Our Shipwreck Heritage: Tragedies, Rescues & Profit

The Foudroyant aground in storm in 1897, Albert Eden Collection

When writing his ‘History of Blackpool’ back in 1837, William Thornber included reference to the shipwrecks along the coast. He commented that ‘a full list of them would be a very big one.’ Indeed, it is recorded that he put his pen down to observe a ship in difficulties off Bishpam (Clarke, 1910). After the incident he was instrumental in raising awareness of the need to provide Blackpool with a Lifeboat.

Whilst records and reports clearly feature the ‘celebrity’ wrecks: Mexico (1886), Abana (1894), Foudroyant (1897), Riverdance (2008), there are many others recorded. For example, the 12 vessels lost in a storm in 1833, the loss of Lifeboats and their crews in 1852 and 1886, the loss of the Fleetwood Ferry in 1863, fully laden with passengers. We would be relieved to find that all but the Ferryman were saved. There are also 11 vessels listed as ‘Unidentified’, as indeed are those lost without trace.

The research for this paper included producing a comprehensive list of the 170+ serious incidents and multiple life loss recorded since before 1700. The list will be available in the History Centre at Blackpool’s Central Library.

The list testifies to the fishing families as the main rescuers before RNLI intervention. The list also indicates the volume of traffic along, to and from the Fylde Coast. The cargo types show the dependence of the Fylde area on sea traffic. This, coupled with the shipbuilding and dock facilities at Freckleton, Lytham, Grannies Bay (Fairhaven) as well as at Fleetwood.

‘Those infernal banks’ and unpredictable weather have contributed to the likelihood of disaster. Mayes The Lancashire Nobby (2000) illustrates the shifting of the banks over the period 1885-1919, only adding to the unpredictable nature of sailing this coast. The decline of the ports, legislation, advent of the RNLI and weather predicting have mitigated the risks and reduced casualties.

Cleveleys Shipwreck Memorial, authors own image

Mention must also be made of the wartime rescues, reflecting aircraft ditching’s of operational and training flights from the three airfields in the area. Other wartime records not listed here are those of Fleetwood trawlers lost in service and recorded on the ‘Real Price of Fish’ memorial in Fleetwood Museum. Post war launchings have been directed mainly to leisure craft and people rescues.

Fleetwood and fishing all along the coast might have provided vessel names in the list, but there are surprisingly few.

Wrecks are defined in law under section 255 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. They include the debris of wrecks “jetsam, flotsam, lagan and derelict found in or on the shores of the sea or any tidal water.” Prior to the 1854 merchant Shipping Act and the appointment of the ‘Receiver of Wrecks’ to protect them from theft, ‘wrecking’ was seen as contributing to the good fortune and economy of those who lived around the coast. Occasionally locals enticed ships to founder on the banks and shore in order to pillage their cargo.

Whilst there is no evidence of that on this coast, in 1839 three Marton men were convicted of the theft of silk from the stricken ‘Crusader’. In contrast, there are records of the relief felt by locals when the ‘Happy’ foundered in 1770 providing the bounty of peas to local suffering from famine at the time.

Other commercial opportunities were presented by these wrecks. Enterprising businessmen were able to bid for the carcasses of a wreck to make money from them. Souvenirs, like the medallions made of copper from the hull of the Foudroyant (wrecked June 1897) and furniture made from the timber, found their way into the shops and market stalls in the town for the ‘benefit’ of the tourists.

The Foudroyant medal in the Blackpool Heritage Service collection

The list also testifies to the bravery of Lifeboat crews in those early years of open, oar driven boats; often in appalling conditions. A ship in difficulties uses flares to summon help. If help came, it had to come via horse drawn trailer to the sea. There are occasions when it took hours to gather the horses and launch the Lifeboat from the points along the coast, not just from the Lifeboat Stations. Crew were mainly drawn from local fishermen, who may have been out fishing at the time of the call.

The sources from this research derive from the internet, local newspapers, the Cleveleys Shipwreck Memorial and historical accounts of the Lifeboat Stations at St Anne’s, Blackpool and Fleetwood. In one or two cases the author recalls conversations with his grandfather, a crewmember and later Coxswain of the St Anne’s Lifeboat, Henry Melling.

Our Wreck Heritage offers many more fascinating stories yet to be told and ‘facts’ to be confirmed for someone in the future. My hope is that this article serves as a prompter for that research.


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