The lifeboat station at Formby was the first in the world. Built in the early 1770s, the boat house and life boat were there to save lives on the often treacherous Formby coast. Visitors today can still see the foundations and parts of the slipway on the beach.
The idea for the lifeboat station was the brainchild of William Hutchinson, a Liverpool Dock Master. He led an interesting life – formerly a privateer (pirate), he went on to invent the parabolic mirror for lighthouses and author a book called the Treatise on Practical Seamanship. He knew the Formby coast could be a deadly place for shipwreck with its shifting sandbanks, constantly changing water channels and often fierce gales.
The boat house was a large shed in which to shelter the lifeboat and stood about 100 yards inland above the high tide line, to protect it from the sea. This meant that the lifeboat had to be dragged down the beach to be launched.
Richard Scarisbrick of Formby, a sailor, was appointed to take care of the boat and boathouse. He was paid two guineas a year salary, with an extra guinea for each life saved by the boat – this presumably shared amongst the rescue crew. The early boat was a Mersey Gig. This had two or three masts, with a crew of three or four men and could be both rowed and sailed.
The lifeboat was sited on the Reverend Richard Formby’s land, the local lord of the manor. In 1798 he was given the Freedom of the Borough and Town of Liverpool in recognition of ‘his unwearied and compassionate attention in a variety of instances to the unfortunate who have suffered shipwreck on the coast near Formby, both with regard to their person and property’.
To further aid ships in the area, a 120ft landmark tower at the mouth of the River Alt was converted into a lighthouse in 1834. The tower, known as Nicholas Blundell’s Diurnal, was originally put there in 1719 to act as a landmark to navigate by, but the addition of a light to it would obviously increase its usefulness in bad weather and at night. Joseph Walker became its first lighthouse keeper and was also made responsible for the supervision of the lifeboat.
Just two years later, Walker and his lifeboat crew were all killed as they attempted to save the schooner Bryades. The Liverpool Dock Company paid two shillings a week pension to their widows, one of whom continued to draw it for the next 42 years.
In the 1860s alone, the crew were called out 32 times, and on one night in 1863 they ventured out six times into the sea. It’s estimated that since its inception hundreds, if not thousands, of lives were saved. Generations of families could be involved. The Aindow family had at various times the grandfather, father and son all manning positions on the vessel.
In 1894, the RNLI took over the station and it continued in use until 1918. There’s footage of the the last lifeboat to be launched (as well information about other Formby archaeological sites) on the Channel 4’s Britain at Low Tide programme here, and some still images from that same footage here. The building was then used as a café, finally closing in 1935.
The station was finally demolished in 1970. In recent years, there have been a number of surveys revealing that the visible remains of the red sandstone blocks were the foundations of the walls. These blocks are still held together by metal clamps. Part of the slipway, made of hand fired bricks, is also on view. Much more of the structure still lies under the beach and below the encroaching dunes.
Excavation and a magnetic resonance survey has revealed that the boathouse would have been about 32 feet long. The boat would have rested on a wagon and been drawn out by a team of six to eight horses, along the brick slipway and into the sea. Today the area is popular with day trippers, sitting on the sand and playing on the beach. The days when it was such a dangerous coast seem very far away. If you visit the remains, perhaps take a moment and think about all those who were saved, and those that risked and gave their lives in the act of saving.
Site visited by A. and R. Bowden 2018
Park at Lifeboat Road National Trust car park, Formby. There is a charge of 4.50.
Head into the dunes via the path to the beach. The foundations and slipways are just as you emerge from the dunes. The sand is still shifting, covering and uncovering the archaeological remains.
Nearby, just a drive away is the Roundabout Sculpture for Southport’s Early Transatlantic Flights
Liverpool History Society Newsletter No.20, Winter 2007-08
Geophysical Survey of Formby Lightboat House for BIG Heritage C.I.C. on behalf of Sefton Coastal Landscape Partnership September 2015