Horatio Clare

Saviours of souls: the heroism of lifeboat crews

Helen Doe’s moving history of the RNLI celebrates the volunteers who, over the centuries, have risked their own lives for those in peril on the sea

A Whitby lifeboat capsizes in a storm in which 12 of the crew lost their lives, February 1861. [Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images]

Our summer holidays by the sea were the thrill of the year and the lifeboat was the thrill the holidays. Whissh-crack! went the maroon, sending the dauntless crew and their punchy little vessel off into the waves to save souls. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution has been doing this for 200 years. Mariners and all of us must hope it never stops, because its story is the best of us.

In One Crew, Helen Doe, a maritime historian, writes the official history with verve and precision. She explains that there were 39 lifeboats operating independently around the coast, ‘enjoying varying degrees of effectiveness’, before Sir William Hillary, a ‘bankrupt baron’ self-exiled to the Isle of Man, founded the Royal National Institution of the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck – branding, like public relations, lifejackets and self-righting boats, being in its infancy.

A helicopter pilot described the 1981 Penlee rescue attempt as ‘the greatest act of courage I am ever likely to see’

The institution would advance them all. From 1823, Hillary, ‘a man of impulsive and brave action’, began setting up a chain of lifeboats helmed by expert seamen, funded by donations from across society. The money would also support the widows and children of men who would die in service. More than 800 have. ‘The people of vessels of every nation, whether in peace or war, are to be equally objects of this institution; and the efforts made to be in all cases the same as for British subjects and British vessels’ was Hillary’s principle, tested during wartime, when the RNLI saved thousands, and recently, during the Channel boats crisis.

Hillary himself led a crew which in 1828 rescued 62 people from three foundering ships. Readers’ eyes will widen at quite how indomitable rescuers were and are; volunteering for what in 1854 became the RNLI demands heroism of entire communities.

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