The Founding of the RNLI
A brief history of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and NI lifeboat stations
Sir William Hillary from Douglas in the Isle of Man was the person responsible for the founding of the RNLI.
Sir William’s interest in the saving of life at sea began in earnest on the 6th October 1822, when the Royal Naval cutter Vigilant went aground in Douglas Bay in storm force winds. Sea conditions were such that several other vessels in the area also got into difficulties. Sir William not only organised various rescue attempts, but also took part in some of them himself. In total, 97 lives were saved.
As a result of this and other such incidents, Sir William Hillary proposed the setting up of a national life saving movement. At a meeting held on March 4, 1824 in Bishopsgate, the ‘National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck’ was formed, with King George IV as its patron. Thirty years later the body was renamed as the ‘Royal National Lifeboat Institution’, a name which is still in use today.
Sir William continued his interest in lifeboats and helped establish the institution’s lifeboat stations in Douglas (1826), Castletown (1827), Peel (1828) and Ramsey (1829). He also participated in several heroic rescues and was awarded no less than three RNLI gold medals for gallantry. A fourth gold medal was awarded to him for founding the Institution.
Sir William Hillary died on January 5 ,1847 and his remains are buried in St George’s churchyard, Douglas, I.O.M.
Local Lifeboat History
One of the earliest lifeboat stations was established in 1826 at Rossglass, located at the north-eastern corner of Dundrum Bay. At that time, Dundrum Bay was notorious for the shipwreck of sailing vessels, in part due to a meeting of tides off the bay. The earliest recorded service of the Rossglass Lifeboat was on March 6, 1826 to the barque Richard Pope.
In 1835, the Rossglass Lifeboat was moved to St. John’s Point , where it remained until the late 1840’s. One of the most famous rescues by the St. John’s Point Lifeboat was to Brunel’s famous Great Britain, which went aground on September 22, 1846 in Dundrum Bay. It was on its way to New York, with 180 passengers on board. The St John’s Point Lifeboat was withdrawn from service in the late 1840’s.
A lifeboat station was established in the early 1850’s at Newcastle, Co. Down, which is still in service.
In the lower Ards, lifeboat stations were established at Cloughy (1884) and Ballywalter (1886).
The Ballywalter Lifeboat was withdrawn from service in 1906 mainly due to the closure in 1904 of the local coastguard station, which resulted in a lack of crew members. The Ballywalter Lifeboat saved no less than 154 lives, during its period in service.
Cloughey Lifeboat Station was first established in 1884, when a boathouse was constructed and its first lifeboat, The Faith, was commissioned in 1885.
The Cloughy Lifeboat was transferred from Cloughey to Portavogie in 1965, where it remained in service until 1981. The Cloughey/Portavogie Lifeboat was recorded as having saved 311 lives during those years. The Cloughey/Portavogie Lifeboat’s service record boards are now housed and on display in Portaferry Lifeboat Station.
Portaferry Lifeboat Station was established by the RNLI in 1980 and covers the in-shore area between Burr Point, Ballyhalbert and St. John’s Point, south of Ardglass and all the waters of Strangford Lough. The station is now one of the busiest in Ireland, with launches on service now averaging over 30 per year.
Portaferry’s current lifeboat is named ‘Blue Peter V’ and is one of the new fast Atlantic 75 in-shore lifeboats capable of speeds in excess of 30 knots. It carries a crew of three. The lifeboat was donated to the station by the BBC children’s programme, ‘Blue Peter’.
By Karen Brown