In these days of materialistic individualism and consumerism, it is a pleasure to be reminded of the fact that some people still go to sea to provide succour to others in distress for no more reward than comradeship and the conviction that somebody needed to do it.

The sea rescue services of many nations are living proof of the fact that humans are social animals; that people do care for the interests of others, that communities will support their members in taking considerable risks for unknown others because it is the right thing to do. The instincts that spur on the sea rescue services are living proof that society is real and does exist in many countries - if 'society' includes the collective effort to help others in distress.


On March 15 1789, the collier Adventure ran aground on the notorious Herd Sand at the mouth of the River Tyne in North East England. A tragic scene unfolded. Gradually, as the Adventure succumbed to the constant onslaught of the breakers, the crew were seen to vanish from the ship and rigging one by one; some vainly attempting to reach the shore. In the end all were lost and not one effort had been made from land to reach the hapless crew. Hundreds had witnessed the carnage, including a prominent group of local businessmen with interests in shipping and marine insurance. These men watched the entire calamity during the course of a meeting at their reading room and coffee house, located high on a bluff known as The Lawe. So shocked was one member of the group, Cuthbert Heron, that he "Offered a reward for any seaman to go off to save the mens' lives, which was refused; and the greatest part of the crew of the Adventure perished within 300 yards of the shore, and in sight of a multitude of spectators". A decision was made by the "Gentlemen of Lawe House"; as they became known, to run a contest in a local newspaper; the winner would receive two guineas for the best design of boat "Which would not be liable to be overset by the sea, and which, moreover would retain its buoyancy when manned and when nearly full of water".

The competition would result in the invention and construction of the world's first boat built specifically to save life at sea. Constructed by a South Shields boat builder by the name of Henry Greathead this new vessel became known as "The Original" and was launched in the autumn of 1789 and first saw service on 30 January 1790.

The Gentlemen of Lawe House not only initiated the competition for a safer boat they also formed a local humanitarian organisation to operate the new vessel, known as the Tyneside Humanitarian Society. This would become the first voluntary lifeboat society in the world, for although at times the crews would be "rewarded" for their rescue efforts, they remained primarily volunteers. Thus the Gentlemen of Lawe House had promoted and directly in the development of the tool - the lifeboat - and combined the tool with an effective mechanism to run it, a local volunteer society.

By 1824, most local lifeboat societies were run down and decrepit. But they remained vibrant in Tyneside, Liverpool and Norfolk and Suffolk. Sir William Hillary, who had founded a Society in the Isle of Man, realised that for the lifesaving cause to survive and spread to those parts of the country where no services existed, a truly nationwide perspective must put forward. Sir William launched an emotional "Appeal to the British Nation", and after many ups and downs, a powerful and influential group of men congregated at the London Tavern, among their number was the slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce. The meeting was presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Manners Sutton. Its result was the creation of the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck", an organisation that would be revamped and renamed as the present day Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

The new Institution burgeoned. Given the high status it had achieved in its formative years, including the patronage of KING George IV, revenues through donation quietly soared to £10,000, a phenomenal sum for the day.

And so it has been ever since, the RNLI is still supported by public donations and not government support - and the majority of its crews are local volunteers.

The RNLI takes care of training standards and location of lifeboat stations. It is still heavily patronised by the "Great and Good" and is one of the most popular charities with the general public. The "Gentlemen of Lawes" started something special.