FAQs about RNLI history

Find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions we receive about RNLI history.

How do I donate an item to the RNLI archive or collections?

We welcome offers of donations and are always looking to build upon and increase our knowledge and diversity of objects relating to the RNLI.

We cannot accept all heritage donations that are offered to us – our collections policy helps us decide which items we accept into our archive and collections.

If you would like to donate an item, please provide a description of the object or item, a photograph and your contact details via our online form. Alternatively please write to: RNLI Heritage Team, RNLI, West Quay Road, Poole, Dorset BH15 1HZ.

Can you carry out research on my behalf?

We’re happy to answer enquiries from researchers. But please be aware the RNLI Heritage Team is small and we rely on our volunteers to carry out research for enquiries. As a result, we can only carry out limited heritage research on behalf of individuals.

The RNLI archive and library in Poole are open to the public by appointment and you are very welcome to arrange a visit to consult material relevant to your research. Researchers can also request to view our collections at Poole. You could also consider using an independent researcher. For details, please visit the National Archives website.

How can I become a heritage volunteer?

There are all sorts of heritage volunteering opportunities at the RNLI. Find out about the types of heritage volunteer roles available here.

We advertise our volunteer vacancies on our volunteering recruitment website.

How can I obtain a technical lifeboat plan for a model I wish to make?

To request a technical lifeboat plan please contact us via the Heritage contact form.

What records are held in the RNLI archive?

The RNLI archive holds records from our foundation in 1824. The records relate to the administration, key figures, lifeboats, lifeboat stations, medals, fundraising material, legacies and publications of the RNLI. The collection includes minute books and ledgers, a wealth of photographs, posters, publicity material and correspondence.

Where were the first lifeboat stations?

There is no simple answer to this question, as it depends on how you define a lifeboat station.

The first lifeboat station is generally considered to be Bamburgh Castle, where a local coble was adapted for service as a lifeboat in 1786. However, the earliest record of a boat being kept specifically for rescuing the shipwrecked was at Formby, Lancashire, in 1777.

A number of purpose-built lifeboats and stations were established from the late 18th century onwards. From 1789-1804, Henry Greathead’s Original lifeboat design was sent to a number of harbours, which sparked the earliest lifeboat stations. These places can claim to have the first lifeboat stations:

Ayr (now served by Troon)
Bawdsey Haven (now served by Harwich and Aldeburgh)
Christchurch (now served by Mudeford)
Douglas (Isle of Man)
North Shields (now served by Tynemouth)
Penzance (Penlee)
Redcar, Holy Island
St Andrews (now served by Anstruther)
St Peter Port
West Whitby
Whitehaven (now served by St Bees and Workington)

It’s difficult to pinpoint the RNLI’s first lifeboat station, as we worked in partnership with existing establishments whilst building our own stations.

By 1825, the RNLI had commissioned 15 new lifeboats and established the first RNLI lifeboat stations at:

Bideford (now served by Appledore)
Boulmer (now an independent rescue service)
Douglas (Isle of Man)
Gibraltar Point, Boston Deeps (now served by Skegness)
Penzance (Penlee)
Rossglass (now served by Newcastle)

Learn more about the first lifeboats.

Who can visit the RNLI archive, library and collections?

Anyone can visit our archive and library in Poole. Visits are by appointment only and can be arranged by contacting our Heritage Team using our online form.

As we have no exhibition space for our collections at Poole, we unfortunately cannot accept visitors to them. However we will consider requests to view our collections by researchers and these can be made via our online form.

Arrange a visit.