Ten milestone achievements of the RLSS

The Royal Life Saving Society has existed and indeed prospered for nearly a century and a quarter.  Evidence of our success abounds.  This is the success we celebrate in 2016 and beyond. 

The Society is justifiably proud of its achievements and even prouder that it remains relevant and fully supported well into the twenty-first century. That it has survived and flourished is even more remarkable given it is a humanitarian organisation, and a charity that is led and maintained largely by volunteers.

It is clear that the cause of drowning prevention continues to galvanise ordinary citizens into taking action that ultimately advances the position of the Society and renders it stronger than it was before.

So it is fitting, as we celebrate this milestone anniversary, that we reflect thoughtfully on the achievements to which we can attribute our success; those which have stood the test of time and which have helped us progress to where we are today.

Listed below are ten significant formative achievements, identified and selected by the 125th Anniversary Steering Committee, which helped to lay the foundation for the modern RLSS. They are in approximate sequential order.  Each is no more or no less important than another.

These achievements should be viewed as a beginning rather than as the definitive list.  Topics such as the development and implementation of lifesaving sport, public education, risk management and Survival Swimming are important in their own right and along with many others, deserve due consideration.

Our project to gather and share the History of the Society will surely address these and others, and will undoubtedly add to and strengthen the list.

The ‘Aims and Objects’ of the Society

One quality of excellent organisations is that they successfully put into words their purpose, their mission and what activities they intend to do. From the beginning the Royal Life Saving Society did just that, in the form of the ‘Aims and Objects’. Enshrined in the Royal Charter of the RLSS, (1924), they are:

  • To promote technical education in life saving and resuscitation of the apparently drowned;
  • To stimulate public opinion in favour of the general adoption of swimming and life saving as a branch of instruction in schools, colleges, etc.;
  • To encourage floating, diving, plunging and such other swimming arts as would be of assistance to a person endeavouring to save life;
  • To arrange and promote public lectures, demonstrations and competitions and to form classes of instruction so as to bring about a widespread and thorough knowledge of the principles which underlie the art of natation.

Visionary, strategic and to the point, the ‘Aims and Objects’ underpin nearly all of the Society’s development since the nineteenth century and are as relevant today as when they were initially conceived.

The RLSS motto: ‘Whomsoever you see in distress, recognise in him a fellow man’

These specific words in the Latin; ‘Quemcunque miserum videris hominem scias’ are thought to have been first written by the Roman philosopher Seneca (c. 4 B.C-A.D. 65) in one of his plays.

The Society adopted this as its motto and it is engraved on the earliest Bronze Medallions. The motto embodies the “golden rule” of assisting others in an emergency as one would wish to be helped, and commands the lifesaver to utilise his or her newly-developed skills rather than simply acting as a bystander. In recent times the Commonwealth Society has modified the motto to state; “Whomsoever you see in distress, recognise in them a fellow human being”, in deference to all genders.

Included in the curriculum of all proficiency awards, the RLSS motto has been learned by millions of lifesaving candidates across the Commonwealth.

The Bronze Medallion

While all RLSS awards play an important role in building the skills and confidence necessary to perform a successful rescue, the Bronze Medallion stands out. Introduced in 1892, ‘The Bronze’ teaches an understanding of the lifesaving principles embodied in the four components of water rescue education—judgement, knowledge, skill and fitness. Rescuers learn ‘tows and carries’ as well as ‘defence methods’ and ‘releases’, in preparation for challenging rescues of increased risk involving conscious and unconscious victims.

A Bronze Medallion holder, by virtue of having achieved the required standard of training and age, is deemed ready to act and perform competently in situations which require a high level of training in order to be successful. While not all lifesavers go on to become lifeguards, many parents encourage their children to attain this important and challenging qualification as a means of saving themselves and being able to help others in an emergency.

The Bronze Medallion has been a cornerstone of the Society’s Proficiency Awards since the beginning and will achieve its 125th anniversary in 2017.

RLSS proficiency and leadership awards

Early in its development, the Society recognised that one of the keys to training lifesavers to successfully rescue others, while minimising personal risk, was to institute a progressive ladder of individual awards ranging in proficiency from beginner to expert.

Standards were necessarily high and examinations were required.  Those who passed were rewarded with medals.  Award names such as Merit, Distinction and Diploma instilled pride of accomplishment and the incentive to compete with oneself and others for the highest possible attainment.

Examiner and leadership training status presented additional new incentives, that of helping others to develop their skills to save lives. The earliest proficiency awards and their date of introduction are as follows:

  • Bronze Medallion (1892)
  • Bar to Bronze Medallion (1933)
  • Award of Merit (1908)
  • Bar to Award of Merit (1935)
  • Diploma (1896)

While new developments have resulted in awards being added or revised over time, the Society’s ladder approach and the requirement to achieve high standards of proficiency has remained constant. Over the last 125 years, millions of ordinary citizens have earned RLSS proficiency and leadership awards and they have been instrumental in saving countless lives throughout the Commonwealth.

The development and teaching of artificial respiration

The forcing and expelling of air in a non-breathing person has been practised since ancient times.  It was adopted by the Society for the treatment of drowning, shortly after its inception in 1891.

Later the Society adopted the Silvester method, which involved the pulling of arms and pressing on the back to manually force the lungs to work. Public knowledge and practice was expanded when, during the 1930’s, the Society created the Respiration Service Corps and, in 1934, established the Resuscitation Certificate.

Silvester eventually gave way to the Shafer method but in 1961, in response to the results of new research, the Society adopted the ‘mouth to mouth’ procedure.  Also known as the ‘direct method’, this practice involved blowing into the victim’s mouth or nose in order to inflate the lungs.

Over the years, the Society sought and introduced many improved techniques and has been instrumental in teaching lifesavers and educating the public on this most important lifesaving skill. While newer technologies such as cardio pulmonary resuscitation, (CPR), the application of oxygen and use of training manikins have enhanced victim treatment, there is still no better first-responder technique than the direct and forced provision of air from rescuer to a non-breathing victim.


In 1932, RLSS UK established the ‘Lifeguard Corps’, later to be called ‘RLSS Lifeguards’.

Clubs were formed and by 1937 there were 11,000 lifeguards on duty, most of them unpaid volunteers. By 1967, there were eighty-three clubs manning sixty-four posts. Over the years, the presence of lifeguards near water resulted in such a dramatic drop in the number of drownings that the provision of trained lifeguards has become common practice throughout the Commonwealth. In many areas, the requirement to post them is embedded in legislation as a means of public safety.

Over time, the Society has worked diligently to set and improve training certifications, encourage the development of new equipment and techniques and advocate the importance of lifeguard supervision, rescue response, first responder resuscitation and first aid capability to the swimming public.

Rescue Awards and Commonwealth Honours

The RLSS has long believed in the importance of recognition for bravery and volunteer service.   Over time, this has taken the form of the Commonwealth Honours and Bravery Awards.

Commonwealth honours recognise individuals or organisations for dedicated service to the Society.

Honours available for Individuals – Volunteers

  • Certificate of Thanks
  • Service Commendation
  • Service Medal & Bar to Service Medal
  • Service Cross & Bar to Service Cross
  • Commonwealth Honorary Life Member
  • Commonwealth Honorary Life Governor
  • Commonwealth Vice President

Honours available for Organisations

  • Certificate of Thanks
  • Commonwealth President’s Award

 Honours available for Staff Members/Professional Officers

  • Commonwealth Service Order
  • Bar to Commonwealth Service Order

 Awards available for Service

  • King Edward VII Cup
  • HRH Prince Michael of Kent Certificate of Merit (Service)

Bravery awards significant acts of bravery performed by holders of the Society’s proficiency awards.

  • HRH Prince Michael of Kent Certificate of Merit (Bravery)
  • The Mountbatten Medal
  • The Russell Medal

Nominations for these awards originate from the Member Branch.  Awards are subject to high standards including final approval by the Commonwealth Honours Committee. These standards ensure that awards recognise the highest performance and that recipients of the same award are of comparable stature.

The Society believes that public recognition rewards excellent service, showcases the work of the Society, kindles pride in accomplishment and serves as an example to other volunteers of what can be done. It is clear that the early introduction and subsequent improvements and additions to the RLSS awards system are an achievement that has significantly enhanced the work and reputation of the Society in all Commonwealth nations.

Detailed information about the RLSS Commonwealth Honours and Awards, including nomination procedures, can be found on our Awards page.

The expansion of the RLSS across the Commonwealth

William Henry and the founders of the RLSS did not restrict their efforts to the United Kingdom. In the early years of the twentieth century, Henry travelled widely, promoting the Society in Canada, Africa, Australia and New Zealand and these efforts resulted in the formation of new Member Branches.

Following in Henry’s footsteps, in mid-century, during his long tenure as Grand President, Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma advocated the RLSS as he travelled the world. His efforts and those of locals further strengthened the Society and led to the founding of new Branches in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

To read more about Lord Mountbatten’s contribution to the RLSS click here.

Today, there are Member Branches in twenty-seven Commonwealth countries.  These Branches co-operate in harmony and support each other towards improved growth and development in all aspects of lifesaving.

The endeavours of those committed to expansion has spread the lifesaving message and RLSS training programs and techniques far beyond what could have been otherwise possible. This has led to the creation of a world-wide fraternity of lifesavers engaged in drowning prevention in all parts of the Commonwealth.

The establishment of standards and systematic organisation of RLSS activities

From its inception the Society realised that to be successful in the prevention of drowning, it would need to standardise and systematise its activities into manageable components that could be learned, taught and examined with reasonable effort by the average person. This led to the development of the ‘ladder’ approach of its proficiency awards, the RLSS Handbooks, and the creation of standards which helped to achieve consistency of application and documentation explaining somewhat complex and unfamiliar topics in straightforward language.

The Society’s Bravery and Honours Awards were made equally systematic, consisting of Commonwealth-wide standards and specific processes with the objectives of fairness and efficiency for all involved. This approach not only achieved these objectives but proved sensible as the Society worked with other organizations promoting lifesaving practices such as artificial respiration and others.

Further, since awards and other documents were thoroughly organised and recorded, they were easily adapted by other countries.  Standardisation and documentation also facilitated the amendment process made necessary by the development of improved techniques and practices.

Upon reflection, there is no question that the Society’s continuous quest to achieve systematic organization of its activities has been key to its success over the past 125 years.

Affiliations with lifesaving and humanitarian organisations

The Society recognised early that collaboration with like-minded organisations would be helpful to expanding lifesaving and drowning prevention. The RLSS has collaborated with important world-wide organisations such as the YMCA, the St. John Ambulance, the Red Cross and the Scouting movement. Through this effort, its work has reached many more people than it would have been able to accomplish alone. It has also partnered with organisations which produce lifesaving equipment, thereby enhancing the proficiency of lifesavers and lifeguards across the Commonwealth.

In the 1960’s, the Society joined the Federation International de Sauvetage, (FIS), and teams competed in international competitions.  In 1993 FIS merged with the WLS to form the International Lifesaving Federation, (ILS).  RLSS branches from many nations are today full members of the ILS; and RLSS itself has a Memorandum of Understanding with the ILS.

The RLSS is accredited to the Commonwealth as a Civil Society Organisation which gives it access to Commonwealth structures such as the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Commonwealth Games Federation and other Accredited Organisations. RLSS works with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and with other humanitarian and commercial organisations.

Member Branches collaborate and partner with public and private sector organisations in their own country.  These connections significantly expand the reach and impact of the Member Branch.

The Society values the contribution of the organisations with which it is affiliated and is grateful for their support to the cause of drowning prevention.