024 at 11.30am. It will be attended by representatives from RNLI lifesaving communities around the UK and Ireland.

For further information about the RNLI's 200th anniversary, visit RNLI.org/200.

* Statistics from RNLI Operational Data from 4 March 1824 to 31 December 2023 inclusive. A life saved shows how many of the people helped by the RNLI would have lost their life had the RNLI not been there.

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