One guinea = one pound + 5 new pence would be worth about £140 in today’s money.
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.
Many of them probably worked on the Thames or on one of London’s smaller rivers, canals or lakes.
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.
A farmhouse in Hyde Park was used at first. It stood on land donated by King George III, the Society’s patron. In the 19th century, a special building was erected and remained there until its demolition in 1954.
Hyde Park was chosen because of the Serpentine where tens of thousands of people swam in the summer and ice-skated 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.