RNLI Bicentenary — [Carolyn Harris in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 26 March 2024.

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Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes 9:30, 26 March 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the bicentenary of the RNLI.

It is my honour and privilege to open and close today’s debate on the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and to recognise its history, praise its work, celebrate and thank its volunteers. I want to put on the record the fact that this House understands, appreciates and values that magnificent, long-standing organisation.

Throughout 2024, across the country, communities will come together to mark the extraordinary 200 years of the RNLI. On 4 March, 1,800 crew of the RNLI assembled in Westminster Abbey for a service of thanksgiving. In May the month becomes mayday month, and 18 and 19 May will see a series of community activities, including a lifeboat festival in Poole and 25 July is World Drowning Prevention Day. On 1 August “one moment, one crew” encourages RNLI volunteers to celebrate in their communities. On 10 October, on the anniversary of the first ever street collection held in Manchester, the birth of the most successful fundraising campaign ever seen will be celebrated. There is also the 200 Voices podcast on the RNLI website, where we can listen to 200 people explain how the RNLI has impacted their lives. I strongly recommend it.

From its humble beginnings to the modern-day integrated network of volunteers, fundraisers and supporters criss-crossing the country, the RNLI is not just an emergency service, but a Great British brand that exhibits the very best of our spirit. It was on the Isle of Man in 1824 that Sir William Hillary proposed the concept of an organisation to save lives at sea. With an average 1,800 shipwrecks a year, Sir William proposed the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck. Despite numerous rejections, including being pushed back by the Navy and Ministers of the day, he appealed to the philanthropic organisations of the time, which, with alacrity, took up the cause, and on 4 March 1824 they held a meeting in the City of London Tavern, officially forming and ratifying the institution—possibly the best idea ever to come out of a pub.

With royal patronage granted and the name changed in 1854 to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Sir William’s vision was undoubtedly recognised, although whether he would have imagined that the RNLI would have 238 stations, operate 440 lifeboats, provide lifeguards for 200 beaches and be responsible for rescuing some 146,000 people over its history, it is impossible to know. However, that ambition and determination created an organisation from which we all benefit and whose charter still stands the test of time, declaring that the RNLI

“will assist in saving life from Shipwreck” and be

“supported by Annual Subscriptions and Donations, and other Contributions to its Funds”.

Today the RNLI holds legendary status. Those of us who have grown up in coastal communities or who are fortunate to represent one have long been moved by the tales of epic heroism in which volunteers—members of the community—have put their lives on the line for others. That includes the sinking of the Mexico in the Ribble estuary in 1886; the White Star Line’s SS Suevic, shipwrecked off the Lizard in Cornwall in 1907, where the RNLI managed to rescue all 456 passengers, including 70 babies, over 16 hours in an oar-powered boat; the RNLI’s support in the Dunkirk evacuation, where over 100,000 soldiers were said to have been saved by RNLI boats; to Henry Freeman and his innovative cork lifejacket; the iconic Henry Blogg; the heroism of Grace Darling in the 1838 crisis in Forfarshire; and Margaret Armstrong, who helped every single launch of the Cresswell lifeboat, saving lives for over 50 years until her death in 1928. The RNLI has without prejudice always come to the aid of those in danger on the sea, such as the enemy during the first and second world wars, merchant sailors in peril, holidaymakers who are caught out, or refugees crossing the channel.