Wednesday, 2 May 2012


SUE Hennessy is most certainly a woman with 'Hidden Depths'. After a varied and interesting career in the public and voluntary sectors, on reaching retirement she realised a long held ambition to write a book about the women of the RNLI. The book came as a result of her many years of experience working for the RNLI in various guises. It is a fascinating account of the many significant roles that women have played in the organisation since its beginnings back in the early 1800s. Sue, who is 62-years-old and lives in the Piddle Valley, also has a huge range of other interests and she still holds plenty of ambitions.

HAVE you always lived in Dorset?
No, but I always wanted to live here right from being a little girl. I was brought up in Kent but my family had friends in Charminster and we would come down for holidays. I first came down here to live in 1971 to be a Geography teacher in Gillingham. I then taught in Shaftesbury for a while before moving up north. I eventually came back to Dorset in 1996.

HOW did you get from teaching to working for the RNLI?
After some years as a teacher I went off to do a masters degree. I didn’t go back to teaching because I joined the voluntary sector working as an Education Advisor for The Spastics Society, which is now known as Scope. Then, for a while, I had my own business running a delicatessen in Merseyside. I then went back to work for Scope as an Early Years Development manager, which was working to provide services for children aged under five with cerebral palsy. I moved to the RNLI as a result of redundancy from Scope.  

WHAT attracted you to the RNLI job?
I was very keen to be careful about making my next job move, by then I was about 40. I’d learned that I really liked working in ‘cause’ related areas; something I believe in that I can really throw myself into. One morning I spotted an advert in the paper for the RNLI and that was the magical moment because my great grandfather had been an RNLI coxswain. He’d been highly esteemed and had even been awarded a medal by Queen Victoria for his bravery. 

WHAT were your various roles within the RNLI?
To begin with, I got a post managing volunteers in North West England. I spent five years doing that and then I moved down to RNLI HQ in Poole working with major donors to the RNLI; the individuals who give large sums of money. My third job with the RNLI was working as the founder principal of the new training college at Poole HQ. That’s where volunteer lifeguards, crew members and fundraisers go to be trained. I worked with the architects and the design team in creating the place and then I ran it for four years before I retired.

WHAT do you think your great grandfather would say about what you’ve done for the RNLI?
Well, I think we’d have a very interesting conversation. He was all about the courage and leadership in a very primitive sort of lifeboat, and here I was 100-years later managing volunteers, raising money and training the crews amidst all the hi-tech wizardry we have these days – the contrast is huge. And yet, I just love the fact that there’s a continuum between us.

WHEN did the idea for writing a book come along?
That was a long held wish which I wasn’t able to realise until after I retired. When I joined RNLI I was bowled over by the calibre of the women I was meeting. I looked to see if anything had been written about the contribution that women had made from the early 1800s and there was nothing. So I put it as number one on my retirement list of ‘Things To Do’. As soon as I retired I found a publisher and researched and wrote the book, which is all about documenting the contribution that women in the organisation have made to saving life at sea; from launching boats, crewing boats, raising money, supporting the men folk and bringing it right up to date by looking at what women are now doing in senior management roles. It’s called ‘Hidden Depths - Women in the RNLI’. 


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