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Inside the Big Issue: 200 years of small boats

Inside this week's Big Issue, we celebrate 200 years of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution

Inside the Big Issue: 200 years of small boats

Like all good British ideas, it was born in a pub. As Sir William Hillary gathered a crowd in a London tavern two centuries ago, something radical became a reality: an organisation to rescue those stranded at sea.

What began as the ‘Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck’ is now known by four letters: RNLI. And it celebrates its 200th anniversary on 4 March.

Throughout its history, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) enjoyed relatively little controversy as it went about the dangerous work of saving over 144,000 lives. Yet recently it’s been under attack. Fleeing global confl icts, people risk their lives to cross the English channel in small boats and claim asylum in the UK. Many die. The RNLI steps in to save them. And for this, it has been branded ‘woke’ and “accused of becoming obsessed with political correctness”.

Its volunteers have been heckled for bringing asylum seekers to safety. Nigel Farage called it “a taxi service for illegal immigration”. In 2021, Mark Dowie, the RNLI’s chief executive, was forced into stating the obvious: “We do not judge those we rescue – where we believe there is a risk to life at sea, we will always launch in response to a call from HM Coastguard.” A petition was launched to “defund” the RNLI – although how an organisation which generates 94% of its income from public donations could be “defunded” was unclear.

If this was the aim of the sustained outrage, it failed. Donations shot up from £7,000 a day to around £200,000 in a single day following Farage’s comments. Unsurprisingly, the iconic orange boats weathered the storm. To mark two centuries of saving the vulnerable, marooned, and stricken, Hayley Whiting, the RNLI’s Heritage Archive and Research Manager, talks us through photos that tell an enduring story of courage and tenacity. See more in this week’s issue.

What else is in this week’s Big Issue?

The ongoing tension between assisted dying and protecting the most vulnerable has been tightened by poverty

Gareth Ward’s voice breaks as he remembers his dad Norman, who took his own life after a 15-year battle with terminal cancer. He ended his pain, but it plunged the family into trauma they are still coping with years later.

Gareth is now a passionate campaigner for assisted dying. Assisted dying is illegal in the UK but the law often turns a blind eye to people going to Dignitas in Switzerland. Accompanying loved ones risk prosecution, with a maximum sentence of 14 years, but the majority of cases do not lead to charges.

Keir Starmer’s continued austerity will only keep vulnerable people in brutalising poverty. Trust me, I know

“There’s a kind of cold you can only feel in the gristle between your finger bones. A sharp, piercing, paralysing cold. The kind of cold that makes it physically impossible to pick up a pen and write,” writes Kasmira Kincaid.

“This was the kind of cold I experienced when I was studying for my A-levels, living on benefits in the early days of Tory austerity, on £56 a week. I was 17 years old. And I was so scared of the energy bills I didn’t dare turn the heating on. Which meant my hands seized up whenever I tried to do my homework, and the tap water burned to the touch.”

Robert ‘Kool’ Bell’s Letter to My Younger Self

His dad wanted him to be a boxer, but with Kool & The Gang he ended up a funk /soul icon who has cause for celebration.

“I had three things going on – I could be a mechanic or a boxer, but I became Kool in Kool & The Gang. My father had wanted me to be a boxer. He had me in the ring when I was only nine and we would do three rounds.”

“At 16, I was already really into my band. Kool & The Gang started, with a different name, in Jersey City, New Jersey when I was 14. We were called the Jazziacs at the time, and this was 1964. So it’s been 60 years this year.”

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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