Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
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Wednesday, 16 October 2013

16 Oct 2013 - "The Royal National Lifeboat Institution"

Around 20 members enjoyed Ruth Fisher's recounting of the history, present activities and future plans of a much-loved charity - the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

The first recorded rescue of people from a shipwreck by a boat launched from the shore was from South Shields in 1790, but the institution as we know it was launched in 1824 and named the "National Institution for Preservation of Life from Shipwrecks" - NIPLS (no giggling at the back, was Ruth's comment).  Since that time over 137,000 lives have been saved.

In 1828 Grace Darling, the lighthouse keeper's daughter became famous for her rescue off the Farne Islands.  Painters flocked to record her image, but the iconic picture of her, complete with huge waves which was completed 30 years after the event was familiar to many of the audience.

In 1874 there were 240 lifeboat stations and most of the crew were fishermen.  However, 1886 was a bad year when, on a rescue of the crew from the Barque Mexico, 2 lifeboats from Southport and Lytham-St-Annes foundered with the loss of both crews except for two who managed to get back to land and raise the alarm.  A third boat out on its first rescue, saved all 12 of the crew from Mexico. Public sympathy for the destitute families of the men lost brought about the first "Flag Day" to raise money.

Change came between 1891 and 1910 with the introduction of steam lifeboats followed by petrol-engined ones in place of the rowed vessels.  Between 1914 and 1918 the number of lives saved reached 5,332.  Today, a average of 22 people per year are rescued from 236 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland, manned by volunteer crews.

In Cornwall, one of the last teams of horses used to launch the lifeboats where on other duties at a funeral when the maroons went off and they immediately set off to the launch-point with the coffin still in tow, no doubt being chased by the coachman and congregation...

Between 1930 and 1936 the first fast lifeboat was introduced - then only capable of 18 knots. Closed boats and RIBS were introduced between 1950 and 1960 and it is interesting to know that these RIBS account for some 30% of rescues today. 

Since the 1990s there has been an effort made to rationalisation - to avoid the need to maintain too many different types of vessel while at the same time keeping sufficient variety for all needs.  For example, their work has expanded into non-coastal waters with the first inshore station at Loch Ness, the first hovercraft station at Morecambe Bay and RIBS are deployed for inshore rescue.

The public are essential to the survival of the charity.  We learnt that it will cost £140 million to run the organisation in 2014.  Out of every £1 raised some 80p goes to operational activities, 17.5p goes on fund raising and education and only 1.5p on administration.  It costs around £1,200 to kit out a new crew person including training. Six out of ten lifeboats are financed by Legacies or retiring collections at funerals and the audience were encouraged to remember a charity in their wills - partly out of self-interest, Ruth contended, as statistics suggest that those who write a will live 5 years longer than those who don't and those who add a codicil usually live at least 2 years afterwards! The quotation from Longfellow to leave something behind was an added incentive:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time
Changes continue and there is now a Lifeboat College in Poole where much training of crews is now concentrated.  As there are fewer fishermen in the population only 1 in 10 of the crews have a maritime background and more professional training is needed in all areas of the work.

Thanks to Dougie's help we were able to see a DVD illustrating the variety of work involved.  We saw a fisherman who had slipped into the sea rescued at Porthcawl, around 40 swimmers pulled out of the sea by crews and lifeguards in Perranporth, the River Thames crew at work in their very manoeuvrable vessels and a traditional rescue at sea illustrating team work with the RAF rescue helicopter who pulled out of the sea 3 yachtsmen who had been washed overboard in the Humber Estuary off Spurn Point while the RNLI managed to rescue the remaining crew member left on board who needed hospitalisation.

There are now crews who are dedicated to dealing with flood situations and many overseas people are trained in the necessary skills.

Future plans include a project to take over the actual building of the lifeboats in their own boatyard, partly as a way of ensuring quality control and to save money.

Needless to say members were delighted to contribute to a collection after the talk and to take advantage of the opportunity to buy some RNLI Christmas cards and other products which Ruth and Dougie had brought along.

Patricia Weston

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