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Royal National Lifeboat Institution

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Title: Royal National Lifeboat Institution  
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Subject: Lifeboat (rescue), List of shipwrecks of the Isles of Scilly, The Lizard Lifeboat Station, Poole, Atlantic 85-class lifeboat
Collection: 1824 Establishments in the United Kingdom, All-Ireland Organisations, Charities Based in Dorset, Emergency Medical Services in the Republic of Ireland, Emergency Medical Services in the United Kingdom, Emergency Services in the Republic of Ireland, Emergency Services in the United Kingdom, Organizations Established in 1824, Poole, Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Sea Rescue Organisations, Sea Rescue Organisations of the United Kingdom, Water Transport in Ireland, Winners of the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service
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Royal National Lifeboat Institution

Royal National Lifeboat Institution
RNLI logo
Abbreviation RNLI
Formation 4 March 1824
Type Life savers
Legal status Registered charity
Purpose The RNLI is a charity that saves lives at sea
Headquarters Poole
Region served
United Kingdom
Republic of Ireland
Channel Islands
Isle of Man
Official language
Chief Executive
Rear Admiral Paul Boissier
Main organ
The Lifeboat
£147.7 million (approximately £405,000 per day)
1892 Punch cartoon celebrating the RNLI
*on the occasion of Queen Victoria conveying her appreciation in saving the crew and passengers of the steamship Eider, 1892.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) is the largest charity that saves lives at sea around the coasts of the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man as well as on some inland waterways. There are numerous other lifeboat services operating in the same area.

Founded in 1824 as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, the RNLI was granted Royal Charter in 1860 and is a charity in the UK and Republic of Ireland. Queen Elizabeth II is Patron. The RNLI is principally funded by legacies and donations with most lifeboat crew members being unpaid volunteers.

The RNLI has 236 lifeboat stations and operates 444 lifeboats. Crews rescued on average 23 people a day in 2013. RNLI Lifeguards operate on more than 200 beaches. They are paid by local authorities, while the RNLI provides equipment and training. The Institution operates Flood Rescue Teams (FRT) nationally and internationally (iFRT), the latter prepared to travel to emergencies overseas at short notice.

Considerable effort is put into training and education by the Institution, particularly for young people; more than 6,000 children a week are spoken to by education volunteers about sea and beach safety, and over 800 children a week receive training.

The Institution has saved 140,000 lives since its foundation, at a cost of more than 600 lives lost in service.


  • Origins 1
  • History 2
    • World War 2 2.1
      • Dunkirk evacuation 2.1.1
    • Losses 2.2
    • Honours 2.3
    • Rescues and lives saved 2.4
    • Heritage 2.5
  • Current operations 3
    • Lifeboat stations 3.1
    • Lifeboats 3.2
      • All-weather lifeboats (ALB) 3.2.1
      • Inshore lifeboats (ILB) 3.2.2
      • Hovercraft 3.2.3
    • Lifeboat crew 3.3
      • Equipment 3.3.1
    • Lifeguards 3.4
    • Flood Rescue Team 3.5
    • Safety advice 3.6
  • Infrastructure 4
    • Headquarters 4.1
    • Regions 4.2
    • Staff 4.3
    • Funding 4.4
    • Membership 4.5
    • Publications 4.6
    • Voluntary support 4.7
  • Criticism 5
    • Salvage 5.1
    • Independent lifeboat services 5.2
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Memorial in Douglas, Isle of Man, to one of RNLI's earliest rescues: rescuing the sailors from the St George in 1830.

George Hibbert, the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was founded in 1824.

At the age of 60, Sir William took part in the rescue, in 1830, of the packet St George, which had foundered on The Tower of Refuge on Conister Rock – a project completed in 1832 which stands to this day at the entrance to Douglas Harbour.[1]

In 1854 the institution's name 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.


1974 postage stamp marking the RNLI's 150th anniversary (rescue of Daunt Lightship's crew by Ballycotton lifeboat RNLB Mary Stanford. Artist: B. F. Gribble)

In its first year, the RNLI added 13 boats to the existing 39 independent lifeboats.[2] By 1908 there were 280 RNLI lifeboats and 17 independents.

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 The Lizard, 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.[3]

World War 2

The work of the RNLI during the war placed considerable extra demands on the service, particularly in south and east England where the threat of invasion and enemy activity was ever-present,[4] rescuing downed pilots a frequent occurrence, and the constant danger of mines.[5]

Dunkirk evacuation

Nineteen RNLI lifeboats sailed to Dunkirk between 27 May and 4 June 1940 to assist with the Dunkirk evacuation. Lifeboats from Ramsgate and Margate went directly to France with their own crews. The crew of Ramsgate's Prudential (now Trimilia) (ON 697) collected 2,800 troops. Margate's Coxswain Edward Parker was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal for his work taking the Lord Southborough (ON 688) to the beaches.

Of the other lifeboats and crews summoned to Dover by the Admiralty, the first arrivals questioned - reasonably in their view - the details of the service, in particular the impracticality of running heavy lifeboats on to the beach, loading them with soldiers, then floating them off. The dispute resulted in the first three crews being sent home. Subsequent lifeboats arriving were commandeered without discussion, much to the disappointment of many lifeboatmen. A later RNLI investigation resulted in the dismissal of two of Hythe crew members, who were nevertheless vindicated in one aspect of their criticism, as Hythe's Viscountess Wakefield was run on to the beach and unable to be refloated; she was the only lifeboat to be lost in the operation. Some RNLI crew members stayed in Dover for the emergency to provide repair and refuelling facilities, and after the end of the evacuation most lifeboats returned to their stations with varying levels of damage and continued their lifesaving services.[6][4][5][7]


More than 600 people have lost their lives in the RNLI's service;[8] their names are inscribed on the RNLI Memorial sculpture at RNLI HQ, Poole.[9][10]


Bust of Henry Blogg of Cromer

More than 2,500 medals have been awarded for bravery: Gold (150), Silver (1,564) and Bronze (793). Bronze medals were awarded from 1917. The obverse of the gold medal carries the motto: "Let not the deep swallow me up", from Psalm 69.[11] The Thanks of the Institution Inscribed on Vellum is also given for notable acts.

The Ralph Glister Award is a monetary award made for the most meritorious service in each year and was inaugurated in 1968.[12][13] The Walter and Elizabeth Groombridge Award is given annually for the most outstanding service by an Atlantic 21 (and successors) lifeboat crew. Established in 1986 as the Walter Groombridge Award in memory of Brighton Lifeboat Station's Administration Officer it was renamed in memory of his wife who died in 1989.[14]

The most decorated lifeboatman was British Empire Medal and is known as "The Greatest of all Lifeboatmen".

The youngest recipient was Frederick Carter (11) who with Frank Perry (16) was awarded a Silver Medal for a rescue at Weymouth in 1890. Other notable lifeboatmen include Henry Freeman of Whitby, coxswain for 22 years, Henry "Shrimp" Davies, coxswain of the Cromer Lifeboat with 45 years service and James Haylett, coxswain of Caister-on-Sea.

One lifeboat has received an award. For the Daunt lightship rescue in 1936, the RNLB Mary Stanford and her entire crew were decorated.[15] (see illustration in history section, above)

Rescues and lives saved

The RNLI's lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved more than 140,000 lives since 1824.[8] The RNLI makes a distinction between people aided and lives saved. There were 8,462 lifeboat launches in 2014 and lifeguards aided almost 20,000 people.[16]


The RNLI maintains or encourages a number of entities in respect of the history and activity of the Institution along with preserved lifeboats, including:

  • Historic Lifeboat Collection in Chatham Historic Dockyard with 17 historic vessels.[17]
  • The Grace Darling Museum, opened 1938 at Bamburgh, commemorating her rescue of the SS Forfarshire.[18]
  • The Lifeboat Enthusiasts' Society (a branch of the RNLI)[19]
  • The (independent) Historic Lifeboat Owners Association, promoting the study and preservation of lifeboats.[20]
  • The RNLI Heritage Trust's collection of historic items at its HQ in Poole, including fine art, model lifeboats, and an archive of historic documents and photographs.[9]

Current operations

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

Calls are redirected to HM Coastguard or the Irish Coast Guard as appropriate. The Coastguard co-ordinates air-sea rescue operations and may call on the RNLI (or independent lifeboats), their own land-based rescue personnel and rescue helicopters to help. Air-Sea rescue helicopters are provided by CHC Helicopter,[21] the R.A.F., the Royal Navy, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (HM Coastguard), and the Irish Air Corps.

Lifeboat stations

Weston-super-Mare: the longest slipway in the country (no longer used)

There are 236 lifeboat stations[22] around the coasts of Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Tower Lifeboat Station on the River Thames in London is the RNLI's busiest, in 2013 rescuing 372 people and saving 25 lives.[23] Five new lifeboat station buildings were completed in 2013.[24]

For public access the RNLI classifies stations as one of three types: Explore, which are normally open all year round and have a shop, Discover, normally open during the summer months and Observe, which because of their location still welcome visitors but may not be easily accessible.[25]

From time to time the RNLI may close a station; some of these are later reopened by independent services. The history of some former lifeboat stations can be found in WorldHeritage articles on the places where those stations were. (See also: List of Lifeboat Disasters in the British Isles for further information on closed stations.)


Severn-class lifeboat showing Y-boat

The RNLI operates 444 lifeboats (332 on station, 112 in the relief fleet).

The ship prefix for all RNLI lifeboats from the D-class to the Tamar-class is RNLB (Royal National Lifeboat).

All-weather lifeboats (ALB)

Large boats with enclosed wheelhouses and survivor spaces below deck, which are self-righting and can go out in all weather conditions. Some ALBs carry an inflatable Y-class lifeboat or Y-boat for inshore work, launched by mechanical arm. There are six classes of ALB motor life boats, with speeds ranging from 17 to 25 knots. The RNLI's aim is to provide a 25-knot lifeboat to every all-weather crew, and has begun construction of an All-weather Lifeboat Centre in Poole which, when complete, will save £3 million a year.[24]

Inshore lifeboats (ILB)

Smaller boats that operate closer to the shore and in shallower waters than ALBs. There are two classes, inflatables and RIBs capable of 25–40 knots. The RNLI's Inshore Lifeboat Centre at Cowes, Isle of Wight, has been building lifeboats since the 1960s.[24]


Four hovercraft were introduced in 2002, allowing rescue on mud flats and in river estuaries inaccessible to conventional boats.

Lifeboat crew

Lifeboat crews are almost entirely volunteers, numbering 4,600, including over 300 women, and are alerted by pager. They are supported by 3,000 volunteer shore crew and station management.[24]

Standard sea kit


Lifejackets have evolved from cork, kapok and synthetic foam to today's light and non-cumbersome designs. ALB and ILB crews wear different styles of lifejacket.[26]


RNLI lifeguards are placed on more than 200 beaches around England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands, and aided almost 20,000 people in 2014.[16][27] RNLI lifeguards are paid by the appropriate town or city council, while the RNLI provides their equipment and training.

Standard lifeguard set-up at waters edge.

Flood Rescue Team

The Institution has operated a Flood Rescue Team since the 2000 Mozambique floods, with six strategically placed teams each with two boats, support transport and equipment. The RNLI's international Flood Rescue Team (iFRT) is composed of volunteer lifeboat crew with a range of additional skills prepared to travel to emergencies overseas at short notice.[28] They have trained alongside other teams for the common purpose in the USA.[29]

Safety advice

In addition to safety advice given in its publications,[30] the RNLI offers safety advice to boat and beach users when the opportunity arises, and to at-risk groups such as anglers, divers and kayakers.[24] The Institution runs sea and beach safety sessions for young people, particularly in inner-city areas;[31] more than 6,000 children a week are spoken to by education volunteers about sea and beach safety, and over 800 children a week receive training.[24] In an effort to reduce the estimated 400,000 drownings a year worldwide, more than half of them children, the RNLI extends practical or strategic safety advice to lifesaver organisations overseas, in some cases providing training at the Lifeboat College.[32]



The Lifeboat College, Poole

The headquarters of the RNLI are in Poole, Dorset. The RNLI site is 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 Queen Elizabeth II in 2004.[33] Specialist training facilities include a wave and capsize pool, a fire simulator, a ship's bridge simulator and an engineering workshop. The College's accommodation is available for RNLI members and their guests when training is not taking place and offers facilities for weddings, conferences and other events.[34]

Capsize training at the College, Poole

A new headquarters for the RNLI Ireland was officially opened at Airside in Swords, north County Dublin, in June 2006 by 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 Institution is split into six administrative divisions:


About half of the RNLI's staff work at Poole. Other locations are Dublin, London, Perth, Saltash, St Asaph and Stockton-on-Tees, while some roles are at lifeboat stations or home-based and include operations, estate and financial management, public relations and information technology.[35]


The RNLI is principally funded by legacies (65%) and voluntary donations (28%), with the remainder from merchandising and investment. In 2013, the RNLI's income was £182.7 million, while its expenditure was £144.6 million.[24] The Institution encourages corporate partnerships, which included in 2014 Waitrose, Yamaha and Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines.[36]

There are 1,100 RNLI fundraising branches[24] throughout the regions served by the Institution, many far from the sea, which may support a particular station, or a project such as a new lifeboat. The Institution estimated their volunteer network at 31,500 in 2014.[37] The largest regular contributor is The Communications and Public Service Lifeboat Fund (known simply as 'The Lifeboat Fund') established in 1886 for civil servants to support the RNLI collectively; the Fund has provided the Institution with 52 lifeboats as well as other support.[36]

The ubiquitous lifeboat collection boxes seen in thousands of retail and other premises around the country are popular enough to have even become the target for thieves.[38] Some collection boxes are mechanical models and have become collectable. The Institution's annual fundraising day ("SOS Day") is at the end of January, but many lifeboat stations hold open days during the summer, hosting displays, stalls and other events, as well as in-station shops which are open full or part-time.

Nationally and internationally known celebrities in various fields are, or have been supporters and fundraisers for the RNLI; for example, the cartoonist Giles was a Life President of the RNLI and donated many cartoons which are still being used for RNLI charity cards and other illustrations, and Ross Brawn, the former Formula 1 team boss, in 2012 raised funds through a business challenge, for a new lifeboat for Chiswick Lifeboat Station on the River Thames in London.[39] Other names include Bear Grylls, Dee Caffari, Chris Beardshaw, Ben Fogle, Daniel Craig, Rupert Grint,[40] and Rebecca Newman, whose Coast to Coast tour in 2012[41] earned her an Outstanding Achievement Award.


Membership classes involve differing levels of contribution

  • Governor, which includes voting rights
  • Offshore, aimed at active sailors and boaters
  • Shoreline and Joint Shoreline, the most popular level
  • Storm Force, for younger members[42]


The Lifeboat is the quarterly magazine for all members, containing regional and national news from the Institution, featured rescues, book reviews, lifeboat launch listings and an additional insert for Offshore members. The former Compass quarterly regional newsletter was discontinued in 2014, but back copies can be read on the RNLI website. Storm Force members have their own quarterly magazine.

The Institution's website contains full details of the organisation and its activities including fundraising, lifeboats and stations, history and projects.

Voluntary support

Apart from lifeboat crew and lifeguards, the Institution provides a variety of volunteering opportunities. One of these is as "Deckhand" where signed-up volunteers are notified by email or mobile phone when there is a local need, such as marshalling at fundraising events or helping with collections or in an RNLI shop. Voluntary internships in RNLI offices are available three times a year.[43]


There are two areas of operation in which the RNLI has been viewed negatively in some quarters: salvage, and in relation to independent (i.e. non-RNLI) lifeboat services.


There have been a few isolated cases where RNLI crew members (not the RNLI) have claimed salvage[44] leading to a not uncommon misconception that the RNLI is partly funded by this practice. There is no legal reason why crew members of the RNLI could not salvage a vessel[45][46] and indeed frequently tow small vessels to safety, often long distances.[47] The RNLI however does not support or encourage salvage because, firstly, they exist to save lives at sea and, secondly, to become involved in salvage might discourage those whose lives are at risk from calling for help. The RNLI's Sea Safety Guidelines state: "There is no 'salvage' fee when you are towed by a lifeboat, but a voluntary contribution to the RNLI is always very welcome!". This stance was reinforced when the RNLI was criticised for not launching a lifeboat to an unmanned fishing vessel that had run aground. A spokesman for the RNLI stated: "We are not a salvage firm and our charity’s aim is to provide immediate assistance for people in trouble at sea and lives are at risk."[48]

Independent lifeboat services

There are at least 60 independent lifeboat services in Ireland and Britain. In 2010 a campaign "Go Orange for Indie Lifeboat" was launched to educate members of the public that their donation to the RNLI may not actually be going towards their local lifeboat station if it is independent.[49]

See also

  • Grace Darling, daughter of lighthouse keeper, rescued survivors with a rowing boat in 1838.[50] Grace Darling Museum is run by RNLI.
  • Chatham Historic Dockyard – the home of Lifeboat a museum of the RNLI with seventeen historic vessels
  • National Memorial Arboretum – home to a memorial dedicated to those who have served in the RNLI.
Similar organisations of other nations


  1. ^ Visit Isle of Man.
  2. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911
  3. ^ BBC news – Biggest RNLI rescue is remembered
  4. ^ a b Leach, Nicholas (2014). The Lifeboat Service in South East England. Amberley Publishing.  
  5. ^ a b Foley, Michael (2013). Essex at War. Amberley Publishing.  
  6. ^ Hastings, Max, p.66, All Hell Let Loose, Harper Press, London (2011)
  7. ^ "Sussex History Forum - Lifeboats at Dunkirk". Retrieved 1 October 2014. 
  8. ^ a b "RNLI have saved 140,000 lives". Yachting Monthly. Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  9. ^ a b "The RNLI Heritage Trust preserves the history of the RNLI". Retrieved 5 May 2014. 
  10. ^ "RNLI Memorial - List of names". Retrieved 10 May 2014. 
  11. ^ "RNLI education resources" (PDF). Retrieved 24 January 2015. 
  12. ^ "RNLI: Ralph Glister Award". Retrieved 23 November 2014. 
  13. ^ "Ralph Glister Award: Open Charities". Retrieved 23 November 2014. 
  14. ^ "Flamborough lifeboat crew presented with national RNLI award". Retrieved 23 November 2014. 
  15. ^ MacSweeney, Tom (16 February 2006). "Seascapes" (smil).  
  16. ^ a b "Review of the year: Rescue". Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  17. ^ RNLI Historic Lifeboat Collection
  18. ^ Grace Darling Museum
  19. ^ Lifeboat Enthusiasts' Society
  20. ^ Historic Lifeboat Owners Association
  21. ^ "New Irish Search and Rescue Contract to be Signed". CRC Search & Rescue. CRC. Retrieved 4 October 2010. 
  22. ^ "RNLI: Lifeboat stations". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  23. ^ "Thames lifeboat rescue". The Independent. 4 April 2014. Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  24. ^ a b c d e f g h RNLI 2013 - Annual Report and Accounts (PDF). RNLI. 2013. Retrieved 8 May 2014. 
  25. ^ "RNLI - Learn how you can visit a station". Retrieved 10 May 2014. 
  26. ^ "History of the RNLI Factsheet" (PDF). Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  27. ^ "List of RNLI lifeguarded beaches". RNLI. 
  28. ^ "RNLI Flood Rescue". Retrieved 3 May 2014. 
  29. ^ "RNLI volunteers from near Plymouth head west for flood training". The Herald (Plymouth). 28 September 2013. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  30. ^ "RNLI sea safety advice". Retrieved 5 May 2014. 
  31. ^ "RNLI Safety and Education". Retrieved 5 May 2014. 
  32. ^ "RNLI: International work". Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  33. ^ Royal Opening for RNLI, BBC News, 2004
  34. ^ "RNLI College". RNLI. 
  35. ^ "Working for us". Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  36. ^ a b "RNLI Corporate partnerships". Retrieved 5 May 2014. 
  37. ^ "Volunteering for the RNLI". Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  38. ^ "RNLI collection box stolen during Extravaganza weekend". Daily Post. Retrieved 5 May 2014. 
  39. ^ "Ross Brawn names RNLI lifeboat". Motor Boats Monthly. Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  40. ^ "Celebrity support for the RNLI". Retrieved 6 August 2014. 
  41. ^ "Rebecca sings for Exmouth RNLI Shannon appeal". Retrieved 20 November 2012. 
  42. ^ "RNLI: Become a member". Retrieved 5 May 2014. 
  43. ^ "Volunteering opportunities at the RNLI". Retrieved 5 May 2014. 
  44. ^ Brice, Geoffrey (2011). Maritime Law. Sweet and Maxwell. p. 75-77. Retrieved 1 June 2014. 
  45. ^ Danton, G.L. (1978). The Theory and Practice of Seamanship. Routledge and Kegan Paul. Retrieved 1 June 2014. 
  46. ^ Mandakara-Sheppard, Aleka (2006). Modern Admiralty Law. Cavendish Publishing. p. 682. Retrieved 1 June 2014. 
  47. ^ "Ten hour yacht rescue for Angle lifeboat". Western Telegraph. 5 June 2014. Retrieved 6 June 2014. 
  48. ^ "Newquay RNLI launched to stand by fishermen attempting to salvage stranded vessel". Retrieved 1 June 2014. 
  49. ^ "Independent lifeboat fundraising drive announced". Practical Boat Owner. 9 December 2009. Retrieved 25 May 2014. 
  50. ^ "Grace Darling Story" (smil).  

External links

  • Official RNLI website
  • Official RNLI website - Lifeboats and lifeboat stations
  • Lifeboat stations at DMOZ
  • RNLI YouTube channel
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