Discovering the history of the RNLI by bicycle

A Manx Patriot – Sir William Hillary
The Founder of the Royal National Institution for the preservation of life from shipwreck. Born, 1771, Died, 1847.

The Tower of Refuge, on St Mary’s Isle, now known as Conisters’ RockDSCN1293

I was humming and thinking what to do. Trying to juggle an interesting blog with my Audax cycling, and so thought about doing this first blog on my blogsite for Sir William Hillary, he features in my Celts, Trams and Castles Audax that I am a perm organiser for.

Sir William Hillary might not immediately come to mind to some inland living folk but to anyone who living near the coast they will have most certainly have heard of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI), to whom Sir William Hillary is the founder of. So to cover my 100km DIY GPS Audax, what better route to choose than to follow the coastal roads around the Isle of Man, and stopping at each of the five lifeboat stations dotted around the island. Namely Douglas – the most famous one, as that was where it all began, then southerly down to Port St Mary via Castletown (No longer houses a lifeboat station as Port St Mary is quite close), then Port Erin, Peel and finally Ramsey before turning south once more towards home, and so back to the start.

So first of all, a brief history lesson for those of you who perhaps don’t immediately think of the Isle of Man when you hear about the great deeds of the RNLI.

In 1808, a gentleman called William Hillary moved to the Isle of Man to settle here with his second wife, a Manx lady – Emma Tobin, having had a somewhat volatile early life and first marriage, perhaps he came to the island to escape a bit, anyway, he and Emma took up residence in an area of Douglas called Fort Anne, I pass this location on my way to cycle along Marine Drive, so he and his wife had wonderful high views of the bay of Douglas.

Sir William Hillary over looking Douglas Bay, with Enid my bike snuggled up to the paving slab beside.

Sir William Hillary over looking Douglas Bay, with Enid my bike snuggled up to the paving slab beside.

Looking seaward, it was soon obvious to the philanthropic nature of William, just how treacherous the Irish Sea could be to shipping coming and going regularly to Douglas. In 1822, the ‘Vigalant’ was caught in a storm, William Hillary, paid local fishermen and together they crewed a vessel and were able to save 97 lives that night. The experience inspired William to dig into his Quaker roots and to work for the better good of the seaman. Time and time again hard working men failed to return home from their dangerous work at sea, leaving their undeserving wives and children to face certain poverty and the workhouse.
In February 1823 William published a pamphlet entitled ‘An Appeal To The British Navy On The Humanity And Policy Of Forming A National Institution For The Preservation Of Lives And Property From Shipwreck’. William H. was to prove that he was a man of far-reaching capacity and versatility together with his qualities of benevolence, philanthropy and heroism. Together, with these words he appealed both to the Navy and to his socialites in the city of London…
“My utmost wishes would be accomplished by seeing these international regulations established in connection with one great Institution, to extend to the most remote province of the Empire on the exalted principle that, wherever the British flag should fly, her seamen should be protected, and there those who risked their own lives to save their fellow creatures from the perils of shipwreck should be honoured and rewarded, whilst every stranger whom the disasters of the sea may cast on her shores should never look for refuge in vain.” (Sir William Hillary)

In March 1824 the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from shipwreck was founded, changing it its name 30 years later after receiving royal patronage, to the Royal National Lifeboat Institute.

Conister Rock – known as The Tower of Refuge

Tower of Refuge

Conister Rock Douglas Isle of Man.

In the middle of Douglas bay stands a castle surrounded by the Irish Sea on a pile of bedrock, it stands proud above the highest of tides. Conister Rock was once known as St Marys Isle, and on it sits today, the Tower of Refuge, an Icon of the Isle of Man. It came to be, following a ship disaster In 1830, when the paddle steamer, the St George was shipwrecked on St Marys Isle, and one of the most dangerous rescue missions in the history of the RNLI began. Sir William Hillary himself together with a lifeboat manned by 13 brave men pulled out towards the stricken St George, angry waves swept the St George onto the rocks smashing the ship into pieces. The small lifeboat was over turned in the squall and Sir William himself thrown into the trashing sea, breaking his ribs and shattering his breast bone. Luckily, he was able to be pulled out of the seas grip, and baling out the water from the lifeboat with only two oars operational, they were all finally rescued by more harbour boats who towed the remaining seamen and crew back to shore.

The memorial plaque located on the Prom in Douglas, with Sir Hillary and his crew, braving the storm to reach the 'St George'

The memorial plaque located on the Prom in Douglas, with Sir Hillary and his crew, braving the storm to reach the ‘St George’

The St George disintegrated on the rocks of St Mary that night, had it not been for the crew of the lifeboats everyone from the St George would have perished. Gold and Silver medals were awarded for Gallantry from the RNLI following the disaster.

St Marys rock was owned by the Manxman John Quane and he presented it to Sir William, so that all future presidents of the Manx Lifeboat society hold the rocks and the tower in trust. The tower is designed by John Welch and was fashioned on a 13th Century castle, mariners who needed the refuge of the Tower could summon help by ringing the bell, tall steps would take anyone well above any waves and out of immediate danger. The first stone was laid by Sir William Hillary and was completed in 1832. (Douglas RNLI)

William Wordsworth gave the Tower its now famous name, by the the poem when he wrote:

‘Blest work it is of love and innocence,
A tower of Refuge, built for the else forlorn,
Spare it ye waves,
and lift the mariner struggling for life into its save arms’. (Wordsworth)

So to my cycle ride then.
I set out on October 14 2012, to complete the circular ride using the DIY GPS system in place for us Audaxers who are ‘going it alone’. Here is my route:

No longer using Garmin, it has stopped working with my Etrex 30. 😦 Now I use Ride GPS site, much better than the Garmin one, with a lot more features… Just hope the route pops up on here!

RNLI by bicycle route on the Isle of Man

Anyway to my ride that day.

It started properly in Douglas, in part because this was the site of the very first of the lifeboat stations on the island in Sir Hillarys’ own home town. Sir Hillarys’ achievement has been recognised of course in Douglas by many statues and other memorials to his great work with the RNLI. This stunning statue was commissioned quite recently and sits on one of the flower gardens along the front promenade it is spectactular and well worth a viewing, the sculptor – Mr Michael Sandle is still with us, and in fact visited the IOM College in recent months, having started his own art career in Douglas when he lived on the Isle of Man himself.

Sir William Hillary like many others could hardly swim, yet they went out to others in need in small flimsy boats, something I will always remember is his motto:

‘With Courage, nothing is impossible.”

From Douglas the bike ride took me to Castletown, once home to a lifeboat station, but sadly disbanded. I assume as technology improved, there was no longer the need for a station in Castletown, Port St Mary and Port Erin still have theirs, here they both are:

Port Erin Lifeboat station, looking as they all should as somewhat grand in appearance, this station sports one of the badges.

My ride now went west, as I cycled forth towards Peel lifeboat station, this hill is one of my favourites on the island, and goes up over the Sloc road. A great view on top. I cycle pass this ‘please watch out for kitties’ signage every time, and it always makes me smile, I really hope it helps saves their cats from the cars too. I have as yet to spot a cat, but they must be about.

Watching out for kitties

Watching out for kitties

Soon, my ride took me down into Peel town, it is technically a city as Peel has a Cathedral in the small town. Known locally as Sun-set City, as there are spectacular sunsets dipping into the Irish sea off the coast on this side of the Isle of Man. There is a great eating place – the Kiosk in Peel, near the Castle, not expensive, as its outside, but their crab salad is lovely! Peel is one of my favourite island towns to visit, very warm and friendly with a historic feel to the place.

After leaving Peel, my ride took me north into Ramsey, its mainly downhill to Ramsey, so settled back for some easy peddling.

Now just for home, but not before returning to Douglas, to seek out St Georges Church. Now Im not sure if the church was also named after the vessel destroyed in 1830, I should think not, but slightly ironic and somehow fitting to find the grave tomb of Sir William Hillary nestled into the grave yard of the same name as the ship disaster that could so easily have claimed Williams life in 1830.


It was a good days cycling, one full of history and humility, a man born to help others to put others before himself. Something that is a bit lost in our current society.



One thought on “Discovering the history of the RNLI by bicycle

  1. Splendid story about an almost unknown fact of the Isle of Man. I used to holiday there as a child. Lovely place Im sure cycling around the Island is superb.

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