The Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Freemasonry - John Hamill

Friday, 05 December 2014

Turning the tide

With a partnership that stretches back more than one hundred and forty years, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Freemasonry have a shared history. John Hamill charts its origins

As a seafaring nation with a proud naval history – and a great delight in messing about in boats – it is not surprising that one of our best known and much loved national charities is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). 

Its founder was Sir William Hillary, who resided on the Isle of Man. He had witnessed many shipwrecks around its coast and had on numerous occasions helped in rescuing people from the wrecks. He began to lobby for a national organisation to assist ships in distress, resulting in the formation, in 1824, of what is now the RNLI.

The RNLI relies entirely on the generosity of the public to fund this essential work, and rescues an average of twenty-two people every day. It is able to provide its services because the crews who man the lifeboats, those who look after the lifeboat stations and equipment, and those who do the local fundraising are all volunteers. 

It costs around £385,000 a day to keep the service going, which might seem a lot until you start to consider the costs of building, maintaining and fuelling the lifeboat fleet, as well as providing the crews with protective clothing and the equipment that is vital for their work. 

What is less well known is the long association between Freemasonry and the RNLI. 

It was in 1871 that members of Lodge of Faith, No. 141, London, came up with the idea of providing a lifeboat for the RNLI. They raised £260 and petitioned Grand Lodge to provide the additional funds to purchase a boat. Grand Lodge agreed and, learning that the lifeboat at North Berwick needed replacing, provided the funds for a thirty-foot, state-of-the-art vessel, together with a lifeboat carriage to get it to the water. The boat provided sterling service for sixteen years.

In 1875, HRH Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, was installed as Grand Master. He was sent on an extended tour of India to represent Queen Victoria, who had become Empress of India. This was a journey not without its hazards and dangers in those days, so when Albert returned, Grand Lodge decided to mark his safe homecoming in some permanent way. 

To the rescue

A committee recommended that Grand Lodge provide £4,000 to build two new lifeboat stations, complete with lifeboats, where the RNLI had no presence; Clacton-on-Sea in Essex and Hope Cove in Devon were the chosen sites. The boat at Clacton was named Albert Edward in honour of the Grand Master and Hope Cove’s was named Alexandra after his wife. The lifeboat station at Hope Cove still exists and is adorned with the Prince of Wales’s insignia, as well as a plaque marking its origins.

The last occasion on which Grand Lodge, through its Board of Benevolence, provided a lifeboat was in 1980. The fifty-four-foot Arun-class lifeboat has worked all round the British Isles as part of the RNLI General Reserve Fleet, and was named the Duchess of Kent in honour of the Grand Master’s wife. The naming ceremony took place on the Thames alongside County Hall on 27 April 1982, when His Royal Highness was in the curious position, as Grand Master, of presenting the new lifeboat to himself as president of the RNLI.

The Grand Master had been president since 1969, when he succeeded his mother, HRH Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent. She, in turn, had succeeded her husband, HRH Prince George, Duke of Kent, who was our Grand Master from 1939 until his death in war service in 1942.

In total there have been fourteen masonic lifeboats (see panel) but it is not just through the provision of lifeboats that Freemasonry has supported the RNLI. Over a long period, many Provinces, lodges and individual brethren have made regular donations to the RNLI. 

Nor has support been limited to the Craft. The last masonic lifeboat to be launched was funded by the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons in 2009 and is named the Mark Mason, operating out of Angle in Pembrokeshire. And, of course, many of the volunteers who work for the RNLI are Freemasons.

Masonic lifeboat history

The Freemason
North Berwick, 1871–1887

Lady Leigh
Scarbrough, 1872–1887

Albert Edward
Clacton-on-Sea, 1878–1884

Hope Cove, 1878–1887

Albert Edward
Clacton-on-Sea, 1885–1891

Hope Cove, 1887–1900

City Masonic Club
Poole, 1887–1910

Relief Fleet, 1910–1918
Albert Edward

Clacton-on-Sea, 1901–1929
Aranmore, 1929–1932

Hope Cove, 1903–1930

Cromer, 1931–1934
Duke of Connaught Peterhead, 1921–1939

General Reserve Fleet, 1939–1951
Duchess of Kent

General Reserve Fleet, 

Valerie Wilson 
Newquay, 2003–present

Essex Freemason
Southend, 2009–present

Mark Mason
Angle, Pembrokeshire, 2009–present


• Lady Leigh was the wife of Lord Leigh, Provincial Grand Master of Warwickshire, 1852–1905.
• HRH The Duke of Connaught was Grand Master 1901–1939.
• Valerie Wilson was the wife of Leslie Wilson, former Deputy Provincial Grand Master of Middlesex.

Letters to the Editor - No. 29 Spring 2015

Making waves


I could add to the article on Freemasonry and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in the winter 2014 issue of Freemasonry Today with another lifeboat launched and supported by Lodge of Friendship, No. 5909, in October 2007. 

The Master of the lodge named the new Atlantic 85 inshore lifeboat at Aberystwyth, at the naming ceremony and service of dedication in April 2008. 

The Atlantic 85 was the most advanced inshore lifeboat ever produced by the RNLI and its introduction at Aberystwyth is thanks to the legacy of Joan Bate, sister of a Past Master of the lodge, the late Arthur Bate. Lodge of Friendship is honoured to be associated with this lifeboat at Aberystwyth and has continued to support it.

Alan Harris, Lodge of Friendship, No. 5909, Birmingham, Warwickshire


I read with great interest John Hamill’s article, ‘Turning the Tide’, in the winter issue of Freemasonry Today. It reminded me that in 1997 the Grand Charity donated £30,000 towards a new Severn-class lifeboat based at Spurn Point on the River Humber, and she is aptly named Pride of the Humber.

The Grand Master accompanied by the then Deputy Grand Master Iain Ross Bryce, who was the Chairman of the Northern Area Appeal Fund, attended the naming ceremony and dedication service, which was held at the Promenade, Hull Marina on 24 September 1997. After the dedication service Iain Ross Bryce invited the Grand Master to name the new boat, in which they then travelled down the river. 

The Duchess of Kent lifeboat gave excellent service to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) for over twenty years and was launched two hundred and fourteen times, saving seventy-one lives. 

It was eventually retired out of service in May 2003 and sold.

The lodges and chapters within the Province of Yorkshire, West Riding and the sister Province of Yorkshire, North and East Ridings continue to support the RNLI with some donations going to the new boathouse, which was opened by Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Kent on 7 September 2007. 

I think Freemasonry in general can be very proud of its support for this charity because the RNLI staff are ordinary people doing an extraordinary job.

Alan Hurdley, Rugby Football Lodge, No. 9811, Huddersfield, Yorkshire, West Riding

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