Royal National Lifeboat Institution


Hayley Whiting - Archivist

Hayley Whiting, Heritage Archive and Research Manager for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, has worked in universities, business archives and the third sector before becoming the first archivist for the RNLI in 2013.

With 7 museums and a support center in Poole, there is a wealth of historic material for people to access, and the importance of local links and engaged communities help keep the collection relevant. Amongst their varied collection, Hayley highlights their extensive photographic collection, their display of historic lifeboats, and a letter sent before the sinking of the Titanic by one of the crew complaining about everyday problems on-board such as ill-fitting shoes.




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hello and welcome to the max communications 2020 podcast a series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections my name is faith williams and i'm joined today by hayley whiting heritage archive and research manager for the royal national lifeboats institution hi hayley would you like to introduce yourself and tell us about how you came to be working for the rnli yeah sure um hello yes so i'm haley um i am an archivist although my job title doesn't sound quite that way um i have been at the rli for seven years um and i'm the first archivist that they've employed but i joined their heritage team which look after all their object and archive collections across um all of our sites um in the uk and ireland um and i came to the rmi i kind of moved back home from so i'm from dorset and we're based in paul in dorset um previously i've been working in university archives um i'd also worked in banking archives and charity archives i had a bit of a mixed career but um yeah i've been at the rmi for seven years now so if you're the first archivist did you kind of make your own role as it were um essentially yes so the need for an archivist had been highlighted by the wider heritage team so the rni introduced its heritage team about 15 years ago and what they did was they focused very much on the public face of the team which is our museums so we have seven museums that the public can go and learn about different aspects of the charity's history but it was recognized that the archive needed professionally looking after it was being cared for by a wonderful volunteer called barry cox um who had been looking after it for nearly 30 years but it was decided that yes a professional touch was needed and to really look at how the arca could be used by the charity to engage supporters and the public as well so how do you spend an average day working with the collection oh i wish there was an average day i don't think there is an average day it's always something different which is actually one of the nicest things i think about my job um so in the archive there is just me at the moment and i'm the part-time archivist so my time is usually spent uh very busily um we run an inquiry service and we answer about 100 inquiries every month so a lot of what i do is looking at family history inquiries as you can imagine we've had hundreds of thousands of volunteers uh crew for the lifeboats over our history since 1824. so lots of people are related to those people and want to know a bit about their their time at the iron line we also have a lot of people who own historic lifeboats and want to know more about them or uh often how to how to fix them and need plans and bits and pieces for them um but we also do a huge amount of work internally so the heritage team really is a resource for the charity to use to inspire and engage its supporters um so we're using lots of different ways everything from retail to social media um to press enquiries and a lot of that is often very last minute so often i don't know what my day is going to look like until i open my inbox or until i get a call from from the social media team um and obviously at the moment my my day is a bit different because i'm working from home due to the to the current restrictions but if i was in um in the office as normal we'd also spend the day with our volunteers we have a fantastic team of volunteers who support all the work that we do and so i would i would be setting them up and and helping them with their with their roles as well a collection dating back from 1824 what kind of material do you have yes so the rmi was founded in 1824 um by sir william hillary and we have everything from his kind of initial thoughts around how to get the charity up and running his original appeal to the nation to form this charity that would save lives at sea um across the coasts of the the uk and ireland so we have everything from the very first committee minutes and and establishing uh the charity and then see the purpose of the charity is is to save lives so we have um information on every single rescue that every single lifevote station has carried out during our history um so we have 238 lifeboat stations at the moment but we have had many more in our history um we have less than we used to because as our boats get bigger and better and faster we we need less of them around the coast so we have records for every single station um from their foundation uh to the present day so there's lots of the rescue side of things but there's also really sort of the business element of the charity as well so it's all the committee minutes and the papers and financial records everything you would expect from from the sort of business side of things and then we have um crew information so records of of the crew who've served and at which stations and um the amazing things that they did the the medals that they were rewarded for bravery and um the sort of feats of of heroism that they that they did um and then other aspects of the collection of the more technical side so uh the technical side of lifeboats so how they're built and the development of those boats from an open robo in the 1824 period to uh shannon class lifeboats which we use today so lots on on the kind of real uh nitty gritty of technology in lifeboats and then we have a really amazing photographic collection hundreds of thousands of photographs of of every lifeboat station and uh crew um rescues uh images of the station and images of of the lifeboats and some really yeah really striking images in our collection i feel like um the rnli is really close to people's hearts because it's really focused on people it's largely volunteer run is that right so do you get a lot of um wheaties and interest in the people that make up your collection the stories definitely and so the rnli is 95 volunteers it's five percent staff and everyone else uh who keeps our charity going are volunteers right from the crew but the volunteer fundraisers even volunteer heritage staff and they are the absolute core of everything that the rnli does and in our records i think it's those stories and that's really how we see heritage is that we are here to tell the stories of the wonderful things that the volunteers have done and the acts of bravery but also the acts of innovation and things like fundraising and um people who've done really interesting and and amazing things for the charity and there is huge interest um in people uh either in those stories of rescues and they want to learn about the crew that were involved but like i said before family history is a huge draw on my time but it's also something that's really rewarding because it's really amazing to be able to tell people that their great great grandfather was awarded a medal for bravery or we have a wonderful photo of them stood by the lifeboat and we can tell them about their their service history and the things that they did whilst they once they volunteered for the rmi but yes the r i really is all about its people and you mentioned that you've got seven museums is your collection spread out throughout them so people can have a look at it yes so we do have the seven museums they're all quite specific to their location um so we have um two museums that are based really on people so we have the henry blog museum which is in chroma in norfolk and henry is our most decorated crew member so he received the most gallantry awards of any crew member um in our history and he was quite a sort of local hero at chroma as well and um you can go to the museum there which is currently closed but will be reopened um which is free to to members of the public and you can see his actual lifeboat um the hf bailey there but you can learn all about his time with the r lion also sort of learn stories of of how how the rmi has developed over the years um so in there are collections that are specific to henry including archive records um that relate to chroma in his time there and then up in northumberland so a little ways away we've got the grace darling museum which um is all about the story of grace who was the first female recipient of a gallantry medal by the rnli and she and her father rode out from their lighthouse in northumberland to rescue uh some people who've been shipwrecked and she became this kind of victorian national heroine um and that museum tells the story of her unfortunately quite short life because she died in her early twenties um but it tells that sort of story of her of her sort of almost rise to fame she really did become this victorian celebrity so again that the collections are very specific to grace and then our other museums are more location specific so um at eastbourne you can go to the museum there and learn about the history of the eastbourne lifeboat station the same with sulcum down in devon um we have a museum at whitby which is in the old lifeboat station there which tells the amazing history of whitby life station which is um a very dangerous piece of coast so they they have a lot of uh really amazing uh rescues there we have our sea watch center at mulva um which is a bit more of a hands-on kind of space and we also have our um historic lifeboat collection at chatham so if you want to see actual physical lifeboats they have uh i think it's now 21 lifeboats on display which span the sort of history of lifeboat development so yeah that all the collections are completely different um and they have their own specific uh records there and then what we have in pool at the support center is really the more um sort of records of the center records of the the sort of main offices um so while it relates to all of our stations it's more the sort of head office view i i would guess you would look at it um [Music] and then just to complicate the picture even more most of our lifeboat stations also hold their own records as well so um as well as the seven museums we've got 238 other sites to uh to help with as well so it's it's quite a quite a big scope really is that quite challenging um it is very challenging and partly just from a capacity point of view because we're quite a small team but you might imagine that lifeboat stations aren't really ideal archive storage busy they are often quite wet and often in quite remote places um and obviously um we have to help the stations to understand what records they should be keeping but also try and help them to care for them in the best way that they can in the conditions that they that they have there um so yes it is a challenge but um we give out advice to all of the stations and we really are that kind of point of contact so if any of the stations have got um an issue that they need to talk to us about we're there to help but also um a lot of the stations they're really passionate about their own history so our role is to help them to kind of tell their individual story at the station as well so we have a member of the team who um works directly with stations um particularly putting on displays or if they're building a new lifeboat station having a kind of heritage element so that people can really learn about the history of that particular station rather than a kind of generic rli history and that's a really nice way of going about things what do you hope for the future of the collection would you open up more sites or are there are you adding to the collection the collections are growing all the time particularly our main collections in pool that as the rni continues as do as do our collections um i think the hope i have particularly for the archive for sort of twofold one is some improved storage conditions because we are in a 1970s building um it's not it's not fit uh for purpose and we certainly don't have enough space so to be able to kind of develop the physical care of the collection would be um would be wonderful um but i also think digital access and just making our collections more accessible that's always been something we've been wanting to do and one of the reasons that we work with max to to get um our records uh digitized um location-wise pool in dorset is not the most accessible place um particularly for our crews so the rmi covers the whole of the uk and ireland as well as the isle of man and it isn't the most uh easy place for them to get to if they want to come and do some in-depth research so we wanted to make our collections much more accessible and more self-service having a better online catalog more records available digitally and obviously the last few months have really proven the value to us of those collections that we have had digitized and we've been able to work through the through the pandemic and answer our inquiries as we normally would and provide material remotely to people um so the more that we can have um available electronically and the better i think so that is a real dream of ours is to make our collections much more accessible and because we have so many interesting and um useful things that we'd like people to be able to see and to kind of get those stories out into the public domain more as well the uk has really strong maritime heritage do you team up with other mountain museums or organizations yes we do so yeah the rni is quite an important part of uh sort of the maritime history of the uk and ireland um one of the things that although we do have these seven museums we don't have a kind of general rli museum to to tell the the wider history of the rmi and so what we do is we partner with other organizations to to get that story out there and get our material on display so a few years ago we had quite a large part of an exhibition at the national maritime museum in falmouth in cornwall um and that was a sort of history of the rnlive but also quite a lot of information on on how the rmi operates today we recently had some heritage lottery funding and part of that we had an exhibition at paul museum where we were able to display some of the material that we had digitised there which was really beautiful photographs glass plate negative photography of our lifeboats as they were being built on the isle of wight by a photographer called beacon of cows so we look for ways to to partner with other organizations and to to get uh get our collections out there because we don't necessarily have the facilities um to do that ourselves what is your favorite part of the collection do you have a favorite item i think that's really difficult and i think it might depend on what day you asked me i think one of the more unusual things we have in our collection which seem to it seems to really engage people we have a letter from the titanic and it's quite unusual because the rny was not involved in in the the rescue effort for the survivors of the titanic um but this letter came into our collection um it's written by a lady called mary roberts and she was a stewardess on the titanic and this letter was written to her husband and it it came off the titanic in ireland before it goes on to its fateful leg of its journey and mary survived the titanic and she was rescued and she continued her role working on on different ships and in 1914 she was on the hospital ship rahila which was traveling to france from scotland and was wrecked off of the coast of whitby and she survived that disaster as well she was rescued by the rnli and um up at our museum in whitby you can learn a lot more about that rahila story and and see items that she had including her trunk that she actually had on the rahillah at the time um but this letter um came into the collection from the family with the records which we we hold hold it in pool partly because it's very valuable titanic memorabilia is very saleable and so we keep it in sort of secure conditions but it's also just something um that we engage uh the public and supporters with but also our internal staff so we run induction sessions where we get um our staff engaged with our heritage and being able to hold something from the titanic um seems to really get people um interested so yeah i really like that item and i think it just it's nice to be able to tell a kind of a wider story and i think it's always interesting to think whether mary roberts was um was she lucky or unlucky to be in both in both disasters and and survive them both but that's nice to have a normal person you know she was working on the ship yes that's right yes and then yeah the letter itself is quite a mundane letter she complains that her shoes are pinching and that when she gets to new york she's going to buy some new shoes and that the boy that comes to collect the washing is is always late and it's quite a it's quite a normal letter between a husband and wife really with kind of no idea what what was going to happen after that letter was sent yeah that's fantastic so what is what type of things do you have a digitized already that people can access online um so we have quite a lot of material digitized although a lot of it at the moment isn't available publicly it's sort of more available on request one thing that we do have available online is um the archive of our publication the lifeboat and so we have a magazine that goes to our supporters but it's been going since the 1850s and we had the whole um back catalog digitized and it's available um online if you search for lifeboat magazine archive it'll come up and it's a really amazing resource um lots of information on individual people so obituaries but also rescue stories and summaries of rescues lots of things just about how the r lies developed so stories on um when we've introduced new types of lifeboats or new um systems like the introduction of radios onto our lifeboat those kinds of things so that's a really amazing resource and a really good kind of first place to go to if you're looking for information um on the rli um a lot of what we've had digitised is those really key records to us so service records so the the actual uh record of individual rescues and we have those now in digital form from 1824 until we went electronic ourselves starting to use a computer system in the 90s to log those rescues so it means that um as an archivist i can access them which is fantastic without having to go through the originals but also means i can supply copies of those if people are looking for information on a particular rescue or a particular station and we're working on our photography collection because we've got so many amazing photographs and really as a resource they're really fantastic because a picture can can show so much more and really engage people and they're a firm favorite of our social media team anytime we find a particularly interesting or unusual photograph they're they're really keen to see those um so we're digitizing those and trying to make those more accessible so it's balancing yeah some material we're digitizing because we need to preserve it some particularly heavily used material like our crew records which we use a lot for family history inquiries and yeah just material that um we would like to to be more accessible um and hopefully in the future as we're working on our kind of online catalogue that um we're trying to make the archive more self-service so that people can take a look and explore the collections um as they'd like to really yeah i know that the rnli is close to a lot of people's hearts so that's great that people will be able to access the heritage of the organization and and that you're working so hard to preserve it and make it accessible to people thank you for joining me today haley it's been really interesting hearing about what you do with the collection and the stories that you're telling and what you have available it's been fascinating thank you so much thank you it's been great to talk about it with you great cheers thanks