The Lifeboats Disaster of 1886

The memorial to St Anne's Lifeboat crew, image produced by Ray Hindle under Creative Commons license.

The Southport and St Anne’s lifeboats disaster was the worst in history, shocking the nation and bringing into public consciousness the bravery of volunteer lifeboat men. This account is compiled from contemporary newspaper reports.

Amid a storm that had raged across Britain for days, the Hamburg-registered barque The Mexico left Liverpool bound for Ecuador with her 12-man crew on December 5th 1886. Struggling in a north westerly gale, she ‘was tossed about until thrown onto a sandbank’. On Thursday 9th December she lost her sails and at 3pm was seen riding at anchor off Ainsdale. The crew of the Southport lifeboat Eliza Fernley was ‘kept about ready to put out at a moment’s notice’. The Mexico drifted nearer the shore, then at 9 o’clock distress rockets were sighted by Charles Hodge, Southport’s coxswain, who fired the maroon to alert his crew. The men set off in terrible conditions - straining horses pulled the lifeboat nearly four miles until Eliza Fernley was finally launched at 11pm.

The flares were seen in St Anne’s and the lifeboat crew summoned by the gun. Relatives on the sands wished their men ‘God speed’, and to cheering crowds Laura Janet was launched at 10.25. She was seen to hoist sail, the Pier Master watched her cross the Salthouse Bank, then she was gone. In Lytham, the lifeboat coxswain heard the St Anne’s gun and mustered his crew. The lifeboat was launched at 10 o’clock - Charles Biggs was new and this was her first rescue.

Around midnight the Lytham lifeboat fired a green rocket alerting the stricken barque that she was approaching, and this was answered by the ship. The Mexico crew had lashed themselves to the mizzenmast to prevent being swept overboard. Charles Biggs reached her at about 12.30 and with tremendous difficulty the men were saved from the wreck as ‘the sea was constantly breaking over her in great mountain waves’. Eventually all were safe, and showing a green light to denote a successful rescue the lifeboat headed for Lytham. Crowds on Southport Pier spotted the light and cheered, thinking it was Eliza Fernley coming home. When she did not appear a search party set out to look for her. Charles Biggs’ coxswain Thomas Clarkson would later state he saw no sign of the Southport or St Anne’s lifeboats during the rescue. Within hours, telegrams would make known that Laura Janet was missing, and Eliza Fernley lost.

On reaching Lytham the crew of The Mexico were taken to The Railway Hotel to recover from their ordeal.

The Southport lifeboat came within twenty yards of the ship and was preparing to drop anchor when a wave ‘rose like a wall’, struck the boat amidships, filled it and turned it over. Eliza Fernley sank. She rose keel up, and did not right herself as she should have. The sixteen crewmen had been thrown from their boat and several were caught underneath. In bitterly cold water the trapped men hung onto the thwarts and rowlocks, battling to breathe. Henry Robinson and John Ball survived long enough to make their escape on feeling sand underfoot. Others had clung to the hull and one man, John Jackson, also made land. Wet through, cold and exhausted, Jackson and Robinson walked home and raised the alarm.

Relatives and the search party met on the shore, and in the early hours the first bodies were found. John Ball was discovered alive but insensible and taken to Southport Infirmary where he died. The searchers came upon Eliza Fernley and on righting her found the remaining bodies. The dead were taken to the coach house of The Palace Hotel, Birkdale, to Nicholas Wright’s stables where they were laid side by side.

That morning, men from the St Anne’s lifeboat were discovered washed up off Ainsdale, and Laura Janet was subsequently found upturned close to the wreck of The Mexico; three more bodies were inside the boat ‘entangled in the ropes and hoops’. In due course, the sea gave up the last of the thirteen crewmen.

A further telegram to St Anne’s told of the tragedy - Charles Biggs had put to sea again to search in vain for Laura Janet, as did Blackpool’s lifeboat, Samuel Fletcher.

On Saturday an inquest was opened at The Palace Hotel, where the two survivors gave emotional testimony. Witnesses spoke of lights seen close to the wreck of The Mexico and of voices heard calling out in the early hours of Friday, believed to come from Laura Janet - calls which went unanswered. It was thought she had run aground when she too had capsized and not righted herself. On the Sunday Laura Janet was sailed home to St Anne’s by Southport men, whilst the coffins of her crew were conveyed by train.

December 13th saw the opening of the enquiry held jointly by The National Lifeboat Institute and The Board of Trade to determine the causes of the disaster. Exactly what happened to Laura Janet would only ever be conjecture.

Eliza Fernley’s crew were laid to rest sharing a grave in Southport cemetery. Her coxswain’s funeral was held separately. On the same day funerals were held for the St Anne’s crew; five were interred in St Anne’s parish churchyard and seven in St Cuthbert’s, Lytham. The remaining lifeboat man was buried in Layton Cemetery. Almost from the moment the disaster was known collections were taken up for the relief of the families of the 27 men; sixteen widows and fifty children needed support. Queen Victoria contributed, as did the German Emperor Wilhelm I.

In time monuments were raised in Southport, Lytham and St Anne’s, probably the most poignant being the statue on St Anne’s promenade of Laura Janet’s coxswain William Johnson, facing the sea where he and his crew perished.

The survivors had long lives; John Jackson lived to 70 years and Henry Robinson, my relative, to 78. Both continued to serve as volunteer lifeboat men following the tragedy.

Louise Thornton

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