The incredible Manchester moment that led to countless lives being saved

It is about 36 miles from the sea. But Manchester's Albert Square is central not just to the history of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute - but this country's proud history and culture of charitable giving.

It was one autumn day in 1891 that lifeboats were 'launched' in the Gothic heart of the city. Tragedy was behind the spectacle which attracted thousands, with wealthy industrialist Sir Charles Macara, who made his fortune from cotton, answering the RNLI's call for help following a lifeboat disaster.

Five years earlier, in December, 1886, the St. Anne's and Southport life-boats capsized, with the loss of thirteen out of the fifteen men in the Southport boat, and the whole crew of the St. Anne's boat— twenty-seven men in all. They had been attempting, along with a crew from Lytham who survived, to rescue a vessel in distress, the barque 'Mexico' of Hamburg.

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Sir Charles Macara, who had a country house at St. Anne's, took the lead in raising a special fund for the victims' dependents. In just a fortnight the fund amounted to £33,000 - the equivalent of £3.5m today.

Sir Charles also decided to secure the finances of the RNLI, as the organisation was then in debt. Instead of asking wealthy philanthropists for money, he appealed to the man on the street.

Sir Charles and his wife Marion organised the first 'Lifeboat Saturday' in aid of the appeal - the world’s first charity street collection ever recorded. The event - on 10th October 1891 - saw bands, floats and lifeboats parade through the streets of Manchester, followed by volunteers with buckets and purses on poles.

The event was captured in a photograph showing one of the lifeboats - along with crew on board - wearing their cork lifejackets next to the Albert Memorial statue in Albert Square with a huge crowd in the background.

People flocked to the city’s streets to catch a glimpse of something they had never seen before: lifeboat crew members and their lifesaving craft.

There were lifeboats from Southport, Lytham and St Anne’s. Many Mancunians were moved to give generously. They donated over £5,000 to the charity - the equivalent today of £532,500. 'Lifeboat Saturdays' were soon held in towns and cities across the UK. Sir Charles remained Chairman of the Fund for the first five years, retiring when the Fund's Headquarters were moved from Manchester to London in 1896. He was Chairman of the St. Anne's Branch from 1889 until his death in Hale in 1929.

Now, Historic England has announced It has created an interactive map - featuring historic North West landmarks connected with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, including the Albert Memorial in Manchester - to mark this year’s 200th anniversary of the lifesaving charity.

Eliza Fernley Lifeboat Memorial, Sefton, Merseyside The crew lost their lives on the night of 9 December 1886 (together with the crew of the St Anne's lifeboat) while attempting to rescue the crew of the German barque "Mexico".
The Albert Memorial in Albert Square, Manchester, which was given listed status in 1963. Image by Conor Sandford

Historic England has also announced the listing of the lighthouse-shaped grave monument to James Gall in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. He was the last of the survivors of the SS Forfarshire, which was wrecked off the Northumberland coast, among nine rescued by the famous Grace Darling and her dad.

With her father, keeper of the Longstone Lighthouse, Northumberland (Grade II listed), Grace set out in their coble (a traditional North East open fishing boat) through stormy seas and rescued five survivors. Grace’s father returned with two of the survivors to rescue another four people.

James had to stay at the lighthouse for two days where his injuries were attended to by the Darling family. Grace’s act of bravery became front page news, reaching Queen Victoria, and capturing the imagination of people around the world.

In 1838, the rescue was recognised by the youthful RNLI (then called the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck) by the awarding of silver medals for bravery to Grace and her father. Grace was the first woman to receive a RNLI medal. She died of tuberculosis four years later - on 20 October 1842 - and is commemorated by a tomb in St Aidan’s churchyard, Bamburgh (Grade II* listed). The RNLI Grace Darling Museum sits opposite St Aidan’s Church and celebrates the life of the Victorian heroine.

Meanwhile, Historic England and the RNLI are asking people in the North West to add their own contributions to the Missing Pieces Project to add to the story of the listed landmarks featured on the new interactive map. People can discover the listed places on their doorstep and contribute their own unique piece to the picture by adding photos, videos, stories and memories on the National Heritage List for England.

The RNLI has been saving lives at sea since 1824. Lifeboat stations have become an important part of our coastal heritage, acting as beacons of safety, while churches and memorials honour and remember the people who have bravely risked their lives to save others.

Many of these sites are protected through listing, and whilst most are not owned or managed by the RNLI, they all have strong connections to the lifesaving charity and its history. Rarely seen photographs have also been shared by the RNLI to highlight the charity’s rich history, showing proud volunteer lifeboat crews and historic lifeboat stations from the past 200 years.

Duncan Wilson, Historic England Chief Executive, said: “This fascinating collection of historic sites tell the stories of the men, women and communities who have made our seas safer over the past two hundred years. Their dedication, bravery and sacrifice have helped to save so many lives and their stories inspire us. This is a great opportunity to discover places around England with history connected to the RNLI and to add your part to the story.”

Hayley Whiting, the RNLI's Heritage Archive and Research Manager, said: “Through this project with Historic England we have been able to share rarely seen photos from the RNLI archive of sites around England which have a close connection with the RNLI and its lifesaving heritage. The list includes boathouses, collection boxes, monuments, and memorials, many of which are no longer RNLI-owned or managed, but all of which have a fascinating and important connection with the charity’s long lifesaving history.

“It is particularly significant that we have been able to collaborate with Historic England on this project during the RNLI’s 200th anniversary year, and we hope many members of the public will now be inspired to go online to the Missing Pieces Project and add their own contributions, to really help bring to life the stories, history and character of these significant sites.”

A spokesman for Historic England said: "Perhaps a member of your family was part of a RNLI crew, or there’s a local sea shanty that tells the story of a famous rescue. Maybe your community came together to raise the funds for a RNLI lifeboat, or a special memorial to local lifesavers. There could be traditions passed down the generations that keep local seafaring history alive. Your view of a place is as unique as you are, so every snapshot and story you add is an important piece of the picture. You could add photos, film, audio, text, drawings and more."

The RNLI charity operates over 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. It has saved lives at sea for 200 years due to volunteers giving their time to save others, all funded by voluntary donations. Throughout its anniversary year, the charity is running events and activities to commemorate its history, celebrate the lifesaving service it provides today, and inspire generations of future lifesavers and supporters. For more information visit