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Royal Humane Society

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 2258
Held at: Royal Humane Society
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Full title: Royal Humane Society
Date(s): 1774-present
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: approximately 240 volumes, 40 files and 4 boxes.
Name of creator(s): Royal Humane Society | 1787
Society for the recovery of persons apparently drowned | 1774-1776
The Humane Society for the recovery of persons apparently drowned | 1776-1887


Administrative/Biographical history:

The Royal Humane Society (RHS) originated at a meeting at the Chapter Coffee House, St Paul's Churchyard, London, on 18 April 1774, when Dr William Hawes and Dr Thomas Cogan each invited sixteen friends to join them in founding an institution. Those present at this meeting included physicians, surgeons and other prominent men. The object of the Society was to promote research into techniques of resuscitation, grant pecuniary awards for successful instances of restoration of people who had apparently drowned, and to disseminate and publish information on resuscitation in general.

Similar societies were established during the 1760s-1770s in places including Amsterdam, Milan, Venice, Hamburg, Paris and St Petersburg, to treat persons variously drowned, strangled, frozen or affected by noxious gases, as well as to award prizes and publish methods of treatment.

William Hawes had for the previous year been personally rewarding rescuers who had brought ashore bodies recovered from the Thames between Westminster and London bridges. This responsibility was taken over by the new Society. In 1775 a medal was designed as a reward for successful resuscitation of people who seemed to be dead.

The Society issued pamphlets that described and evaluated various rescue apparatus. It also kept detailed case records, containing pathological observations of drowned persons. Presentations of Bible, a prayer book and religious book were also made to individuals restored from apparent drowning by the medical assistants.

William Hawes (1736-1806) was not only the founder of the Society, but one of the most active members of the Society. He petitioned Parliament for the provision of Receiving Houses for drowned and suffocated persons in every parish in England, and to establish schools where medical students could be taught the principles of resuscitation. In 1778 he was appointed Registrar for the Society, and edited the Society's Annual Reports from 1780 until his death.

In 1835 a the Hyde Park Receiving House was custom-built on the north bank of the Serpentine, in Hyde Park, on ground given to the Society by George III and extended by William IV. Previously it had, with the agreement of consenting inn-keepers, used inns along the riverside where bodies taken from the water might be brought and an attempt made at resuscitation. A superintendent and a number of other staff were employed at the Receiving House.

By 1777, the Society had recorded 167 cases, and by 1794, 2572 cases had been investigated, of which 959 persons had been restored to life by the medical assistants, 876 lives had been preserved by the Society's apparatus, and 747 cases had been unsuccessful. By 1809, more than 15,000 cases had been reported and eight receiving houses were in operation.

King George III granted his royal patronage in 1785, and in 1787, the prefix 'Royal' was added to the Society's title. Following the death of William IV, Queen Victoria agreed to be Patron. In the nineteenth century, the Society's focus broadens to include development of life-saving. It encouraged the development and testing of life-saving appliances, and a prize essay competition instituted as a result of a bequest from Dr Anthony Fothergill, the topic of which was 'The prevention of shipwreck and the preservation of lives of shipwrecked mariners'. Their work inspired the foundation of a number of similar societies in Great Britain, the Commonwealth and other places abroad.

In 1834, the Society was located at premises in 2 Chatham Place, Blackfriars. In 1841, it moved to 3, then 4 Trafalgar Square where it remained until 1930, when it relocated to Watergate House, Adelphi. It currently occupies premises located at the north end of Waterloo Bridge.

The Stanhope Gold Medal, the highest honour that the Society can bestow, was instituted in 1873 by public subscription by the friends of Captain Chandos Scudamore Scudamore Stanhope RN. Often the occasions requiring resuscitation techniques to be employed also involved courageous rescues, and the Society began to recognise and reward bravery.

By 1900 cases numbered 31,085. In 1924, the Receiving House in Hyde Park continued to have two open wards under the care of a resident superintendent. The House was severely damaged by enemy action Sep 1940, during World War Two, and despite protracted negotiations for war damage compensation and rebuilding, was never completed and the site eventually transferred to the Ministry of Works. In 1954, rebuilding plans halted, the building was demolished, and the lifesaving equipment turned over to responsibility of borough and urban district Councils.

By 1949, the Society was also maintaining approximately 400 stations containing lifesaving apparatus such as lifebuoys, within a 30 mile radius from Hyde Park. The Society was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1959. Its current object is to collect evidence, investigate, record and in suitable cases present awards to people who have shown bravery in lifesaving in the widest possible variety of circumstances. The Society accepts nominations from members of the public as well as from the emergency services who forward cases for consideration by a Committee that meets ten times a year in order to adjudicate on the most appropriate award to be made in each case.


Scope and content/abstract:

Records of the Royal Humane Society comprising:

minutes of the Committee, 1774-1784, 1815-2000 (33 vols); General Court 1820-1947 (4 vols); and Select Committee, 1820-1833 (1 vol); agenda of the General Court, 1893-1954;

case books, 1823-2000 (116 vols); medal registers, [1776]-present, (3 vols);

Secretary's letters out books, 1830-1832, 1838-1840, 1844-1945, 1849-1852, 1856-1861, 1861-1967, (6 vols);

typescript lists of winners of school swimming competition medals [1892-1948], and printed copy of suggested rules for swimming competitions (1 vol);

printed Annual Reports of the Society 1774-present, (62 vols); and Transactions of the Royal Humane Society 1774-[1797] (2 vols);

resuscitation essays, shipwrecks essays and other prize essays, and related papers, 1782-1995; advertisements for lifesaving equipment; Stanhope Medal (gold medal) correspondence, 1806-1974; correspondence relating to the Society bylaws, 1958-1982;

miscellaneous papers 1843-1953 including insurance policies 1843 and 1850, advertisement for post of boatman 1856, plans for a new Boathouse 1901, plans for new Receiving House, 1948, 1950, rules for bathing and temperature chart for bathers 1873;

papers relating to resuscitation methods including cuttings, 1889-1891, including Dr Silvester's method of hypodermic inflations cartoon, n.d, `The true physiological method of restoring persons apparently drowned or dead and of resuscitating still born children', by Henry R Silvester, reprinted from the British Medical Journal, 1858; papers relating to Captain Manby, inventor of lifesaving equipment, including pamphlets, lecture, 1814-1846;

papers relating to resuscitation including files comprising 10 photographs illustrating resuscitation method, [1914-1918]; learned papers on resuscitation, 1908-1987; resuscitation 'how to' leaflets [1940s-1980s]; resuscitation apparatus [1930s-1990s];

press cuttings, 1835-1990 (1 file);

photograph of life-saving apparatus, with news cuttings, 1876 (1file); advertising posters - concerning the removal or destruction of RHS lifebuoys, 1949; appointment of icemen during the skating season and the role of the Society in case of accident (1file); illustrations of the RHS work including copy of The Cottager and Artisan, 1 Dec 1865, featuring drawing of RHS worker; prints of the RHS dinner at the Freemason's Hall, with the procession of the persons saved during the year from drowning [1872]; (2 items)

printed copies of sermons delivered in support of the Society including: Sermon ... to recommend the institution of the Society for the recovery of person apparently drowned, Richard Harrison, London 1775; Royal Humane Society Sermons, 1777-1838 (5 vols)

records of the RHS Receiving House including: journal of John Pritchard, Superintendent, Receiving House, Hyde Park, 1837-1840, a daily record of cases, number of bathers, accidents, and weather conditions (1 vol); Bathing Books 1860-1952, superintendent's register of bathers and accidents, (6 vols); Ice Books 1859-1929, a daily register of ice accidents, skater numbers, ice thickness (2 vols); files including correspondence relating to the post of Deputy Superintendent and a female servant, of the Receiving house, 1843-1957 (2 files); Secretary's correspondence concerning the Receiving House, 1949-1957 (4 files); Receiving House papers, Herbert Williams, Superintendent, correspondence 1844-1849 (1 file); Hyde Park papers - including floor plan of a receiving house, photograph of Horace Montague, Chairman 1896-1910, letter to RHS Sec [1844 - 1854] also papers re finances (1 file); architectural plans for the Receiving House and additions, 1939, 1951 (1 file); boxes containing Receiving House correspondence, including printed illustration, (1 box); papers relating to the Receiving House archive, 1939-1948 and 19th century lifesaving apparatus (1 box);

financial records of the RHS including an Anniversary ticket book - Accounts of tickets given to Stewards, Vice-Presidents and Committee 1832-1849 (1 vol); Legacy Book No 2 1847-1894, recording legacies received (1 vol); auditors minutes 1823-1964 (1 vol); ledgers 1840-1881; 1940-1949 (2 vols); financial accounts and papers, obsolete stock receipts, 1898-1928 (1 file); financial records of the Fothergill Bequest / Anthony Fothergill Trust 1819-1885, 1912 (1file); papers relating to the Fothergill Bequest Fund and Prize Essay, 1933-1838 (1file).

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

The material is uncatalogued.

Conditions governing access:

By appointment only contact the Archivist in the first instance, The Royal Humane Society, Brettenham House, Lancaster Place, London WC2E 7EP.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Subject to the condition of the original.

Finding aids:

Lifesaving Awards Research Society - Index to RHS life saving medal and citations (bronze medal winner), 1853-1976

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Generated and retained in situ by the Royal Humane Society.

Allied Materials

Related material:

Publication note:

Saved from a Watery Grave, the story of the Royal Humane Society's Receiving House in Hyde Park, Diana Coke, RHS, London 2000; Medals of the Royal Humane Society, Craig Barclay, RHS, London 1998.

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Sources: Historical Manuscripts Commission's On-Line National Register of Archives; A short history of the Royal Humane Society, P J Bishop, London 1974; Saved from a Watery Grave, the story of the Royal Humane Society's Receiving House in Hyde Park, Diana Coke, RHS, 2000. Medals of the Royal Humane Society, Craig Barclay, RHS, London 1998.
Compiled by Alison Field as part of the London Signpost Survey Project.

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal Place and Corporate Names 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
September 2003

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