The founding of the Royal Life Saving Society

The year 1891 began as no other.  The following excerpt from Swimming Magazine, written in 1912 by William Henry and Archibald Sinclair, describes the context and lead-up to what would become the founding of a most extraordinary organization:

“The neglect of diving, floating, plunging and scientific swimming by ordinary clubs led, in 1891, to the calling of a meeting by seven gentlemen interested in swimming, for the purpose of founding a special club to encourage the arts named, and, in addition, to vigorously carry out by instruction, &c., the recommendations of the Amateur Swimming Association as to the saving of life from drowning.

The first meeting was held on January 3, 1891, at Anderton’s Hotel, London, and was attended by about sixty persons.

A committee was appointed to draw up rules, and on February 7, 1891, a general meeting was held, at which it was resolved to term the society the Swimmer’s Life-saving Society, and to make the teaching of the principles of life-saving its chief work. 

The name was afterwards changed to that of the Life-saving Society.”

William Henry, Founder of RLSS

Not unlike other successful ventures, the Society was formed by a confluence of critical factors and important events;

  • Swimming and bathing was a popular sport and recreational activity in England.
  • In the 1880’s drowning had reached a high of some 3000 per year in England and Wales alone and its growing impact was being felt.
  • Recognizing that drowning was preventable and something had to be done, in 1887, twenty-eight year old champion swimmer William Henry petitioned the Royal Humane Society to undertake the training of lifesaving skills, but no action was taken.
  • Undeterred, Henry, with Archibald Sinclair and others who shared their passion, organized themselves around specific aims, principles and actions, and, in 1891, created an organization that continues to flourish 125 years later, not only in England but across most of the Commonwealth.

More detailed information on key figures and achievements in the founding of the Royal Life Saving Society can be seen here

Over the next few decades, through the development of rescue and resuscitation techniques, lifesaving and swimming proficiency awards, public lectures and instruction within England and beyond and strategic thinking and planning, the founders and in particular William Henry himself, spread the cause of drowning prevention, inspiring vast numbers of people; the effort of which has led to the Society of today, now firmly established in twenty-seven Commonwealth nations.

Since 1891, the work of countless Society volunteers and staff, with the support and encouragement of our many public and private sector partners and our Royal and national Patrons and High Commissioners, has resulted in millions trained and untold numbers of drownings prevented; either directly through rescue or indirectly through the acquisition of swimming and lifesaving skills and the development and promotion of safe swimming practices.

And a particular debt of gratitude is owed by those who have derived benefit from the development of public swimming pools and beaches, the lifeguarding profession and the range of economic and social advantages which have accrued as a result of the growth of the Royal Life Saving Society and other like-minded organizations.

In 1910, reflecting on the great progress of the Society, William Henry is quoted as saying;

“The inception of the Royal Life Saving Society was due to the oft-expressed desire to minimise the great loss of life from drowning, to teach those possessed of ordinary courage the best methods of rescue and the resuscitation of the apparently drowned.

The desire to save a human life, the thought to lend a hand to a brother in peril, the sympathy with distress which many feel but know little how to express, so greatly underlie the work of the Society that there is little wonder that it has found its way into human hearts far from London, the city of its birth.

No finer words could be written to describe the Society’s appeal to the best qualities of humankind and to explain why it has long prospered; the very sentiment of which is enshrined in the RLSS motto;

“Whomsoever you see in distress, recognize in them a fellow human being”