Painting by K Stone.


Painting by K Stone.

One has to wonder how many men William Hillary helped pull from their wrecked ships before he realized that enough was enough. How many men had the Irish Sea claimed before his own eyes, and how many more would he have to fight tooth-and-nail to rescue off that treacherous coast? And was he willing to accept these tragedies as simply a part of 'life at sea'? With these conditions taken into mind, it makes sense that an idea such as the RNLI was formulated on an island like the Isle of Man, and by a man like Sir William Hillary.

In February of 1823, William Hillary began a campaign to highlight the need for a lifeboat service between the UK and Ireland. He directed his sights on potential investors from the wealthiest corners of society. All members of the aristocracy were pursued; government ministers, ex-servicemen, entrepreneurs, and simply wealthy families. The pamphlet he wrote and sent to them detailed the need for a lifeboat service, then referred to as the National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck. These lifeboats could change some of the harsh realities of life at sea, and they would be manned by the finest crews the UK and Ireland had to offer.

The aristocracy politely declined his proposition.

However, in failing to appeal to this set of the London elite, William's vision of a lifeboat service was instead shared by two men who would prove vital to its foundation, even if the three of them didn't necessarily agree all of the time.

Robert Thomas Wilson and George Hibbert couldn't have come from more different backgrounds, and yet it was with their help that the lifeboat service was founded. Robert Thomas Wilson came from meagre beginnings, the son of a wool merchant and a painter, he was orphaned at 12 and spent many of his formative years at Westminster boarding school before embarking on an illustrious military career. His life was in stark contrast to George Hibbert's, whose privileged background afforded him an easier lifestyle, and a greater understanding of business and diplomacy.

With the high-profile trio campaigning together this time around, it wasn't long before the more philanthropic of London's elite were on board with William's idea. A meeting was soon set for March 4th at London's famous business-class pub, The London Tavern. It is here that the fate of William's lifeboat service would be decided.

As if to reward William Hillary's strenuous work, the meeting at The London Tavern was a success, with 12 resolutions regarding the organization being passed then and there among the large gathering of benefactors and key members. These resolutions included outlines on the caring of survivors as well as on wartime rescue efforts.

After a year-long battle, William Hillary's vision for a safer sea was realized.

The organization was rechristened the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1854, and has saved more than 140,000 lives since its inception, with over 600 of its members losing their lives at sea in their effort to save others.

The RNLI stands today as evidence that all it takes is an idea and a strong resolve to change the world.