As a result of a meeting in The Tavern on Bishopsgate Street in London, on March 4 1824, from that day to this roughly 150,000 people have been rescued from the seas and inland waters of Great Britain, Ireland and very importantly the Isle of Man . For it was there that Sir William Hillary, backed by Southwark MP Thomas Wilson and leading merchant George Hibbert, formed what would eventually become the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – initially The National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck – not the most succinct of names.
The meeting had arisen after publication by Hillary a year earlier of the even less snappily titled ‘An Appeal to the British Navy on the Humanity and Policy of Forming a National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck,’ a pamphlet in which he set out the necessity for a national network of lifeboat stations.
Hillary, who lived in the Isle of Man, had become aware of the inadequacy of lifeboat provision during his time there, personally observing the loss of life when ships as too frequently happened ran onto the rocks around Douglas harbour. It was, however, rather unusual for him to venture away from the island, where he had settled to avoid both his creditors and the father of his first wife, an heiress with whom he eloped much against her family’s desires.
When the body was formed there were 39 independent lifeboats dotted around the British coast, but in that same year another 12 were added thanks to Hillary’s efforts. Today there are more than 330 of them, stationed at 233 points around the country.
He was not just an organiser either, risking his own life most memorably in 1830 in the rescue of the crew of the St George, wrecked on Conister rock at the mouth of Douglas Harbour – he was washed overboard during the rescue, but happily his fellow crew-members plucked him from the waves.
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