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Royal National Lifeboat Institution
RNLI logo
Abbreviation RNLI
Formation 4 March 1824
Type Life savers
Legal status charity
Purpose/focus The RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea
Headquarters Poole
Region served United Kingdom
Republic of Ireland
Channel Islands
Isle of Man
Official languages English
Chief Executive Rear Admiral Paul Boissier
Budget £147.7 million (approximately £405,000 per day)
Volunteers 40,000

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) is a charity that saves lives at sea around the coasts of Great Britain, Ireland, the Channel islands and the Isle of Man, as well as on selected inland waterways.

The RNLI was founded on 4 March 1824 as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, with Royal Patronage from George IV. It was given the prefix "Royal" and its current name in 1854 by Queen Victoria. It has official charity status in both the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland.[1][2]

The RNLI operates 444 lifeboats (332 are on station, 112 are in the relief fleet), from 236 lifeboat stations around the coasts of Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The RNLI's lifeboats rescued an average of 22 people a day in 2011. RNLI lifeboats launched 8,321 times in 2012, rescuing 7,912 people. The RNLI's lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved more than 140,000 lives since 1824. RNLI lifeguards placed on selected beaches around England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands attended to 14,519 incidents in 2011. The RNLI's Operations Department defines "rescues" and "lives saved" differently.[3]

In 2012, the RNLI Lifeguards service was expanded to cover more than 180 beaches.[4] RNLI lifeguards are paid by the appropriate town or city council, while the RNLI provides their equipment and training. In contrast, most lifeboat crew members are unpaid volunteers. The RNLI is funded by voluntary donations and legacies (together with tax reclaims). In 2011, the RNLI's income was £162.9M, while its expenditure was £140.6M.[5]


Sir William Hillary came to live on the Isle of Man in 1808. Being aware of the treacherous nature of the Irish Sea, with many ships being wrecked around the Manx coast, he drew up plans for a national lifeboat service manned by trained crews. Initially he received little response from the Admiralty. However, on appealing to the more philanthropic members of London society, the plans were adopted and, with the help of two Members of Parliament (Thomas Wilson and George Hibbert), the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was founded in 1824.

Thirty years later the title changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the first of the new lifeboats to be built was stationed at Douglas in recognition of the work of Sir William.

At the age of 60, Sir William took part in the rescue, in 1830, of the packet St George, which had foundered on Conister Rock at the entrance to Douglas Harbour. He commanded the lifeboat and was washed overboard with others of the lifeboat crew, yet finally everyone aboard the St George was rescued with no loss of life. It was this incident which prompted Sir William to set up a scheme to build The Tower of Refuge on Conister Rock – a project completed in 1832 which stands to this day at the entrance to Douglas Harbour.[6]

In its first year, the RNLI added 13 boats to the existing 39 independent lifeboats.[7] By 1908 there were 280 RNLI lifeboats and 17 independents.

In action

Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboats and lifeguards have saved over 139,000 lives (as of May 2011).[8]

The RNLI operates two classes of inshore lifeboats, inflatable boats and RIBs of 25–40 knots, and five classes of all-weather motor life boats, with another (Template:Lbc) currently in development, with speeds ranging from 17 to 25 knots. It maintains 330 lifeboats based at 236 lifeboat stations. It also has four hovercraft that were introduced in 2002, allowing rescue on mud flats and in river estuaries inaccessible to conventional boats. The crews of the lifeboats are almost entirely volunteers. The 4,600 boat crew members, including over 300 women, are alerted by pagers and attend the lifeboat station when alerted.

Throughout Great Britain and Ireland, ships in distress, or the public reporting an accident, must contact the emergency services:

The call will then be redirected to HM Coastguard or the Irish Coast Guard, as appropriate.

The Coastguard co-ordinates air-sea rescue and may call on the RNLI (or other independent lifeboats) or their own land-based rescue personnel or rescue helicopters to take part. Air-Sea rescue helicopters are provided by CHC Helicopter,[9] the R.A.F., the Royal Navy, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (HM Coastguard), and the Irish Air Corps.

The biggest rescue in the RNLI's history was on 17 March 1907 when the 12,000 tonne liner SS Suevic hit the Maenheere Reef near Lizard Point in Cornwall. In a strong gale and dense fog, RNLI lifeboat volunteers rescued 456 passengers, including 70 babies. Crews from Template:Lbs, Cadgwith, Coverack and Porthleven rowed out repeatedly for 16 hours to rescue all of the people on board. Six silver RNLI medals were later awarded, two to Suevic crew members.[10]

Dunkirk evacuation

Nineteen lifeboats of the RNLI sailed to Dunkirk between 27 May and the early hours of 4 June 1940 to assist with the Dunkirk evacuation. Those from the lifeboat stations at Template:Lbs and Margate were taken directly to France with their usual volunteer crews, but the others sailed to Dover where they were requisitioned by the Royal Navy, which provided the crews. Some of the RNLI crews remained behind in Dover and set up a workshop to repair and fuel the little ships. One lifeboat—The Viscountess Wakefield—was lost after it was run onto the beach at Dunkirk.[11] The Jane Holland was holed when a Motor Torpedo Boat rammed her and her engine failed after being machine gunned by an aircraft. She was abandoned but later found adrift, towed back to Dover and repaired. She returned to service on 5 April 1941.[12]

The lifeboats included:

  • The Cyril and Lilian Bishop (RNLI official number 740); a 35 ft 6 in (10.82 m) self-righter from Hastings.[13]
  • Jane Holland; a 40 ft (12 m) self-righter from Eastbourne.[12]
  • The Michael Stevens (ON 838); a 46 ft (14 m) Watson class from Lowestoft.[14]
  • The Viscountess Wakefield (ON 783); a 41 ft (12 m) Watson class from Hythe, Kent.[15]
  • Thomas Kirk Wright (ON 811); a 32 ft (9.8 m) Surf class from Template:Lbs.[16]
  • The Abdy Beauclerk (ON 751) the Aldeburgh No: 1 Watson Class lifeboat.
  • The Lucy Lavers (ON 832) the Aldeburgh No: 2 Liverpool Class lifeboat.
  • Unnamed ON 826; a 35 ft 6 in (10.8 m) newly built self-righter. She was repaired then entered service in 1941 at Cadgwith with the name Guide of Dunkirk.[16]
  • Mary Scott; then at Southwold, the Mary Scott was towed to Dunkirk by the paddle steamer Emporer of India together with two other small boats. Between them they took 160 men to their mother ship, they made a journey with fifty men to another transport vessel. She was abandoned on the beach, recovered and returned to service with the RNLI at Southwold.
  • Dowager; launched 1933, as the Rosa Woodd and Phyllis Lunn. Based at Shoreham, she made 3 trips between Dover and Dunkirk.
  • Stenoa; launched 1929, as Cecil and Lilian Philpott. Then at Newhaven, she saved 51 persons from the beach at Dunkirk. Then returned to RNLI service at Newhaven.

However, not all those called upon to serve did so enthusiastically. Some life boat crews, and the Rye fishing fleet, were invited to participate, but declined to assist the operation.[17]


The RNLI has two main categories of lifeboat:

All-weather boats
Large boats with enclosed wheelhouses and survivor spaces below deck, which are self-righting and can go out in all weather conditions.
Inshore lifeboats
Smaller boats that operate closer to the shore than all-weather lifeboats and are able to operate in shallower waters.


Over the years, many members of boat and launching crews have been killed during, or died as a result of, lifeboat operations.

  • 1810 – Hoylake lifeboat crew had gone to the aid of the ship Traveller, which had been driven aground in the River Mersey. The Lifeboat capsized in heavy seas. Eight volunteer lifeboatmen drowned (pre-RNLI).
  • 1821 – Sandycove lifeboat crew assisting the brig Ellen of Liverpool. Four volunteer lifeboatmen drowned (pre-RNLI).
  • 1859 – Aldeburgh lifeboat capsized on service in December with the loss of three of her crew of fifteen.
  • 1871 – Bridlington lifeboat RNLB Harbinger was lost with six lives in the Great Gale of 1871.
  • 1880 – The Wells-next-the-Sea lifeboat Eliza Adams went to the aid of the stricken brig Ocean Queen in heavy seas. The lifeboat capsized and eleven of her thirteen crew were drowned. (See Wells lifeboat disaster).
  • 1885 – Caister Lifeboat, the yawl Zephyr struck a sunken wreck as she responded to a distress call from a schooner on the Barber Sands. Eight of the fifteen crewmen were lost: John Burton, Frederick Haylett, Joseph Haylett, George Hodds, James King, William Knowles, John Riches and Joseph Sutton.
  • 1886 – St Anne's, Lytham and Southport lifeboats went to the assistance of a German barque, the Mexico in trouble in heavy seas. The St Anne's and Southport boats were lost with twenty-seven lifeboatmen. (See Southport and St Anne's lifeboats disaster).
  • 1889 – Portrush Lifeboat (The Robert and Agnes Blair) went to the aid of the schooner "Dryad" and capsized off the coast off Portballintrae with the loss of three of the thirteen crew on board.
  • 1895 – Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) lifeboat capsized while attempting to rescue the crew of the stricken SS Palme. All fifteen lifeboatmen were lost. (See Kingstown Lifeboat Disaster).
  • 1899 – Aldeburgh The lifeboat Aldeburgh capsized with the loss of seven of the eighteen man crew.
  • 1901 – Nine members of the Caister-on-Sea lifeboat were drowned when their lifeboat Beauchamp overturned in heavy seas. Asked why they had persisted in their rescue attempts the retired coxswain was reported as saying "Caister men never turn back". (see 1901 Caister Lifeboat Disaster).
  • 1914 – Nine members of the crew of the Fethard-on-Sea lifeboat crew were drowned when their boat capsized. They were attempting to reach the stricken steamer Mexico which was going down off the Co Wexford coast.
  • 1918 – Two members of the Fraserburgh lifeboat were drowned when their lifeboat Lady Rothes capsized when on service to H.M. Drifter Eminent.
  • 1928 – The Rye Harbour lifeboat disaster, in which the Mary Stanford was capsized and seventeen men lost their lives.
  • 1947 – The eight crew of the Mumbles lifeboat died attempting to rescue the crew of SS Samtampa off south Wales, on 23 April 1947. A total of forty-five lives were lost.
  • 1953 – On 9 February six of the seven crew of the Fraserburgh lifeboat lost their lives when the lifeboat capsized while escorting fishing boats into the harbour.
  • 1953 – six of the seven crew of the Arbroath lifeboat Robert Lindsay drowned when the boat capsized outside Arbroath Harbour just before dawn on 27 October 1953.
  • 1959 – All eight crew of the Broughty Ferry lifeboat Mona died while attempting to rescue the North Carr Lightship
  • 1962 – After rescuing the five crew members of the Coble Economy on 17 November, the Seaham lifeboat capsized on its way back to the shore. All five lifeboat crewmen died, only one crewman from the Economy survived.
  • 1969 – On 17 March, the Longhope lifeboat – the T.G.B. – went to the aid of the Liberian vessel Irene. The lifeboat capsized with the loss of her crew of eight.
  • 1970 – On 21 January, the Fraserburgh lifeboat – the Duchess of Kent, while on service to the Danish fishing vessel Opal, capsized with the loss of five of her crew of six
  • 1981 – The Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne was lost, with all eight crew, going to the aid of the freighter Union Star. A total of sixteen lives were lost – there were no survivors and only eight bodies were recovered. (See Penlee lifeboat disaster).

Roll of honour

Lifeboat crew members have been awarded medals for their bravery. The RNLI awards three classes of medal; Gold, Silver and Bronze. To date the number of medals awarded are:

  • Gold: 150
  • Silver: 1564
  • Bronze: 793 (only issued since 1917).

One of the most notable recipients is Henry Blogg, of the Cromer lifeboat crew, who was awarded the RNLI gold medal three times (and the silver four times). He also received the George Cross and the British Empire Medal. He is known as "The Greatest of all Lifeboatmen".

The youngest recipient of an RNLI medal was eleven-year-old Frederick Carter who, along with sixteen-year-old Frank Perry, was awarded a Silver Medal for a rescue at Weymouth in 1890.

The Thanks of the Institution Inscribed on Vellum is also given for notable acts.

One lifeboat received an award. For the Daunt lightship rescue in 1936, the RNLB Mary Stanford and her entire crew were decorated.[18]

Grace Darling was 22 years old when she risked her life in an open boat to help the survivors of the wrecked SS Forfarshire on 7 September 1838. With her father, she rowed for over a mile through raging seas to reach them.[19]

Famous lifeboat-saviours


The headquarters of the RNLI are in Poole, Dorset. The RNLI site is located adjacent to the Holes Bay in Poole Harbour. It includes RNLI HQ, lifeboat maintenance and repair facilities, the Lifeboat Support Centre and RNLI College (the training centre). The support centre and college were opened by Her Majesty Elizabeth II in 2004.[21] Specialist training facilities include a wave and capsize pool, a fire simulator, a bridge simulator and an engineering workshop.[22]

A new headquarters for the RNLI Ireland was officially opened at Airside in Swords, north County Dublin, in June 2006 by Her Excellency President Mary McAleese. The Chairman of the Executive Committee of the RNLI, Admiral Sir Jock Slater, R.N., a former British First Sea Lord, was in attendance at this ceremony.


The RNLI maintains a number of museums recording the history and activity of the Institution along with preserved lifeboats.

The official RNLI Historic Lifeboat Collection forms the "Lifeboat" display within Chatham Historic Dockyard and includes 17 historic vessels.[23]

The Grace Darling Museum, opened in 1938 at Bamburgh in Northumberland commemorates Grace Darling's rescue of the SS Forfarshire in 1838.[24]

Additionally, the Lifeboat Enthusiasts' Society (a branch of the RNLI)[25] and an independent organisation, the Historic Lifeboat Owners Association,[26] promote the study and preservation of lifeboats.


See also

Similar organisations of other nations


External links

  • Official website
  • DMOZ
  • RNLI YouTube channel

Template:Lifeboat wrecks and rescues

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