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date: 17 January 2021

Hillary, Sir William, first baronetfree

  • Thomas Seccombe
  • , revised by Sinéad Agnew

Hillary, Sir William, first baronet (1770–1847), founder of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, was born in Liverpool on 4 January 1770, the second son of Richard Hillary (b. 1703), who belonged to a Quaker family from Wensleydale and who set up a partnership in Liverpool trading with the West Indies, and his wife, Hannah, née Wynne. His elder brother, Richard, was a member of the house of assembly in Jamaica, where he died unmarried in 1803. Mary Rolls, a poet, was his sister; the physician William Hillary was his uncle.

Hillary was appointed equerry to the duke of Sussex, with whom he spent two years in Italy, returning home in 1800. On his return to England he married Elizabeth Disney Fytche, on 21 February 1800. They had twins, a son and a daughter. He came into property both by marriage and inheritance during that year. He used part of his fortune (£20,000) to raise the first Essex legion of infantry and cavalry. He commanded the legion of 1400 men against the French upon the renewal of the war with France in 1803. The legion constituted the largest force then offered by any private individual for the defence of his country. In recognition of his services he was created a baronet on 8 November 1805. Three years later, owing to a heavy loss of property in the West Indies, Sir William left his estate in Danbury Place in Essex and settled at Fort Anne, near Douglas, in the Isle of Man, where on 30 August 1813 he married Emma Tobin, his first wife having died.

Hillary witnessed a large number of shipwrecks off the coast of the Isle of Man and, after the destruction of Vigilance (the government cutter) and Racehorse (the naval brig) in 1822, he became involved in the question of safety and life-saving at sea. In February 1823 he issued An appeal to the British nation on the humanity and policy of forming a national institution for the preservation of lives and property from shipwreck, which he dedicated to George IV. The proposal was supported by George Hibbert and by Thomas Wilson, an influential city member, and on 4 March 1824 a public meeting was held at the London tavern under the chairmanship of the archbishop of Canterbury (Manners-Sutton). The Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (from 1854 the Royal National Lifeboat Institution) was then founded and established upon a permanent basis, with the earl of Liverpool as first president. The movement attracted the approval of the king, the royal dukes, and William Wilberforce, the archbishop of York.

On his return to the Isle of Man, Hillary established in 1826 a district association, of which he became president. He provided the four chief harbours of the island with lifeboats and Manby and Trengrouse safety apparatuses. Hillary frequently went out in the boats himself, and was instrumental in saving many lives. In December 1827, assisted by his son, he helped to save seventeen men from the Swedish barque Fortroindet, and in the same year he helped to rescue the crew of the St George. He suffered six fractured ribs as a result. In November 1830 he set out with a crew of fourteen volunteers and helped to save sixty-two people. Again he put his own life at risk and was washed overboard. However, he survived to be awarded the Shipwreck Institution's gold medal, as he was on two other occasions. In 1832 he planned the tower of refuge on St Mary's, or Conister Rock, in Douglas Bay. He established a sailors' home at Douglas, and was strongly behind a proposal that the government should build a breakwater and make a harbour of refuge in Douglas Bay. His last public act was to preside at a meeting held at Douglas to lobby the government on this subject in March 1845, when he had to be carried from his residence at Fort Anne to the court house in a chair. He died at Woodville, near Douglas, on 5 January 1847, and was buried in Douglas churchyard; many people attended the funeral. He was succeeded in the baronetcy by his son, Augustus William (1800–1854). His daughter, Elizabeth Mary, was married in 1818 to Christopher Richard of Blackmore Priory, Essex.

At the time of Hillary's death the institution which he had been instrumental in founding owned some twenty lifeboats and had an annual income of £350. It was reorganized in 1849. In addition to his central work, Hillary also promoted other public schemes, publishing pamphlets entitled Suggestions for the Improvement and Embellishment of the Metropolis (1824), A Sketch of Ireland in 1824: the Sources of her Evils and their Remedies Suggested (1825), and Suggestions for the Occupation of the Holy Land by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (1841), as well as The National Importance of a Great Central Harbour of Refuge for the Irish Sea at Douglas (1842; based on a tract of 1826) and a lifeboat Appeal, which went through several editions.


  • R. Kelly, ‘For those in peril’: the life and times of Sir William Hillary, the founder of the RNLI (1979)
  • E. Lodge, ed., The genealogy of the existing British peerage and baronetage, new edn (1859), 715
  • GM, 2nd ser., 27 (1847), 423
  • The Lifeboat, or, Journal of the National Shipwreck Association (July 1852), 75–6
  • Book of the lifeboat (1909), 26–33
  • G. B. Gattie, Memorials of the Goodwin sands (1890), 220–21
  • The Times (5 March 1825)
  • Bibliotheca Monensis, rev. edn, 24, rev. W. Harrison, Manx Society (1876), 132, 137, 147, 149, 158, 164
  • F. Mundell, Stories of the lifeboat (1895), 15
  • private information (2005) [Sir Christopher Booth]


  • BM, pamphlets
  • Manx National Heritage Library, Douglas, Isle of Man, corresp. relating to Isle of Man customs agitation
  • Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Poole, letters relating to lifeboat stations on the Isle of Man


Gentleman's Magazine
(1803–) [sometimes ]
British Museum, London