Princess Elizabeth wins a life-saving award at the Children’s Challenge Shield Competition, held at the Royal Bath Club in London, 28th June 1939. Original Publication : Picture Post – The Road to the Throne – pub. 23rd February 1952 (Photo by J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
By Robert Clark and Clive Holland
Successful organisations, as they look to the future, would do well to reflect on their past and recognise the actions, individuals and circumstances which have enabled them to attain the level of achievement they enjoy today.
Such is the Royal Life Saving Society. A review of its history yields many examples; from the passion, skill, vision and energy of William Henry and the founders to the unstinting dedication of our tens of thousands of volunteers across 27 Commonwealth countries.
Our history yields another example, indeed one of the most remarkable of all: the role and contribution of members of the Royal Family.
HM Queen Elizabeth II has been our Patron since 1952 and HRH Prince Michael of Kent our Commonwealth President since 1978. This exceptional service to the RLSS and its ideals dates back generations, but it is only part of the story as members of the Royal Family have played a principal role in the Society since its founding in 1891.
As we celebrate our 125th Anniversary, we are honoured to commemorate the important contribution the Royal Family has made to the Royal Life Saving Society over its long and proud history.
The ‘Life-saving Society’
The Society, originally named the ‘Life-saving Society’, was founded in England on 7th February, 1891 by well-known champion swimmer William Henry and others who shared his passion.
Swimming and bathing were very popular in England but drownings were numerous; in the 1880’s their number had reached 3000 per year in England and Wales alone and the impact was being felt.
The Society quickly organised around solutions, offering lectures and demonstrations of lifesaving techniques. It introduced the Bronze Medallion in 1892 and the Society Handbook of Instruction. Experts were focusing on resuscitation research and the founders took notice. The magazine ‘Swimming’ was in circulation, helping to disseminate information to the general public.
The result; the Society grew to such an extent that within just three years of its formation, it reported a membership of over 50,000.
Beyond his personal fame and the efforts of him and his colleagues, William Henry possessed one other unique advantage: he was well connected in Victorian society, at least partially through his role as a swimming teacher to the British Royal Family, whom he taught at the Bath Club in London.
While details are scarce, Henry may well have used this to his benefit as history records that in 1891, the Duke of York, (later King George V), consented to be the honorary President of the Society.
And so it was, in the year of its founding, the Society’s formal connection with the Royal Family began; a special and valued partnership that remains to this day, some 125 years later.
The Royal Family and the Society
Events moved at a rapid pace.
In 1897 the Society honoured HM Queen Victoria on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee with an international gala at the West India dock in the presence of the Duke and Duchess of York. This was the first time the Society had projected itself and this event was a pattern for all future events; a mix of instruction, sport and entertainment.
It is reasonable to conclude that the presence of their Royal Highnesses and their support for the events at hand increased the level of attendance and interest and support for the Society’s work.
In January of 1901, HM King Edward VII ascended the throne after the death of Queen Victoria. In honour of the joyous occasion of his coronation in 1902, the Society held a special display at Highgate Ponds in London before 30,000 spectators.
The King, while new to his role as Sovereign, was not new to the Society having been Honorary Patron since 1892. As reigning monarch he agreed to become Patron and in doing so became one of the Society’s leading figures.
In 1902 King Edward conferred upon the Society a most prestigious honour; The King Edward VII Cup. Originally given as a prize for international competition, the Cup is now the Society’s highest award for service, presented by HM Queen Elizabeth to only a handful of people over many years.
As Ronald Pearsall writes in his book Lifesaving, The Story of the Royal Life Saving Society, the First 100 Years:
“King Edward VII was not merely a patron on paper, but actively involved himself in the work and activities of the Life Saving Society, visiting the Bath Club with Queen Alexandra and Princess Victoria to witness the first international competition for His Majesty’s Cup, won by England with Hungary runner-up. It was only a matter of time before the king granted permission for the society to use the title ‘Royal’ and, although no Royal Charter was issued at the time, the Royal Life Saving Society came into being in 1904”.
Some twenty years after granting the Society the privilege of using the word ‘Royal’ in its title, the RLSS received the great honour of a Royal Charter on 25th June, 1924.
King George V became Patron following the death of Edward VII. As HRH Duke of York he had previously served as RLSS President from 1891 to 1910. In 1931 the King granted an Order in Council giving legal protection to the name and badge of the Society.
During this time the Society was progressing nicely; by 1936 membership in the Lifeguard Corps in England was up to 11,000, and 54 rescues had been made. A cadet branch of the Lifeguard Corps was formed for younger boys. In 1938 the Society achieved a total of 105,710 awards issued – a tremendous accomplishment.
The Society received a boost when Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret were given lessons in swimming and lifesaving. In 1937 a most newsworthy event was the passing of the Elementary Certificate by Princess Elizabeth. The following year Princess Elizabeth passed the Intermediate Certificate and Princess Margaret passed the Elementary Certificate, resulting in more newspaper coverage. In 1939 Princess Elizabeth won the Children’s Challenge Shield at the Bath Club in London.
The Princesses were the first of the Royal Family to earn the Society’s Proficiency Awards; others included HRH Prince Charles, HRH Prince Andrew, HRH Prince Michael of Kent and HRH Prince Richard of Gloucester.
In 1941, despite the turmoil of war, the Society issued 90,009 awards. In that year, the first of the new Junior Respiration awards was successfully achieved by Princess Elizabeth.
The Mountbatten Era
In 1944, following the death of long-serving President Lord Desborough, King George VI made what is considered to be one of the most significant decisions in the history of the RLSS. He invited Earl Mountbatten of Burma to become President. Lord Mountbatten, a descendant of Queen Victoria, was Supreme Allied Commander in South East Asia at the time. The 1963 RLSS Annual Report states:
“When Lord Mountbatten was invited to become President of the Society in 1946 his first inclination was to ask to be excused because he was then in India as Viceroy, and he was already associated with a great number of other bodies. However he was pressed by the late King to accept the position because His Majesty particularly wished to retain the close connection between the Royal Family and the Society in view of the connections of his father and grandfather”.
In 1972 Mountbatten reflected on his appointment. The Annual Report records that, “The King felt that the Society with its Commonwealth-wide connections would be one of the best informal links whereby the spirit of the Commonwealth might be preserved through difficult times to come”.
Lord Mountbatten served as Grand President for 27 years and in that time was responsible for many achievements among them the establishment of the Supplemental Royal Charter, the expansion of the RLSS throughout the Commonwealth, the Technical Advisory Committee, the Mountbatten Medal and the Commonwealth Conference.
He fostered a strong relationship between the Society and HM the Queen to achieve the Supplemental Royal Charter. This relationship was clearly long standing for in 1951, HRH the Princess Elizabeth had attended the RLSS Diamond Jubilee Council Meeting and unveiled the Mountbatten Medal Panel.
Notably during his time as Grand President, the Society was honoured by the presence of HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother who opened the 1961 Commonwealth Conference and by the presence of HRH Princess Margaret who opened the 1966 Commonwealth Conference.
Pearsall summarises the 1961 Conference:
“In July 1960 it was decided to hold a Commonwealth Conference in London in July 1961 and HM the Queen Mother consented to open the conference at St. James Palace. A great honour was bestowed on delegates to the conference by their being invited to a reception at Buckingham Palace. In opening the conference the Queen Mother spoke of the great importance of lifesaving, and how in the past when visiting the Commonwealth countries she had been impressed by the attention devoted to it. She recalled and exciting afternoon in 1958 when she had watched a gala by the society’s sister organization in Australia, the Surf Life Saving Association and observed that the increasing use of boats for recreation inevitably increased the risk of casualties from drowning and made a widespread knowledge of lifesaving even more essential.
Her Majesty wisely drew attention to incidents that could have been avoided with a little forethought, and how parents should inculcate into their children the need for safe swimming and knowledge of lifesaving. Parents could do a lot in this respect, and Her Majesty felt proud that both her daughters had gained awards of the Society. Regarding the Commonwealth organization of the society she said; “I know that the conditions of your work vary from country to country, but I am delighted to learn that above all your purpose is to keep the society as one Commonwealth body”.
Excerpts from the remarks given by the Princess Margaret as she opened the 1966 Commonwealth Conference reflect similar sentiments:
“In this room today are representatives of many countries of the Commonwealth which shared the pioneer work which William Henry did in this country and elsewhere which bore fruit in a very wonderful way. In 1964, the total number of proficiency awards issued by the Society passed the 5 million mark, and each year well over 300,000 are gained throughout the Commonwealth. These achievements are a great tribute to your voluntary workers everywhere and to the vision and foresight of your founder.
But there is, unfortunately, no room for complacency in any way, nor can there be until every child of school age is taught how to swim and how to act in an emergency and save a person from drowning by his own individual skill”.
In 1981 consent was obtained from Countess Mountbatten of Burma (Lady Brabourne) to rename ‘The Manor House’ in memory of her late father. ‘Mountbatten House’ was to become the RLSS headquarters and was opened on 25th June by HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. In her speech she honoured his memory and the work of the Society and unveiled a plaque and a portrait of Lord Mountbatten.
After 27 years of devoted service and meritorious accomplishment Lord Mountbatten retired as Grand President in 1972 and was succeeded by HRH Princess Alexandra. It can be rightly stated that he laid a good portion of the foundation of the Society as it exists today.
HM Queen Elizabeth II
Her Majesty became RLSS Patron in 1952 after the death of her father, King George VI. Since then she has maintained a keen interest in the Society’s work and has provided untold support and encouragement over 64 years.
Her Majesty’s formal involvement with the Society actually pre-dates to 1944 when she consented to be RLSS Vice Patron. As Princess Elizabeth she passed the Elementary and Intermediate Certificates and earned the first-issued Junior Respiration Award.
The Queen’s support to the Society is wide-ranging and consequential. In 1960, upon the recommendation of Lord Mountbatten she granted the Supplemental Royal Charter. The Charter brought into effect a new Commonwealth organisation of the Society with five self-governing National Branches: United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa which would operate under a Commonwealth Council in London. This new arrangement was met with praise from the National Branches and has been proven to be a more effective means of governance since it was implemented over a half a century ago.
In 1964, Her Majesty conferred a most distinguished honour upon the RLSS, when, on the recommendation of Lord Mountbatten, she granted the use of the St Edward’s crown on the Society’s badge.
As Patron, her support for the Society and its work extends to recognizing the volunteers who give countless hours of service in the cause of drowning prevention. Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh have given receptions at Buckingham Palace as part of the Commonwealth Quinquennial Conference in the years 1961, 1966, 1971, 1981, 1986, 1991, 1996 and 2001. Other members of the Royal Family attended as did High Commissioners from Commonwealth nations. As part of these receptions, Her Majesty has graciously presented the Society’s highest honour for service, the King Edward VII Cup, as well as RLSS medals for valour in lifesaving.
On 22nd November, 2016, Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh gave a reception marking the 125th anniversary of the Society’s founding in 1891. Present were RLSS Commonwealth President HRH Prince Michael of Kent and Princess Michael, and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Her Majesty presented the King Edward VII Cup to Professor John Pearn (Australia), the Mountbatten Medal to Zac Dominique (St. Lucia) and the Russell Medal to Tyler Bailer (Canada).
In the years since the founding of the Mountbatten Medal (1951) and the Russell Medal (2000), presentations have been made by members of the Royal Family including HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, HRH Prince Charles, HRH Prince Michael of Kent, HRH Princess Alexandra and Lord Mountbatten himself.
The Society is also privileged to receive the support of Her Majesty’s representatives in Commonwealth countries where special receptions are regularly held at which RLSS Honour Awards are presented to deserving volunteers.
When travelling abroad Her Majesty has made time to visit Society events. In 1954 while in Australia, she received the Federal Council President. In 1963 while on a visit to New Zealand she viewed the Royal Surf Carnival. In 1970 she hosted a small dinner party on board the Britannia in Christchurch New Zealand and invited members of RLSS NZ. And in 1975 while in Hong Kong she attended a lifesaving demonstration.
The Royal Life Saving Society is sincerely grateful to Her Majesty for her many decades of support and dedication to our organization and the cause of lifesaving.
HRH Princess Alexandra
Lord Mountbatten completed his long and successful Presidency with one important act of dedication; the recruitment of his successor. In 1972, HRH Princess Alexandra accepted a five year term as Grand President.
In 1971 she had opened the Commonwealth Conference. During that year she attended the U.K. Honours ceremony and presented the Mountbatten Medal to David Rowe from the United Kingdom.
As part of her visit to Hong Kong in 1972 Princess Alexandra attended a lifesaving demonstration and in 1974 she visited Mauritius. When in Hong Kong again in 1977 she received Members of the branches.
In 1976 she opened the Commonwealth Conference in England.
As her tenure neared its end, the Princess graciously agreed to a one year extension to enable her to open the International Competition in 1978.
Princess Alexandra’s impact on the Society was felt by lifesavers and Member Branches across the Commonwealth and represents an important link in the Royal Family’s commitment to the RLSS over the past century and a quarter.
HRH Prince Michael of Kent GCVO
HRH Prince Michael of Kent succeeded HRH Princess Alexandra as RLSS Commonwealth President in 1978.
Over the course of his tenure, His Royal Highness has demonstrated his favour of a modern approach.
He granted approval in 1998 for the Commonwealth President’s Award to recognize the exceptional service or contributions of organizations, clubs or schools.
In 2003 he granted approval to create the HRH Prince Michael of Kent Certificate of Merit. This award recognizes outstanding acts of service or outstanding acts of bravery in an aquatic environment which are outside the eligibility of the Mountbatten or Russell Medals.
In 2011 the RLSS achieved formal accreditation by the Commonwealth Secretariat as a Commonwealth Civil Society Organisation and a Memorandum of Understanding with the International Lifesaving Federation was established that same year. During his time the Society has entered and participates fully in the digital world.
His Royal Highness is always keen to meet and acknowledge volunteers whether in the UK or as he is travelling throughout the Commonwealth. He has participated actively in Commonwealth Conferences in 1981, 1986, 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2009. In 2002 on a private trip to Canada he received volunteers and presented Honour Awards at receptions in three separate provinces. In 2004, HRH travelled to Australia for the Centenary of the Society in Australia visiting Sydney and Melbourne for celebratory events including the Commonwealth Lifesaving Championships.
As part of the RLSS 125th Anniversary celebration, he approved the creation of a special Certificate of Merit which was awarded to 125 volunteers from across the Commonwealth at a formal reception on 22nd November 2016 in London. He also officially launched the new RLSS Survival Swimming resource at a 125th Anniversary event in February.
Throughout his entire time as President, His Royal Highness has demonstrated loyal stewardship to the Society through his chairing of the Commonwealth Council.
Across a span of almost forty years, Prince Michael has provided steadfast leadership and support to the Society and the cause of Commonwealth drowning prevention.
For more than 125 years, the Royal Life Saving Society has been dedicated to the reduction of injury and loss of life due to drowning. These goals are achieved through public awareness and education, lifesaving and lifeguard training, survival swimming, risk management, swim instruction and lifesaving sport; given to millions of people over many years in twenty-seven Commonwealth countries.
Since 1891 the Royal Family has stood with the Society in a remarkable and unwavering alliance that can be traced directly to William Henry and the founders. This long connection makes the RLSS stronger and more confident as we move forward to our goal that no person in the Commonwealth shall die from drowning.
The Society is deeply grateful for the honours bestowed upon it by the Royal Family over the course of all these years.
Robert Clark is the Chair of the RLSS 125th Anniversary Steering Committee.
Clive Holland is the RLSS Deputy Commonwealth President.
The authors wish to thank Ed Bean, Lifesaving Society Ontario; David Browne, RLSS UK; and Norman Farmer, RLSS, for their generous assistance with this article.