In the 18th century, few people would have been able to swim. It was not the popular sport it is today and it was not taught to children. In 1773, the year before the Society was founded, 123 people were reported to have drowned in London alone. The founders of the Society believed that “several of them might, in all probability, have been restored by a speedy and judicious treatment.” They went on to ask:
“Suppose but one in ten restored, what man would think the designs of the society unimportant, were himself, his relation, or his friend – that one?”
The reward of 4 guineas paid to the rescuer and 1 guinea to anyone allowing a body to be treated on his premises soon gave rise to widespread scam among the down-and-outs of London: one would pretend to be rescued and the other the rescuer – and they would share the proceeds. So monetary rewards were gradually replaced by medals and certificates, with occasional “pecuniary payments” up to a maximum of one guinea.
A network of ‘receiving houses’ was set up in and around the Westminster area of London where bedraggled bodies, many of them pulled out of London’s waterways, could be taken for treatment by volunteer medical assistants. according to Leigh’s New Picture of London 1819 –
This institution was established in 1774, “for recovery of persons apparently drowned or dead.” In l752, Doctor John Fothergill saw the dubiousness and fallacy of the received riteria of dissolution; and, on the subject of covering a man dead in appearance, by distending the lungs with air, he maintained “the possibility of saving many lives, without risking any thing.” Though coming from such excellent authority, the subject attracted no attention at that time, among our countrymen. M. Reaumur communicated, in 1767, to the Academy of Sciences, at Paris, some instances or resuscitation which had occurred in Switzerland. Holland being intersected by numerous canals, &c., its inhabitants were much exposed to accidents by water; and many persons were drowned from the want of proper assistance. Hence, in the year, 1767, a society was formed at Amsterdam which offered premiums to those who saved the life of a citizen in danger of perishing by water. Instigated by this example, the magistrates of health at Milan and Venice issued orders, in 1768, for the treatment of drowned persons. The city of Hamburgh appointed a similar ordinance to be read in all the churches, extending their succour, not merely to the drowned, but to the strangled, to those suffocated by noxious vapours, and to the frozen. In 1771, the magistrates of the city of Paris founded an institution in favour of, the drowned, &c., and there were repeated instances of success in each country. In 1773, Doctor Cogan, in order to convince the British public of the practicability, in many instances, of recovering persons who were apparently dead from drowning, published memoirs of these transactions. No sooner were they translated, than they engaged the humane mind of Dr. Hawes. He ascertained the practicability of thus saving lives, by advertising to reward persons, who, between Westminster and London bridges, should, within a certain time after the accident, rescue drowned persons from the water, and bring them ashore to places appointed for their reception, where means might be used for their recovery, and give immediate notice to him. Many lives were thus saved by himself and other medical men. For twelve months he paid the rewards in these cases; which amounted to a considerable sum. Dr. Cogan remonstrated with him on the injury which his private fortune would sustain from a perseverance in these expenses; and then Dr. Hawes consented to share them with the public. This led to the formation of the London Humane Society; and amongst its first founders were Doctors Goldsmith, Heberden, Lettsom, &c. This happened in the summer of 1774. The object of this society was then, like that at Amsterdam, confined to the recovery of persons who were apparently dead from drowning; but it has since been extended. For the first six years Doctor Cogan prepared the annual reports of the society; nor was Doctor Hawes less attentive in aiding the designs and promoting the views of this institution. The reports were afterwards prepared by Doctor Hawes up to the year of his decease, which occurred in 1808. From that time till 1813, the late Doctor Lettsom undertook the arduous task; and since that time the present registrar and secretary of the society, T. J. Pettigrew, Esq., surgeon extraordinary to the Dukes of Kent and Sussex, has regularly prepared them.
The receiving-houses of this society in Hyde-Park, are admirably accommodated; and handsome rewards in medals and money, are bestowed on those who assist in the preservation or restoration of life. The Hyde Park receiving-house was erected in 1794, on a plot of ground, on the north bank of the serpentine, granted by his Majesty, the patron of the institution, There are eighteen other receiving-houses in and about the metropolis, all of them being supplied with perfect and excellent apparatus.
A farmhouse in Hyde Park was first used as a receiving house and stood on land donated by King George III, the Society’s patron. In 1835, a Receiving House was built in Hyde Park, close to the Serpentine to the plans of architect: J.B. Bunning. The foundation stone was laid by the first Duke of Wellington and the building stood on that spot until its demolition in 1954. The Illustrated London News tells us that the 1835 building was “a neat structure, of fine brick, fronted and finished with Bath and Portland stone. The front has pilasters at the angles, and a neat entablature, which is surmounted by the royal arms upon a pedestal. Over the entrance is a pediment supported by two fluted Ionic columns rod pilasters; upon the entablature is inscribed `Royal Humane Society’s Receiving-house.’ The doorcase is tastefully enriched; over it is sculptured in stone a facsimile of the Society’s metal, encircled with a wreath; the design being a boy endeavouring to rekindle an almost extinct torch by blowing it, and the motto being `Lateat scintillvla forsans’ – `Perchance a spark may be concealed.'”
The Gentleman’s Magazine ran the following piece about the laying of the foundation stone – “The Duke of Wellington laid the first stone of a New Receivinghouse of the Royal Humane Society, on the north bank of the Serpentine River. The old Receiving-house had become much dilapidated, and it is now intended to provide separate apartments for males and females. The fact that during the summer season not less than 200,000 bathers frequent the Serpentine River, and that in one year not less than 231 persons were rescued from impending death through the exertions of the society, induced the Committee to commence the new building, to be paid for from subscriptions which it is hoped will be subscribed for that purpose. The Duke of Wellington arrived precisely at eight o’clock, and was received by the Committee of Management, headed by Mr. R. Hawes, M.P., Colonel Clitheroe, Mr. Alderman Winchester, Mr. Illidge, Sheriff Elect, Mr. Capel, Mr. Brunel, and about 50 other gentlemen connected with the Society. His Grace proceeded at once to the business of the day—the stone to be laid being suspended in the usual manner. Embedded in a thick circular body of glass were the several coins of the present reign, and one of the Society’s Honorary Medals, and in a bottle hermetically sealed, were placed engravings of the intended receiving-house, and these were deposited in the block of stone. His Grace then placed over the cavity a brass plate bearing the following inscription: —” This stone was laid on re-erecting the Receiving-house of the Royal Humane Society, founded by Dr. Hawes and Dr. Cogan in 1774, by his Grace the Duke of Wellington, K.G., Vice-President of the institution, on the 8th day of August, 1834, upon ground granted to the Society by his Majesty George III., and subsequently extended by his Majesty William IV.” On the plate were also engraved the names of the Patrons, the King and the Queen, of the Vice-Patrons, the President, the Treasurer, Secretary, and Architect. The Duke, with a silver trowel, then laid the mortar on the stone, and it was lowered down to its destined spot and squared, the Rev. Charlton Lane delivering a prayer. His Grace and the company present then sat down to a splendid breakfast, Mr. Hawes, M. P., in the chair. The building will be of the Doric order. The design, by Mr. Bunning, of Guilford, was selected after competition, and was shown in the last Exhibition at Somerset House. Messrs. Webb, of Clerkenwell, are the builders.”
Hyde Park was chosen because while tens of thousands of people swam in the Serpentine in the summer, many also used it to ice-skate in the winter. To try to keep the number of drownings to a minimum, the Society employed Icemen to be on hand to rescue anyone going through the ice. Gradually, branches of the Royal Humane Society were set up in other parts of the country, mainly in ports and coastal towns where the risk of drowning was high.
At left is a medal awarded in 1798 to a to Mr Penn, Medical Assistant, for having taken W. Duncan, who is described as having been ‘insensible’, out of the river.
Today the aim of the Society is to recognise the bravery of men, women and children who have saved, or tried to save, someone else’s life. The Society operates solely from its headquarters in London but gives awards to people from all over the country, and sometimes from overseas. Financial rewards are no longer given, but rather medals and certificates. Through the years, the successive Dukes of Wellington have continued to serve on the board of the Society in various capacities.
I have no doubt that each and every Duke of Wellington has also been excessively kind to any stray dogs and cats they may have encountered, as well.