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General News23rd January 2024

Two centuries of stories, triumphs and tragedies

RNLI 200 The Exhibition

Discover how the RNLI will celebrate its 200th anniversary here at The Historic Dockyard Chatham with RNLI 200: The Exhibition

A world-leading search and rescue organisation, the RNLI’s lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 144,000 lives since it was founded in 1824.

RNLI 200: The Exhibition

23 March – 1 September 2024

Celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and giving a voice to stories told across two centuries of bravery on the high seas.

In partnership with the RNLI we are launching a five-month exhibition that tells the exhilarating story of the history of the lifesaving charity in its 200th anniversary year, and the stories of the men and women who have risked their lives to save others, come rain or shine, storm or hurricane.

Already home to the RNLI’s Historic Lifeboat Collection, we have the perfect venue to showcase the thrilling story of the RNLI. 

From triumphs to tragedies; from oar-powered vessels to the boats packed with cutting-edge technology used today; from introducing the first lifeboats on the River Thames to rolling-out a UK beach lifeguard service; from running the UK and Ireland’s biggest ever drowning prevention campaigns to working with others to save lives overseas – the RNLI has a remarkable 200-year story to tell.

A world-leading search and rescue organisation, the RNLI’s lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 144,000 lives since its founding in 1824.

You may be familiar with the story of Grace Darling, one of the Victorian era’s most celebrated heroines, but you may not have heard of Henry Blogg before – the most decorated person in RNLI history, holder of three RNLI gold medals and four RNLI silver medals. Henry is considered a lifesaving legend for his 53 years of service on the Cromer lifeboats where he saved 873 lives with the help of his courageous crew.

In ‘No.1 Smithery’ you will be able to experience HMS Racehorse’s final voyage, via video projection, and learn about the fabled ship that wrecked on a reef off the Isle of Man in 1822, inspiring the beginnings of the charity. 

Sir William Hillary, who launched the RNLI (first known as Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck) lived on the Isle of Man and witnessed many shipwrecks off the Manx coast. He was made aware of how the townsmen had taken their boats out to Racehorse to try to save the crew, battling the heavy seas with much bravery and decided action must be taken to establish a lifeboat service. 

The exhibition will feature Tracey Emin’s painting of a lifeboat preparing to launch, inspired by her childhood memories of Margate, painted in 2014 to support cross channel swimmer James Stephenson who was raising money for the RNLI.

You will be able to see some familiar names amongst the supporters of the RNLI over the years, including several Blue Peter presenters, and Spike Milligan, who in characteristically humorous style donated funds, specifying that it was to pay for a pair of boots.

Hayley Whiting, Heritage Archive and Research Manager at the RNLI, said:  

‘‘RNLI 200: The Exhibition at The Historic Dockyard Chatham, which is also home to the Historic Lifeboat Collection, is an important part of our bicentenary plans.

“It is a unique opportunity for people to find out more about the RNLI – from its founding in 1824, through the triumphs, tragedies, challenges and developments of its history, right up to the current day lifesaving service the charity provides around the UK and Ireland.    

One thing which has not changed over the course of the RNLI’s 200 years is its dependence on the bravery and commitment of its volunteer lifeboat crews. The exhibition will recognise the selfless acts of volunteers throughout our history, during our bicentenary year. 

We are proud to share our important heritage, from the first annual report to commemorating the bravery of those who took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk during the Second World War and looking at the advances in engineering made over our history.  We hope also to look ahead to inspire the future generations of lifesavers and supporters who will take the RNLI into its next century and beyond.”

Tragically over the two centuries, more than 600 crew members have lost their lives trying to save others at sea.  The exhibition will honour those whose lives have been lost and will show a digital version of The Lifeboat Service Memorial book, listing the names of all those who have given their life in the service of the RNLI.

The exhibition aims to show how the RNLI has changed over the years and will shine a light on the extraordinary engineering and innovation in lifesaving technology over the past two centuries, from the oar-powered boats and cork lifejackets of the past, to the modern boats and protective kit the crews use today.

Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust’s Collections, Galleries and Interpretation Manager Nick Ball says: “The exhibition is one of a kind and the first time that such a huge collection of stories and RNLI artefacts have been brought together in one space to celebrate the lives and heroism of the crews and people involved in the organisation over its 200 year existence.   Over the years, The Historic Dockyard Chatham has given safe harbour to the RNLI’s collection of historic lifeboats, so it’s particularly fitting that we have been chosen as the space to tell the RNLI’s 200 year story.  We hope that following the exhibition, visitors will walk to 4 Slip to see the collection of historic boats too. We can’t wait to throw open the doors and help the RNLI celebrate this milestone in their history.”

RNLI 200: The Exhibition will open on Saturday 23rd March 2024 at The Historic Dockyard Chatham

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