A brief history of the RNLI

Britain and Ireland have a tough time; their coasts lie on three very different stretches of water all with one thing in common – they can each throw up a mighty storm that can catch out the most experienced of sailors and destroy all in their wake.

Accepted risks

During the 19th century around 1,800 ships were wrecked around the coasts of Britain and Ireland – it was one of those risks that everyone who put to sea accepted and there was little anybody could do to save the lives, cargos and vessels caught in the trap of the violent seas. From as early as the mid-18th communities did start to organise themselves and run rescue services, but they were few and far between – talk about a postcode lottery.

The first lifeboats

Liverpool was among the first of the ports to operate a rescue boat in 1730, then there was Bamburgh up on the north east coast who operated the first purpose-designed lifeboat in 1785. And then in 1789 businessmen from Tyne and Wear organised a competition in 1789 to build a standard lifeboat design and this resulted in the first lifeboat that would automatically right itself should it capsize. These two lifeboat designs would go on to spawn a vessel that featured best of both designs; it was called the Original and within thirty years there were more than thirty of these life-saving boats launching for various places around the country.

The birth of the RNLI

Whilst there were lifeboat stations around the coasts of the UK and Ireland, there was little cooperation between them.

Having been on the scene of many a shipwreck in his home port of Douglas, on the Isle of Man, Sir William Hillary obtained the support of a London MP and the chairman of the West India Merchants and established the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck in 1824. By 1825 the organisation had commissioned and built 15 new lifeboats and thirteen lifeboat stations to its name.

Fortunately the name was changed from its original tongue-twister to the name of the current organisation that saves lives around the coasts of the UK and Ireland; the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in 1854.


History of the RNLI (RNLI)