Change makers: RNLI

We look at how the lifeboat charity launched the first-ever street collection for a charitable cause in 1891

Lifeboat day in Salisbury, 1907
Lifeboat day in Salisbury, 1907

In October 1891, two RNLI lifeboats were pulled by horses through the bunting-lined streets of Manchester among cheering crowds in a "grand cavalcade", organised by a local businessman, Sir Charles Macara.

People turned out in their thousands for the procession, thought to be Britain's first charity street collection, and gave £4,600 - equivalent to about £244,000 today, according to the charity.

Joanna Bellis, the RNLI's heritage curatorial manager, says it was a case of good coming out of tragedy: five years earlier, in December 1886, the charity lost 27 lifeboat volunteers in a disaster off the coast of Southport, Merseyside.

A German barque, the Mexico, ran aground and three RNLI lifeboats went out to rescue the stricken crew in atrocious weather conditions, Bellis says. The boat from Lytham managed to rescue those on board the Mexico, but the entire 13-strong crew from St Annes drowned and all but two members of the crew from Southport died when their boats capsized.

"People were distraught," Bellis says. "At that time most of the volunteers would have been fishermen with modest incomes, and if they died at sea their families were left destitute."

A fund for the families was set up and raised £30,000 in the first year, about £1.59m in today's money, says the RNLI. But Macara wanted to do more and planned "a grand cavalcade to make the public at large aware of the service provided by the brave volunteer lifeboat men and the need for widespread financial support".

The event started a tradition, Lifeboat Saturdays, that became a permanent fixture for the RNLI. Collection buckets in high streets and outside tube stations today are the pared-down legacy of this first street fundraising spectacular. "We think it was the first time a charity went so public with fundraising," says Bellis. "Before this, it was quite private, and charities tended to approach only influential people. This was different - it was asking ordinary people. It was egalitarian."

Bellis says the event was also the start of the RNLI's branch system, which is part of its fundraising today. Macara's wife, Charlotte, wanted to raise funds for the charity - so, with a group of other affluent women, she launched the Ladies Auxiliary, carrying out house-to-house collections.

"It was very much part of that Victorian culture of philanthropy, and as a charity we've carried that with us ever since," Bellis says.

Expert view: Sue Kershaw, development director, SOFII

It took a horrific tragedy to bring it about, but there is no doubt that Britain's first-ever street collection for a charitable cause was a hugely significant milestone in the history of voluntary action in the UK and elsewhere.

The success of the event was no doubt due to the spectacle of two lifeboats being hauled through the streets of Manchester, but it did lead to the establishment of Lifeboat Saturdays and a diversification of the RNLI's income streams.

Street collections continue to be an important source of income for many charities, although nowadays the high cost of organising them, together with the expense of obtaining a collecting licence, can make them uneconomic. But for those organisations that do street collections well, they are still a great way to involve volunteers.

Indeed, 2,000 volunteers took to the streets for Poppy Day in London last year, collecting a record-breaking total of £1m in one day.

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