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RNLI at 200: Two centuries of quiet heroism and public affection

The RNLI is a beloved institution that has been saving souls around our coastline for two centuries. So how did it become a target in the culture wars?

The White Star Liner S.S Suevic ship shipwrecked off the Lizard in Cornwall, 1907. This was the RNLI's largest ever rescue. Four lifeboat crews spent 12 hours rowing back and forth to take all 456 people off. Image: Supplied by RNLI

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 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 conflicts, 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.” 

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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.

A new boat brings the community together in Brighton, 1904 

Image: Supplied by RNLI

The image shows a real sense of community, as local families come together to pull on ropes to help recover the lifeboat up the beach after it returns to shore. You’ve got women at the front here. Women have been formally allowed on the crew since 1969. But before that they did have a real role in the lifeboat service. In some stations it was almost all women who helped to launch and recover the lifeboat.

Tynemouth crew with the RNLI’s first petrol-driven boat, circa 1914 

Image: Supplied by RNLI

By the First World War, the RNLI had started to introduce motor lifeboats but stations weren’t that keen on them. Then the Rohilla, a wartime hospital ship travelling from Scotland to France, got into difficulty off Whitby, partly because of the weather but also because lighthouses had been blacked out for the war effort. A number of lifeboat stations in the area went out to attempt to rescue the Rohilla’s passengers in really difficult conditions. Some of the lifeboats struggled to even launch – navigating an open rowboat over rolling surf is challenging.

The Tynemouth motor lifeboat was eventually called because the rowboats couldn’t reach the Rohilla’s remaining passengers. With that, they were able to save many people. There were fatalities, too. But one of the survivors was a lady called Mary Roberts who had previously been a survivor of the Titanic. At our lifeboat museum in Whitby we tell the story of the Rohilla and Mary, and ponder whether she was really lucky or really unlucky…

Eastbourne lifeboat with damage sustained during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940 

Image: Supplied by RNLI

This is one of the lifeboats that went to Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo in 1940. The RNLI received a call from the Navy requesting as many lifeboats as possible to report to Dover. Ramsgate and Margate lifeboats went straight out to Dunkirk with their crews on board and 17 other lifeboats were commandeered by the Navy. We don’t know exactly how many lives they saved between them, but we believe around the 100,000 mark is pretty accurate.

The lifeboats were going into the shallower water, taking soldiers off the beaches to waiting naval ships. You can see from the marks on the hull that they came under enemy fire. We didn’t lose any crew and all of our lifeboats came home except one. They were patched up and put back on service – they simply carried on. Our crews will go out to rescue anybody. They are there to answer that call, whatever the call might be. 

Early trials of the D-class lifeboat, Aberystwyth, 1960s 

Image: Supplied by RNLI

Aberystwyth was one of the first inshore lifeboat stations. In 1963, the RNLI introduced the D-class inshore lifeboat, a response to the change in the ways people were using the water. An increase in leisure activity meant people getting cut off by tides, kayakers getting into difficulty – and our lifeboats just weren’t able to get into shallow water for those kinds of rescues. 

Lytham lifeboat ‘Charles Biggs’ with men that went to the wreck of the ‘Mexico’, December 1886 

Image: Supplied by RNLI

Our worst ever loss of crew was the rescue of the Mexico. It is a dangerous thing to go out on a lifeboat, and it was incredibly dangerous in that early period. You relied entirely on manpower, were at the mercy of the ocean swells and had no communications such as we have today. When the Mexico became stricken in the Ribble estuary during a violent gale, three crews – from Southport, St Annes and Lytham – went out on a rescue mission. Tragically, two of the lifeboats capsized and 27 men were lost out of 29 aboard. The third boat, the Charles Biggs, successfully rescued all 12 crew members of the Mexico. The losses had a massive impact on the community; most of them were related to each other. Even today, many lifeboat crews are made up of multiple members of the same families. 

Portrait of Henry Freeman in a cork lifejacket, 1880

Image: Supplied by RNLI

In the early period, our crews, who would have largely been fishermen, would have gone out with no safety kit whatsoever. In the 1850s, the RNLI decided that standard issue cork lifejackets would be a good thing but a lot of the crews hated it. You can imagine if you’re rowing, it might not be the most comfortable piece of kit. This is Henry Freeman modelling the cork lifejacket. In 1861, on his first ever shout, he diligently put on his cork lifejacket; the rest of the crew did not. The lifeboat capsized and very sadly everyone in the 13-strong crew was killed except for Henry. He went on to be a lifeboatman for over 40 years. 

Henry Blogg (and Monty) in Cromer 

Image: Supplied by RNLI


This is Henry Blogg. He is a bit of an RNLI icon. He is our most decorated crew member. Henry was the coxswain of the Cromer lifeboat in Norfolk. He joined the crew when he was 18 and he was there from 1894 to 1947, through two world wars. An incredibly humble, mild-mannered gentleman, he had a dog called Monty after rescuing the crew of a ship by that name who then gifted him the ship’s dog. He and Monty were very firm friends. 

Lifeboats on the Thames, first introduced in 2002

Image: Supplied by RNLI

Since 2002, the RNLI has had lifeboats on the Thames. That was a response to the Marchioness disaster in 1989, when two boats collided and 51 people were killed. The government and Coast Guard requested that the RNLI establish lifeboat stations on the river. Tower Pier is our busiest station. They had their 10,000th shout last year. 

You can find out more about the RNLI’s work, become a member, volunteer and donate here

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!
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