A DORSET author who volunteered for lifesaving charity the RNLI told how she was inspired to write a book about the organisation’s founder.

Janet Gleeson, from Wareham, investigated the life of Sir William Hillary after reading some of his letters while volunteering for the charity at its headquarters in Poole.

The book was launched last week at the charity’s Lifeboat College.

Janet, who is a successful writer of novels and non-fiction as well as an antiques expert for the Antiques Roadshow, said: “I was volunteering for the RNLI and was shown Sir William’s letter collection in the archive.

“I just thought, what an amazing story, and I saw that nobody had properly researched him, despite his incredible life.

“What kind of man was he? He was interesting – a man of many facets – not just a goody-goody, he had flaws in his personality which made him more interesting to me.

“But he was also brave, dynamic – to set up a charity campaign like he did, he needed to have a clear vision.

“He was also very good with people, a great networker – some very modern traits really. He was a mover and a shaker. The Richard Branson of his day.”

Janet carried out research at RNLI HQ, as well as in London, the Isle of Man and Essex, where Hillary spent his early married life. He was married twice, explains Janet, the second being more successful than the first. “He had a chequered love life,” she adds, “he was something of a ladies’ man.”

The book, The Lifeboat Baronet: Launching the RNLI, is an in-depth look at the life of the man responsible for establishing the life-saving charity in 1824.

It traces his journey from Regency rake to national hero, following him as he leaves his slave-owning family in Liverpool, mingles with royalty, marries an heiress and, during the Napoleonic Wars, heads the largest volunteer army in Britain.

Financial and marital disaster eventually forced Hillary to seek exile on the Isle of Man, where a harrowing shipwreck inspired his historic campaign to set up a charity to save lives.

“He also frequently took to the lifeboats himself, braving terrifying storms and saving hundreds of lives, despite never learning to swim,” said Janet.

Janet Gleeson draws on previously unpublished letters – many written by Hillary himself – revealing the RNLI’s development as well as the tribulations of his private life.

The book is available to buy online at the RNLI Shop: http://bit.ly/rnlibaronet