The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) was founded in 1824 to organise a national lifeboat service. A project as large as this took many years to fully implement and a number of local lifeboat organisations were set up. One of these was the ‘Dover Humane Society’, which provided Dover with its first lifeboat in 1837. The boat was designed by a local man, Mr Elvin, and kept in a boathouse on the Seafront. It was crewed by volunteers, as it still is today.In 1855 the Dover lifeboat came under the control of the RNLI. Up until the First World War all of the Dover lifeboats were rowing boats and the dangers faced by the early crews were enormous. In September 1914 the Dover Lifeboat Station was closed due to the difficulties of manning the boat during the war.The station re-opened in 1919 with Dover’s first and only steam lifeboat. Named the ‘James Stevens No.3’ she had been built in 1898 and was the fourth of the RNLB’s steam powered boats and the first to be driven by a screw propeller. She had the disadvantages of taking 20 minutes to get up steam and requiring a technical crew to keep her fired. At the end of 1922 the station was again closed.
During the 1920s, the increasing number of aeroplanes flying over the Channel made the RNLI look into the possibility of stationing a special high-speed lifeboat at Dover, to cope with the consequences of an aeroplane crashing in the sea. In 1930 the Dover Lifeboat Station was re-opened with the arrival of a brand new lifeboat, named ‘Sir William Hillary’ after the founder of the RNLI. The new boat was powered by two 375 h.p. petrol engines and was capable of a top speed of 17.25 knots, as compared with a top speed of 9 knots for conventional motor lifeboats then in service. With the outbreak of the Second World War new perils faced the crew of the Dover lifeboat. In November 1939 the ‘Sir William Hillary’ had to sail right into a minefield to carry out a rescue. The Dover relief lifeboat ‘Agnes Cross’ took part in the Dunkirk evacuation helping many of the small boats into the safety of Dover Harbour. The ‘Sir William Hillary’ missed Dunkirk because it was away for an overhaul at the time. In October 1940 ‘Sir William Hillary’ was taken over by the Admiralty and used as an air-sea rescue launch. The ‘Agnes Cross’ remained in service at Dover until 1941 when it was decided to close the station for the duration. The Dover Lifeboat Station re-opened in May 1947 and has remained open, its volunteer crew always ready to risk their lives in an effort to save those in peril on the sea. If you visit the Dover Lifeboat Station website you can keep up to date on their excellent work.