4 January 2017

Sir William Hillary: One man's lifesaving vision

Imagine you’re out at sea, having fallen from a boat somewhere off the coast of the UK or Ireland. You’re treading cold, rough water.

And then you hear engines, and you see a splash of orange and blue. The lifeboat’s here. Strong arms pull you to safety. Six volunteers have dropped everything to come and get you, in rough weather, even though they don’t know you. Their protective gear and lifeboat was paid for by generous donors. Thanks to them, you will live on.

The RNLI has been saving lives this way since 1824. But where did it all start and whose idea was it?

If you put your finger in the middle of the RNLI’s rescue map, you’ll find the Isle of Man – an island with no less than five lifeboat stations, serving patches of sea off the coasts of Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, England and Scotland.

Those lifeboat crews help the charity meet its commitment to providing search and rescue 100 nautical miles out from our coasts. But that’s not the only important part that this island plays in the RNLI’s existence. It was here, on this remarkable mass of land in the middle of the Irish Sea, that the charity was conceived, 190 years ago.

The memorial in Douglas, commemorating one of the RNLI's first rescues of the St George in 1830
The memorial in Douglas, commemorating one of the RNLI's first rescues of the St George in 1830

An emotional appeal

The grim sight of battered shipwrecks and news of lost crews was only too common around shores in the 18th century. It was simply part of coastal life. There were some ports and towns with purpose-built lifeboats on hand to answer the call for help – but not every community had wealthy benefactors to pay for one.

Sir William Hillary had been wealthy once – but after falling into debt, he fled England and went to live on the Isle of Man in 1808. An experienced sailor, Hillary witnessed several shipping disasters in Douglas Bay and was desperate to help. He joined a rescue effort to save the crew of a Royal Navy cutter in a gale in October 1822.

Using rowing boats, he and his fellow rescuers (mostly Navy crew) pulled the stricken cutter clear from rocks, and returned to shore. Later, Hillary went to the aid of a further five vessels with local fishermen, towing them from danger and hauling them to the beach. Although they saved many lives, it had been dangerous work aboard simple boats – and most of the local men had been reluctant to volunteer.

Experiences like this led Hillary to call on the great and good of the time to help form a national institution that would preserve human life from shipwreck. He printed and distributed an appeal leaflet in 1823. ‘In some occasions, it has been my lot to witness the loss of many valuable lives,’ it read, ‘under circumstances where, had there been establishments already formed for affording prompt relief, and encouragement given to those who might volunteer on such a cause, in all probability the greater part would have been rescued from destruction.’

The original appeal written by Sir William Hillary in 1823
The original appeal written by Sir William Hillary in 1823

That appeal led to a meeting on 4 March 1824 at the London Tavern, where the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was founded. The new institution, later known as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, received public funds and began to provide lifeboats to areas that need them, including the Isle of Man.

Hillary led many lifesaving rescues there over the following years, aboard lifeboats provided by the institution he had proudly founded. His lifesaving legacy continues to this day, with lifeboat stations and crews around the coast dedicating their time and risking their lives to keep us safe on the water.