On 2 March 2024, Women of the RNLI will open at the National Maritime Museum, London to mark the bicentenary of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). The exhibition will celebrate the vital role that women have played in saving lives at sea, highlighting the work and success of women in a variety of roles throughout the RNLI’s 200-year history.
The RNLI was founded in 1824 by Sir William Hillary with the mission to preserve life at sea. The charity is funded by the generosity of supporters and relies on the tireless work of thousands of volunteers across the UK and Ireland. This exhibition will highlight and celebrate the lives and experiences of current women volunteers, as well as those that have paved the way in areas such as fundraising, campaigning, technological innovation, training and as volunteer lifeboat and shore crew.
Women of the RNLI will feature a series of 42 photographs by Jack Lowe recently acquired by Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG). The portraits of women that volunteer for the RNLI will be displayed alongside their lifeboat station’s corresponding slipway, putting the landscape that these women operate in at the heart of their stories. The images form part of Lowe’s ongoing Lifeboat Station Project, an attempt to photograph all 238 operational RNLI lifeboat stations and crew members at each. Lowe uses a 12×10 inch (30x25cm) Thornton-Pickard field camera from about 1905.The photographs are then developed using a process called wet collodion, a technique invented in the mid-nineteenth century. This creates beautifully atmospheric and evocative photographs with a sense of timelessness. Lowe’s project began in 2015 and he has now photographed over 150 stations across the UK and Ireland. Once finished it will be the first complete photographic record of every single RNLI lifeboat crew.
Jack Lowe, photographer, said, “I’m proud beyond words that the National Maritime Museum are showcasing The Lifeboat Station Project in the Women of the RNLI exhibition, championing and highlighting the role of women within the charity, just as I hope and intend to achieve while making my project. I feel the NMM has always been a natural home for my work, so it was a very special moment when the Museum got in touch to say they’d like to acquire prints of my photographs for their archive. It feels like the ultimate reward for all involved to have such a bright light shone on this aspect of maritime culture, a vital slice of island life that can be taken for granted all too often.”
Alongside the portraits, the exhibition will include recorded oral histories from some of the sitters featured who share their experiences of life with the RNLI. Six histories have been collected during the creation of the exhibition which will also be available via the Royal Museums Greenwich website.
Janet Legrand KC, RNLI Chair, said: “Women of the RNLI at the National Maritime Museum is a wonderful opportunity to commemorate and celebrate the pivotal role that our women volunteers, staff and supporters have played throughout the 200-year history of the RNLI and continue to do so to this day. From fundraisers and shop volunteers to lifeboat crews and lifeguards, the RNLI has always been powered by our volunteers and supporters. We are immensely proud of them all and everything they do to save lives at sea. We are honoured to be able to share some of their captivating stories and experiences at such a prestigious maritime venue and hope in doing so to inspire the next generation of RNLI lifesavers and supporters.”
The exhibition is formed of three main sections. It will open with ‘Fundraising and campaigning’ which explores how women have played a crucial role in ensuring the RNLI remains functional through their fundraising efforts. The section includes early RNLI collecting boxes that were used for street collecting, often by women who formed local branches of the Ladies’ Lifeboat Guild. The RNLI staged the world’s first street collection in Manchester in 1891 and it has been a mainstay of RNLI fundraising ever since. In this section we also hear from Janet Kelly MBE who recounts the challenges of establishing a new lifeboat station on the Thames in Central London. Tower RNLI station was opened in 2002 in response to the 1989 Marchioness riverboat disaster. Janet was key to promoting the RNLI’s presence on the Thames and even helped negotiate the purchase of the station’s pier location for just £1. Tower is the RNLI’s busiest lifeboat station, Janet served as manager until 2016.
In ‘RNLI crew’, the exhibition will consider the variety of RNLI roles and responsibilities that have been available to women throughout its history. Sitting at the heart of coastal communities since its conception, this section will also uncover the deep intergenerational and family links between RNLI crew that have persisted throughout its history. Oral histories include mother and daughter Moira and Síle Scanlon from Ballycotton RNLI station in Ireland. Síle grew up around the station where both her parents volunteered and knew that she wanted to join from a young age. She recalls ‘I was about eight, nine, ten and I used to come in and be like, seven more years, six more years, you know.’ Síle also experienced the other side of the RNLI’s work when she and her friends were rescued by her mother when they were stranded while kayaking. As soon as Síle turned 17 and was able to join she signed up to the RNLI and has recently qualified as a navigator on Ballycotton’s all-weather lifeboat.
The third section ‘Equipment and training’ looks at the range of specialised lifeboats, launch and recovery apparatus and training used by the RNLI today. Included in this section will be footage from 1970 showing the ‘Lady Launchers’ at Dungeness, on the Kent coast. Before the adoption of tractors and trailers, lifeboats were frequently launched and recovered by local women. They carried on this tradition for over 100 years before it was phased out in 1979. Working at the Dungeness station today is Natalie Adams who is currently a volunteer navigator and coxswain in training. Natalie joined the RNLI aged 17, encouraged by her father who volunteered as coxswain at Dungeness. The RNLI was a key part of her childhood and local community, she was even christened on a lifeboat. As well as volunteering, Natalie works full time as a trainer for the RNLI instructing volunteers around the UK at various stations. She says, ‘every team, every crew, every station you go to, they just look after each other.’
Laura Boon, Lloyd’s Register Foundation Senior Curator: Contemporary Maritime, said: “Women have always been at the heart of the RNLI from its very beginning, although women weren’t part of the crew until the 1960s, they played a vital role in a myriad of ways such as fundraising and even launching the lifeboats during emergency callouts. As the RNLI celebrates its 200th Anniversary, it is a wonderful opportunity to highlight women’s roles both past and present.”
Venue: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Dates: 2 March – 1 December 2024
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