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Sir William Hillary - Real Life Hero & Founder of the RNLI Lifeboat

Updated on March 18, 2011

‘With courage nothing is impossible’

Sir William Hillary, the Founder of the Lifeboat -  The waters that surround the Isle of Man, which is part of the British Isles are well known by mariners as being treacherous, with dangerous tidal cross currents, which can quickly carry an unsuspecting vessel onto the numerous rocks of the island’s rugged coastline.

In the past, many ships have to come to grief in this way during severe storms in the Irish Sea, and many lives have been lost.  Many more would have perished if it were not for the vision, courage and bravery of one man – Sir William Hillary, the founder of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Early Life :

Born in Yorkshire on Thursday, 4th January 1770, Sir William Hillary was both a Quaker, a soldier, philanthropist and an adventurer. In his early years, he eloped with the most eligible heiress in Essex, following her father’s disapproval of the marriage, and spent a large portion of the her inheritance on raising and commanding Britain’s largest private army to combat Napoleon’s threatened invasion of England in 1805.  

Move to the Isle of Man :

However, following a broken marriage, Hillary moved to the Isle of Man in 1808 to start a new life with his new Manx wife, taking up residence in house at the top of Prospect Hill, which commanded an excellent view of Douglas and its picturesque sweeping bay.  With a love of the sea, Hillary enjoyed walking along Douglas quayside. Mixing with the town’s seafaring folk, who told tales of the dangerous waters around the island, Hillary learnt of the numerous disasters and tragedies including the lost of over 26 crew, when the Manx fishing fleet was caught in a storm on Friday 21st September 1787. 

 HMS Vigilant Rescue :

It was not until 1822, during the early hours of Friday, 6th October, when Hillary saw the helpless cutter HMS Vigilant flounder in a violent storm on a treacherous reef known as St Mary’s Isle or Conister rock in Douglas bay did he decide to attempt a rescue instead of watching the hapless crew drown as their vessel was smashed to bits by the mountainous waves.  Leading two boats of volunteer crews, Hillary daringly rowed out in the turbulent sea to the stricken cutter and slowly the two boats towed the vessel to safety. Hillary went to the assistance of three other vessels in difficulties in Douglas bay that day, amazingly saving a total of 97 lives.

 HMS Racehorse runs aground :

A further incident ten weeks later on Saturday 14th December, when another Royal Navy vessel, HMS Racehorse, which had ran aground on the Skerranes rocks on Langness Point after the crew had mistaken the lights of Castletown for those of Douglas pier head, reinforced his idea of starting a national life-saving movement. 

Sir William Hillary
Sir William Hillary
Current Douglas lifeboat 'Sir William Hillary'   David Lloyd-Jones 2010
Current Douglas lifeboat 'Sir William Hillary' David Lloyd-Jones 2010
Tower of Refuge in Douglas Bay, Isle of Man  David Lloyd-Jones 2010
Tower of Refuge in Douglas Bay, Isle of Man David Lloyd-Jones 2010
Bow of RNLI lifeboat  David Lloyd-Jones 2010
Bow of RNLI lifeboat David Lloyd-Jones 2010

RNLI -  Royal National Lifeboat Institution Founded

That Christmas, he drew up plans for a lifeboat service manned by trained crews, intended for the whole of the British Isles entitled 'An Appeal to the British Nation on the Humanity and Policy of forming a National Institution for the preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck'.  Initially, his plans received little response from the Admiralty, but after appealing to the more philanthropic members of London society, plans were enthusiastically adopted and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was founded on Sunday, 4th March 1824. 

True Bravery : 

As honorary coxswain of Douglas lifeboat, Hillary, who couldn’t swim, took part in the rescue of 305 people, and was awarded three gold medals for his bravery. At the age of 59, Hillary was involved in the rescue of the Royal Mail paddle steamer St George, which also foundered on Conister Rock at the entrance to Douglas harbour on Saturday, 20th November 1830. He commanded the Douglas lifeboat, and was washed overboard with other crew-members in the attempt to save the lives of the passengers and crew aboard the stricken vessel. Fortunately, everyone aboard the St George was rescued with no loss of life.  A large memorial was erected this year, to those brave RNLI men involved in the rescue of the passengers and crew of the St George, in Douglas’s promenade Sunken Gardens.  

Tower of Refuge :

This experience prompted Hillary to build the Tower of Refuge on Conister Rock, which was completed in 1832 at a cost of £254.  The tower, built in the style of a 13th century castle, provided shelter for shipwrecked mariners until the lifeboat could reach them once the storm had abated. Until quite recently, the tower was kept supplied with fresh bread and water.

Later Years :

Hillary eventually moved from his home on Prospect Hill to the castellated Fort Anna on Douglas Head, which gave him a panoramic view of the whole of the bay. Yet, despite living his later years in luxury, Hillary died miserably as a broken, lonely man. In 1845, the local Joint Stock Bank, of which Hillary was a shareholder, collapsed amid allegations of corruption. Both Hillary’s home and art collection was sized and sold. He lost everything including his Manx wife, who died amid all the financial scandal.

Hillary died two years later on Tuesday, 5th January 1847, one day after his 77th birthday and he is buried in St George's Churchyard, Douglas.  Each January on the anniversary of his death a remembrance service is held at the graveside.  Sir William Hillary’s memory lives on. The name of the latest Douglas lifeboat, a Tyne class lifeboat 47- 032 , launched in 1988, carries name the ‘Sir William Hillary’, while on Douglas Head stands a bronze statue of Sir William, keeping a watch on the bay for those in peril on the sea.  

The RNLI Today : 

Over 185 years later, from its humble beginnings on the Isle of Man, the UK Royal National Lifeboat Institution now has over 200 lifeboat stations throughout the British Isles, which are still all manned by volunteers. The RNLI still depends totally on voluntary contributions for funds to maintain the lifeboat service to the standard for which it is renowned.  

© David Lloyd-Jones 2010

The Rescue of the Royal Mail paddle steamer St George - Sir William Hillary Memorial on Douglas Promenade, Isle of Man  David Lloyd-Jones 2010
The Rescue of the Royal Mail paddle steamer St George - Sir William Hillary Memorial on Douglas Promenade, Isle of Man David Lloyd-Jones 2010


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