To mark the bicentenary of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), there’s an exhibition of people who most certainly wouldn’t have been invited to the founding rescue – women.

Although founded in 1824, the first bravery medal was awarded to a woman, Grace Darlinc in 1838 for saving stranded survivors from a shipwreck. In 1865, the first women were able to launch lifeboats but not be on them, and it wasn’t until 1904 that Letita French became the first woman to manage an RNLI lifeboat station.

The first woman to join an RNLI lifeboat crew was Elizabeth Hostvedt — and only as recently as 1969.

Today, women volunteers serve in most of the lifeboat stations, and a new photographic exhibition at the National Maritime Museum celebrates their work saving lives.

The exhibition is a series of 42 photographs taken by Jack Lowe and recently acquired by the museum. The portraits of volunteer women are displayed alongside their lifeboat station’s corresponding slipway, putting the landscape that these women operate in at the heart of their stories.

As a collection, the exhibition is interesting, and there are a handful of tangible objects dotted around and some oral histories as well to add background to the people in the photographs.

I found though that it felt a bit thin, and that’s probably because of the decision to print the photographs at about A4 size and then display them in a large, hence, very empty feeling room.

Had the photos been poster-sized, the faces of the women would have filled the space rather than being almost too small to see. As it is, I had the distinct feeling of stepping into the set from a 1980s edition of Top of the Pops—all chrome poles and black paint.

That aesthetic grumble aside, it’s a nice collection of portraits, and as the exhibition is also free to visit, worth a look when you’re next in Greenwich.

The exhibition, Women of the RNLI is at the National Maritime Museum until 1st December 2024 and is free to visit.


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One comment
  1. John B says:

    There is another RNLI exhibition at Chatham Historic Dockyard from 23 March to 1 Sep. This is in addition to their wide collection of lifeboats.

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