The History of the Society

William Hawes
William Hawes
Thomas Cogan
Thomas Cogan

The Society was founded in London in 1774 by two doctors, William Hawes (1736-1808) and Thomas Cogan (1736-1818).

They were concerned at the number of people wrongly taken for dead – and in some cases, buried alive. Both men wanted to promote the new, but controversial, medical technique of resuscitation and offered money to anyone rescuing someone from the brink of death.

They both invited fifteen friends and the first meeting was held on 18 April 1774 at the Chapter Coffee House, St Paul’s Churchyard. The founder members of the Society felt sure that the public would support them in their aim of restoring ‘a father to the fatherless, a husband to the widow and a living child to the bosom of its mournful parents’.

The Royal Humane Society – then called the ‘Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned’ – set out 5 key aims:

  • to publish information on how to save people from drowning
  • to pay two guineas to anyone attempting a rescue in the Westminster area of London
  • to pay four guineas to anyone successfully bringing someone back to life
  • to pay one guinea to anyone – often a pub-owner – allowing a body to be treated in his house
  • to provide volunteer medical assistants with some basic life-saving equipment

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.

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. 

The Society no longer makes financial awards, which many years ago were replaced by medals and certificates.  The Society does not offer advice on life saving or resuscitation.

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