Sir William Hillary, RNLI Collections Trust.

A new exhibition exploring the Isle of Man’s remarkable maritime heritage and honouring the 200th anniversary of the RNLI opened at the House of Manannan on Saturday 17 February 2024. 

‘All at Sea’ uncovers some of the tragic events in Manx waters which motivated Manx resident, Sir William Hillary to establish a national maritime lifesaving institution. 

Friends members can enjoy an exclusive guided tour of the exhibition with Curator Allison Fox on Friday 1st March 2024. See the 'Events' page or contact for details.

The story of the Herring Fleet Disaster features in the exhibition in which thirty-six men and fifty boats were lost in Douglas on 20 September 1787.  Just one incident of thousands in only 12 nautical miles of Manx waters, ‘All at Sea’ presents stories of some of those shipwrecks and their inextricable link to the foundation of today’s RNLI.

Two hundred years ago, Hillary’s mission was to ensure the preservation of life, to assist vessels in distress, to preserve vessels and property, to prevent plunder, to support those rescued and to provide suitable rewards for rescuers.  His was a vision to save all at sea. 

An eyewitness to the hardships during and after sea rescues, Hillary himself helped save an estimated five hundred lives in Manx waters.  These events directly influenced his idea for what would become one of the most respected organisations in the world. 

Allison Fox, Manx National Heritage Curator for Archaeology said:

“Over two thousand ships have tragically met their final fate around the coast of the Isle of Man.  All have a place in our Island’s history from trawlers to merchant vessels, paddle steamers, lifeboats and leisure crafts.

The fate of more than twenty vessels are explored in ’All at Sea’, alongside lifesaving equipment, medals and poignant objects from the Island’s shipwrecks.  The gold medal awarded to Sir William Hillary for founding the RNLI has kindly been loaned to the exhibition by the RNLI Heritage Collection Trust.  The medal features three men pulling another from the sea alongside a quotation from Psalm 69: ‘Let not the deep swallow me up’.

Manx National Heritage extends thanks to all those who have supported the exhibition including researcher, Adrian Corkill, and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution”.

One story featured is that of HMS Racehorse, wrecked off Langness in 1822.  In conditions described as “very thick and dark”, the Royal Navy ship hit rocks at Langness, after mistaking the lights of Castletown for those of Douglas. Almost all of the ship’s one hundred crew were saved, but on the last journey from the ship to the shore, the rescue boat was swamped.

Castletown men Robert Quayle, Thomas Hall and Norris Bridson who had helped save so many, perished along with six crew from HMS Racehorse.  Two months later, Sir William Hillary published his appeal to the British Government to establish a national institution for the preservation of lives and property from shipwreck, which later became known as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

The story of the wreck of the ‘Saint George’ on 7 October 1889 is also told when the full fury of a north-westerly gale did not deter volunteers for the Peel lifeboat.  The ship was in distress off Peel Hill, her crew signalling for help.  Within an hour of rescue by Peel Lifeboat, this huge ship was only fit for salvage.  It’s figurehead takes pride of place in the exhibition.  Saved from the wreck, it has been cared for by Peel Lifeboat Station ever since and is displayed in ‘All at Sea’ alongside medals awarded to the coxswain and a crew member of the Peel lifeboat, John Monk, by King Oscar II of Sweden, with the inscription 'For Aedel Daad' ('For a Noble Deed').  

Allen Corlett, Chair of the RNLI’s Isle of Man 200th Anniversary Panel and Lifeboat Operations Manager at Peel Lifeboat Station, said:

“The RNLI has a remarkable history in the Isle of Man which ‘All at Sea’ captures so poignantly -  from Sir William Hillary’s vision to the ethos of today’s volunteers and supporters who continue to power the charity’s lifesaving work. 

 We hope visitors to the House of Manannan exhibition will be moved by the tragic stories it tells but also inspired that our founder’s legacy survives today, as the RNLI marks its 200th anniversary.

Assisting Manx National Heritage in planning its exhibition has been a collaborative effort amongst the Island’s five lifeboat stations and the RNLI Heritage team which has generously allowed the gold medal awarded to Sir William Hillary to return home temporarily.  Everyone’s support is deeply appreciated”.

‘All at Sea’ is on display from Saturday 17 February 2024 until 5 January 2025 at the House of Manannan in Peel. Admission is free, with donations welcome.