The Lifeboat & its Work – Part 2

Public interest in the important and national subject of the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck on our coast gradually languished until the year I823, when, in consequence of the frequency of the calamitous shipwrecks, with great loss of life, which took place every year on our coasts, and the inadequate means provided for the rescue of the crews, the late Sir William Hillary published a powerful appeal to the nation, setting forth in forcible language the whole subject, and boldly asking whether Englishmen would quietly look on and see hundreds of their fellow-creatures annually perish on the shores of the United Kingdom, when effectual means of rescue, if supplied and properly used, were within reach. 

Sir William Hillary, had often witnessed, while residing in the Isle of Man, some of the harrowing scenes attending the loss of vessels and their crews. These sad scenes, working upon a generous and humane disposition, led him to turn his thoughts towards devising a remedy for an evil of such fearful magnitude. It is probable that the wrecks of the Government cutter, the Vigilant, and some other vessels in Douglas Bay, in which Sir William Hillary personally assisted in saving life, and the total wreck of H. M. brig Racehorse, on Langness Point, in the Isle of Man, all of which occurred in the year 1822, were the more immediate causes which roused his energetic mind to make his vigorous appeal to the public.

That appeal was warmly responded to, for it struck a sympathetic chord in the hearts of too many to permit the subject being any longer overlooked. Still at first but little was done, until the latter end of 1823, when Sir William became acquainted with Mr. Thomas WIlson, who was then one of the representatives in Parliament for the City of London, and who cordially threw himself into the cause, feeling that there was a sort of claim on those engaged in foreign commerce, to assist in any plan for the preservation of the lives of those by whom that commerce was carried on. Accordingly, we find Mr. Wilson immediately taking steps to hold a preliminary meeting at the London Tavern, on the 12th of February, 1824, when, having been called to the chair; the following resolution was unanimously carried : 

“That this meeting, taking into consideration the frequent loss of human life by Shipwreck, and believing that by the preconcerted exertions of practical men, and the adoption of practicable means, such calamities might often be averted, are of opinion that a National Institution should be formed (to be supported by voluntary donations and subscriptions), for the Preservation of Life in cases of Shipwreck on the coasts of the United Kingdom; for affording such immediate assistance to the persons rescued as their necessities may require; for conferring rewards on those who preserve their fellow-creatures from destruction; and for granting relief to the destitute families of any who may unfortunately perish in their attempts to save the lives of others.” 

It was then arranged that a general meeting, at the London Tavern, should be convened for the 4th of March following, with the view to the formation of a National Shipwreck Institution. In the meantime, Mr. Wilson was successful in obtaining the consent of His Majesty King George IV. to become the patron of the institution of their Royal Highnesses the Dukes of YorK, Clarence, Sussex, Cambridge, and Prince Leopold to be its Vice-Patrons; and the Earl of Liverpool its President. The two Archbishops, the Bishops of London, Durham, Bath and Wells, and Bristol, Lord John Russell, Mr. George Hibbert, Mr. George Lyall, Mr. Jonathan Chapman, with many others of the nobility, gentry, and merchants in the kingdom, also gave their names in support of the Institution, as Vice-Presidents and Members of Committee. On the 4th of March a general meeting, most influentially and numerously attended, was accordingly held at the London Tavern, at which the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Manners Sutton) presided. 

The result of this meeting in the City of London was that the “Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck”’ was founded, and established on a permanent basis; and it must have been a proud day for Sir William HIilary, Mr. Wilson, and their coadjutors, to find the cause they had long worked for in private, publicly and eloquently advocated in the metropolis of the kingdom by various influential men, including among them the ever- to-be-revered name of William Wilberforce. 

On his return to the Isle of Man, Sir WIlliam Hillary, supported by the Lieut-Governor and other officers of the island, established in 1826 a District Life-boat Association, and the first Life-boat, built by Mr. Plenty; of Newbury, was stationed in Douglas Bay, another at Castletown in 1827, a third at Peel in 1828, and a fourth at Ramsay in 1829. Between the years 1821 and 1846 no fewer than 144 wrecks had taken place on the island, and 172 lives were lost, while the destruction of property was estimated at a quarter of a million. In 1825, when the City of Glasgow steamer was stranded in Douglas Bay, Sir William Hiilary assisted in saving the lives of sixty-two persons; and in the same year eleven men from the brig Leopard, and nine from the sloop Fancys which became a total wreck. In 1827-32, Sir WIlliam, accompanied on one occasion by his son, saved many other lives; but his greatest success was on the 20th of November, 1830, when he saved in the Life-boat twenty- two men, the whole of the crew of the mail steamer St. George, which became a total wreck on St. Mary’s Rock. On this occasion he was washed overboard among the wreck, with three other persons, and was saved with great difficulty, having had six of his ribs fractured. 

On its formation, the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was nobly supported by the liberality of the public, its receipts during the first year of its existence having reached the sum of £9,826 6s. 6d; and the Committee, in their first Report, had the satisfaction to state that they had caused twelve Life-boats to be built for different stations on the coast, besides which thirty-nine Life-boats had been stationed on our shores by benevolent individuals, and Associations,„ not connected with the Institution. It should be added that, in its early days, the Institution assisted local bodies to place Life-boats on the coast ; and some of them remained nominally in connection with it, but it did not undertake any superintendence or control over them, The Institution had also placed the mortar apparatus of Captain Manby at sixteen different stations. 

It may here be mentioned that, many years afterwards, it abandoned, from want of adequate support, two important functions, namely, supplying the coast with the mortar and rocket apparatus, and providing for the wants of sailors who had been saved from Shipwreck. 

The first of these duties is now, as previously mentioned, most efficiently discharged by the Board of Trade, in conjunction with the Coastguard ; and the second is admirably and promptly carried out by the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Society, with the help of its numerous agents on the coast.

In the year 1826 the late George Palmer, Esq, of Nazing Park, Essex, M.P. for the Southern Division of that County, first became connected with the Institution, to the interests of which he unceasingly devoted a large portion of his valuable time to within a few weeks of his lamented death in May 1853. In 1828 his plan of fitting Life-boats was first used by the Institution, and continued so until 1852, when it was superseded by the adoption of the self-righting principle. 

The services rendered by Palmer’s boats to ship-wrecked persons and vessels in distress were very great, some hundreds of the former having been saved through their instrumentality from inevitable death, and many of the latter from destruction. 

In the second year of the history of the Institution, 1825-26, the receipts amounted to £2,392 7s. 5d., in addition to which there was a legacy of £1,000 from the late John Henry Hecker, Esq., of Finsbury, making a total of £3,392 7s. 5d.

In their second Report the Committee were enabled to state that they had placed additional Life-boats, and sets of the mortar apparatus on the coast; and had established several Branch Associations. Up to that period the Society had contributed to the saving of 342 lives from Shipwreck, either by its own life-saving apparatus or by other means for which it had granted rewards.

From the next nine Reports of the Institution we find that its annual receipts, during the fifteen years they embrace, never reached the amount received even in the second year after its establishment. The Institution nevertheless pursued its work on the coast as far as its limited means permitted.

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