Saving Lives – the work of the RNLI

Gill Radford, Chair of U3A Todmorden, with Roy Meakin of the RNLI. Photo by Gail Allaby.

In September, Todmorden U3A members enjoyed an instructive talk, illustrated with film clips, by Roy Meakin, one of the RNLI’s education officers.

Roy took us through the origins and development of the Society, from the very first boat for rescuing the shipwrecked, kept at Formby, in 1777, to the ultra-modern, hi-tech Shannon class lifeboats of today.

Henry Greathead, b. 1757, designed a boat, rowed by 10 short oars, the sides of which were cased with cork secured by copper plates, which could carry 20 people. By 1806 his boats were in use all around the British coasts.

Henry Greathead’s boat in action.

One of his boats, the Zetland, saved over 500 lives. Early rescues were an heroic and dangerous endeavour as exemplified by the story of Grace Darling who became a national heroine after risking her own life to save survivors of the rigged paddle steamer Forfarshire in 1838.

In the early 19th century there was an average of 1,800 shipwrecks a year around our coasts. One man, Sir William Hillary, living on the Isle of Man and witness to many terrible shipwrecks, had a vision for a service dedicated to saving the lives of the shipwrecked, using trained crews.

Sir William Hillary

Having failed to elicit any interest from the Royal Navy, he appealed to wealthy, philanthropic members of London Society. His campaign proved highly successful and on March 4th 1824, a group met in the London Tavern in Bishopsgate – and the fledgling RNLI was born.

King George IV and Prince Albert were early patrons who granted the royal prefix so that the society became known as the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, later renamed the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, or RNLI.

Today the RNLI has 238 lifeboat stations and 444 lifeboats. Crews rescued around 22 people a day in 2015. Lifeguards operate on more than 200 beaches, paid by local authorities but trained by the RNLI. They also operate Flood Rescue teams both nationally and internationally. Much effort is put into training and education, particularly for children.

The RNLI is a charity, wholly funded by legacies and donations. The first street collection was in Manchester in 1891.  Most of the lifeboat crews are unpaid volunteers and the service receives no government subsidy and prefers it that way. The RNLI headquarters is in Poole where there is a college for training and an all-weather Lifeboat Centre where the ultra-modern, 25-knot, Shannon-class lifeboats are now built, thus allowing the service complete independence.

Lowestoft Shannon class lifeboat Patsy Knight 13-05 in rough seas during the stom know as the ‘Beast from the East’, March 2018. Dramatic, stormy, huge waves and white spray.

The service has always been well-supported in the Pennine area, perhaps somewhat surprisingly given our distance from the coast. However, should the valley flood again, I suppose we might yet be grateful to see their flood rescue teams on our streets. The talk ended with questions from the floor and a collection.

Our next meeting     U3A Todmorden’s next members’ meeting will be on Thursday, October 17th, 2019 in the Central Methodist Church Hall in Todmorden at 1.45. Our guest speaker, Dave Joy, will be telling us about the Liverpool Cow Keepers who came from Yorkshire.

Our contact details are www.u3atod.org.uk (website), info@u3atod.org.uk (email), or 01422 886021 (phone).

This month’s reporter was Anne Foster.