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Ep 163: Women of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Janet and Hayley Whiting at the exhibition entrance

A couple of weeks ago Alex and I popped down to the preview day for the Women of the RNLI exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. A visual exhibition doesn't make a good podcast, so on the pod you can hear us chatting to Janet - retired Station Manager of Tower Lifeboat Station. Hayley Whiting - RNLI's Heritage Archive and Research Manager, and Jack Lowe - Photographer.

The exhibition is curated by Royal Museums Greenwich’s Laura Boon, Lloyd's Register Foundation Senior Curator: Contemporary Maritime and Aimee Mook, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Maritime. At it's heart are photos by Jack Lowe, of the women who work or volunteer for the RNLI. Jack is working his way round the country visiting each and every lifeboat station, and capturing the view out from each one.

Lifeboat stations around the country

With 238 stations he's taken on quite a challenge. Even more so as he is taking the photos the old fashioned way. On a camera like this:

Jack Lowe's "practise" camera

Using the wet-plate process means needing a mobile darkroom to take around with him. His chosen vehicle is an ex ambulance named (by it's previous owner) Neena. You see photos of Neena in Jack's blog here: Neena at Walmer

It's the way the Victorian's would have made photos, and as the RNLI is 200 years old, it seems an appropriate way to work. Especially when you see the end results. One of the recurring stories of the exhibition is the family links, generations of people wo have all volunteered for the RNLI. Looking at the photos there is a timelessness about them. Just as there is in the dedication of the volunteers. Who still go out to sea, in the harshest of weathers, to rescue those in peril.

It's a truly inspiring exhibition, with stunningly beautiful images. If you aren't in London, you can see more images on Jack's website, link at the end. As you'd expect, most of the views from the lifeboat stations look out to see, with sometimes fabulous scenery, sometimes not much more than a horizon. One exception was Whitby, where the lifeboat launches into the harbour.

There's something about seeing the houses opposite that makes this a surprisingly moving image. (moving emotional, not as in film!) Many of the lifeboat stations are part of communities that have long worked the sea. You'll hear one extraordinary story from Whitby on the pod.

Another view, of particular interest to us, was the one from the Tower Lifeboat station.:

Looking upriver from Tower Lifeboat Station 2015

Hang on a minute, you might be thinking, that's Waterloo Bridge. Yes, the Tower station was originally based by the Tower of London when it opened in 2002, but they managed to buy (at a very good price!) the old River Police's Pier alongside Waterloo Bridge. So go to the exhibition by boat from Embankment ( or higher upstream) and you'll pass the pier, maybe see their boats out on the river. This photo was taken 9 years ago in 2015, and the south bank of the river looks so empty. Nowadays there's an array of big buildings surrounding the only one we see here.

We chatted with Janet, retired Station Manager, about setting up the station and the challenges of working on the Thames. Unlike other stations where volunteers drop what they are doing and run, when needed. Here in London people spend a shift on the pier - or out training, so they can launch a boat in 90 seconds.

Jack's photo of Janet, much classier than ours!

You can follow the Tower station on twitter @TowerRNLI, for international women's day they shared a picture of some of the other women based there:

Do you recognise these collection boxes? Alex and I both remember they boat shaped one. Without any contribution from government the RNLI is entirely funded by donations. Amongst the exhibition there are many stories of fundraising, including the first Lifeboat Saturday, a parade through the streets of Manchester.

If anyone has £2.45m going spare, you could fund a Shannon class all weather lifeboat. But they are also very happy to take smaller donations. And if you have more time than money, they will always welcome volunteers. A few years ago I joined a team rattling tins to collect money at a train station (which I think might be an annual event.) It was really heart-warming to see people's generosity and the affection that many people clearly hold for the RNLI.

You can support them here: Buy RNLI 200 Christmas bauble, or hat. Or become a member for just £3/month, and give them sustainable reliable income. Why? Because:

These are the figures for the Tower station. Just one of the 238 around the country.

Enjoy the pod. Listen/get in touch/ask us questions, as ever all the links you need are here:

The exhibition is on until Dec:

All images are photos Alex and I took at the exhibition, some photos of Jack's photos. Find him:

And specifically the Lifeboat Project here:

Carefull though, I've just spent way too long browsing though, thinking about which print I might like to buy.... here's two more images to finish.

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