Painting of RNLI Secretary Richard Lewis by artist Thomas Brooks, 1868
Painting of RNLI Secretary Richard Lewis by artist Thomas Brooks, 1868

Born in 1822, Richard Lewis was the fourth son of John Lewis, a ‘gentleman’ in Carmarthen.

Successive RNLI histories have stated that Lewis was a barrister when he took up office as secretary in 1850. However, this was not the case as his early career was in journalism.

Like Charles Dickens, Lewis was a parliamentary reporter. He was admitted to the Inner Temple in London to begin his legal training in 1859 and was called to the Bar in 1862, some 12 years after his appointment to the institution.

Lewis was the RNLI’s first in-house lawyer and as the institution expanded rapidly during his tenure, his legal skills would have been highly useful - and free of charge.

Historians have referred to Lewis as the RNLI’s ‘unsung hero’. His obituary in The Life-Boat Journal barely registers a paragraph - a mere 3½ lines or 24 words. But those few lines show that the dedication and abilities of the RNLI’s longest serving secretary were very well known at the time:

‘Mr Lewis’ services to the Institution during a period of thirty-three years are too well known to the public to need further comment.’

Similarly, the Illustrated London News in its obituary stated that ‘the good service which he rendered to the lifeboat cause is known to all’. 

Other newspaper reports of the time referred to him as being ‘the widely known Secretary of the National Lifeboat Institution, whose indefatigable exertions to keep its useful objects and the valuable results of its work before the British public have been so many years familiar to it.’

But as the years have passed, so knowledge of Richard Lewis and his services to the RNLI have faded. This is perhaps understandable as we now see the huge success of the charity and its works.

With its 25-knot lifeboat fleet, expanding lifeguard service, Flood Rescue Team and international efforts, it is hard to imagine that the institution came so close to collapse just 25 years after its founding. Lewis and his colleagues took a floundering, failing organisation to the thriving, innovative and sustainable RNLI we know today.

A life devoted to 'the lifeboat cause'

Richard Lewis’s life was marked by personal tragedy. His first wife died in 1870 after a long illness, just 3 years after the death of their only child, a daughter. However, Lewis married again, a few years later, and had three children with his second wife, Eliza.

Richard Lewis died on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1883, in Cannes in the south of France after a protracted illness and he is buried there.

There is also a small plaque tucked away in the corner on the southern wall of the beautiful church of St Augustine in the picturesque village of West Monkton near Taunton, Somerset. The inscription on the plaque is simple and to the point.

It reads: ‘In memory of Richard Lewis who died at Cannes on 17th March 1883, his life was devoted for 33 years in the promotion and success of the lifeboat cause, a token of deep and sincere affection from his wife’.