Life-Boats and Anarchy

Photo depicting a lifeboat crew in there rescue boat, dating back 200 years.

Article published in the RNLI's newsletter exploring the connections between Anarchism and the Life Boat Service.

Submitted by Reddebrek on March 8, 2024

December 1965 Volume: 38 Issue: 414

The association between the RNLI and Russian anarchists may appear to be an unlikely one. Nevertheless, perhaps the greatest of the Russian anarchists, Prince Peter Kropotkin, was a profound admirer of the life-boat service in this country. Kropotkin's most famous work was Mutual Aid, which he wrote in England. He first developed his theory of mutual aid from observations which he made during journeys in Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria. There he encountered many examples of mutual aid among animals, and this led him to become a severe critic of the current popularization of the theories of Darwin.

In particular, he believed that the idea of a perpetual battle for survival gave a very misleading picture of the truth of evolution.


In developing his theory he cited numerous examples of mutual aid among both primitive and civilized peoples, and more than once he called attention to the form in which the RNLI was organized. In Mutual Aid he wrote:

"The Life-boat Association in this country, and similar institutions on the Continent, must be mentioned in the first place. The former has now over three hundred boats along the coasts of these isles, and it would have twice as many were it not for the poverty of the fishermen, who cannot afford to buy life-boats.

The crews consist, however, of volunteers, whose readiness to sacrifice their lives for the rescue of absolute strangers to them is put every year to a severe test; every winter the loss of several of the bravest among them stands on record.

And if we ask these men what moves them to risk their lives, even when there is no reasonable chance of success, their answer is something on the following lines.

A fearful snowstorm, blowing across the Channel, raged on the flat, sandy coast of a liny village hi Kent, and a small smack, laden with oranges, stranded on the sands near by. In these shallow waters only a fiat-bottomed life-boat of a simplified type can be kept, and to launch it during such a storm was to face an almost certain disaster. And yet the men went out, fought for hours against the wind, and the boat capsized twice. One man was drowned, the others were cast ashore. One of these last, a refined coastguard, was found next morning, badly bruised and half frozen in the snow. I asked him, how they came to make that desperate attempt ? 'I don't know myself,' was his reply. 'There was the wreck; all the people from the village stood on the beach, and all said it would be foolish to go out; we never should work through the surf. We saw five or six men clinging to the mast, making desperate signals. We all felt that something must be done, but what could we do ? One hour passed, two hours, and we all stood there. We all felt most uncomfortable. Then, all of a sudden, through the storm, it seemed to us as if we heard their cries - they had a boy with them.

We could not stand that any longer. All at once we said, "We must go!" '."

Kropotkin may be pardoned for a somewhat limited knowledge of the way in which the life-boat service was financed.

It would be difficult to find a writer less likely to be sympathetic to the ideas of Kropotkin than Samuel Smiles, whose best known work Self-Help advanced a quite contrary theory on human aid. Smiles's work was a series of homilies based on the careers of successful men who achieved results by helping themselves.

Yet it is interesting that Smiles, like Kropotkin, showed as an outstanding example of noble conduct a rescue at sea by Kentish boatmen. In Self-Help he wrote:

"Not less touching was the heroic conduct of a party of Deal boatmen in rescuing the crew of a collier-brig in the Downs but a short time ago.* A sudden storm which set in from the north-east drove several ships from their anchors, and it being low water, one of them struck the ground at a considerable distance from the shore, when the sea made a clean breach over her. There was not a vestige of hope for the vessel, such was the fury of the wind and the violence of the waves. There was nothing to tempt the boatmen on shore to risk their lives in saving either ship or crew, for not a farthing of salvage was to be looked for.

But the daring intrepidity of the Deal boatmen was not wanting at this critical moment. No sooner had the brig ground than Simon Pritchard, one of the many persons assembled along the beach, threw off his coat and called out, 'Who will come with me and try to save that crew ?' Instantly twenty men sprang forward, with 'I will,' 'and I.' But seven only were wanted; and running down a galley punt into the surf, they leaped in and dashed through the breakers, amidst the cheers of those on shore. How the boat lived in such a sea seemed a miracle; but in a few minutes, impelled by the strong arms of these gallant men, she flew on and reached the stranded ship, 'catching her on the top of a wave'; and in less than a quarter of an hour from the time the boat left the shore, the six men who composed the crew of the collier were landed safe on Walmer Beach."

* On the nth January, 1866..