On St Annes foreshore a statue of a Victorian lifeboat man stands, looking out to sea. It is one of a number of monuments and memorials raised to commemorate the worst lifeboat disaster in Britain. Men from Lytham, Southport and St Annes were involved in a heroic rescue, but at enormous cost in human lives.
On Sunday 5th December 1886, the Mexico, a three masted iron hulled ship, departed from Liverpool. It was bound for Guayaquil in Ecuador, South America. In charge of his eleven crew was its German captain, Gustave Burmester. Amidst heavy rain and gales, the ship headed out towards North Wales. However, on account of the weather being so bad, over the next four days she was unable to get out of the Irish Sea. By the 9th of December, the Mexico was forced back towards Formby Point. The captain ordered two of the three masts to be cut away and both anchors to be dropped. The ship became stuck fast on the one of the notorious sandbanks in the Ribble Estuary. The crew lit distress lights in the hope of a rescue. They then lashed themselves to the remaining mast and waited.
The ship’s distress signal was seen onshore at 9pm at both Southport and St Annes. Fifteen minutes later, when the St Annes lifeboat gun was fired to summon her crew, the shot was heard at Lytham. Runners from there were sent out to alert the Lytham lifeboat crew to assemble.
The Lifeboats are Launched
The first of the three crews to launch was Lytham, leaving at 10.15pm in their boat Charles Biggs, seen off by a cheering crowd. The man in charge, Coxswain William Clarkson, would later recall “The sea ran mountains high and the breaking water was fearful”. The St Annes boat Laura Janet and her crew were away by 10.25pm. Their loved ones and well wishers looked on into the darkness as she left, straining to see them before they passed out of sight. The last glimpse they had was of the boat suddenly being illuminated by a shaft of moonlight, far in the distance.
The men of the Southport boat Eliza Fernley took longer to launch, as they needed their shire horses to pull their lifeboat three and a half miles towards Ainsdale so that they were in the best position to reach the wreck. The horses galloped along the beach with the lifeboat in tow, followed by a crowd. Launching was difficult, with the crashing waves frightening the horses, but by 11pm their boat was away into the rough sea. As they successfully pulled away from the shore, the crowd cheered, and the lifeboat men cheered back.
Reaching the Mexico
The Lytham lifeboat was guided by the distress lights displayed aboard the stricken Mexico. When they were within a quarter of a mile of the ship, the coxswain ordered the sails to be taken in and masts dropped. The men deployed their oars and rowed the last part, putting out a green light to show the sailors a lifeboat was approaching. The Mexico flashed back a reply to confirm they had seen them. A sudden squall hit the lifeboat and broke three oars, but the men fought through and reached the Mexico at 12.30am. The rescuers threw a lifeline to the crew to enable them to lower themselves into the lifeboat. Before anyone evacuated, the captain threw a box of the ship’s papers over to the lifeboat, but missed, and the box plunged into the sea. A heavy swell broke the line and a second one was thrown to the ship. One man was nearly crushed between the boat and the ship, but was caught by the legs and wrenched out of harm’s way. The line broke again and a third one was thrown. Finally, with all his crew safely off the ship, Captain Burmester tied the rope around his waist and swung himself into the centre of the lifeboat. A further oar was broken as the lifeboatmen pushed away from the Mexico.
The Southport lifeboat reached the Mexico at 1am, not knowing that the sailors had already been rescued. As they were turning the boat to come alongside the ship, a massive wave hit the lifeboat, capsizing it. Some of the crew hung on to the outside, others were trapped underneath. The boat could not be turned back the right way up, as the anchors and oars held it upside down. Five of the men helplessly clung on, while the boat was driven back towards the Southport shore. Others of the crew had become trapped under the boat, entangled in the lines and equipment. With the lanterns all out and the storm raging so fiercely, the men could only shout above the noise to make themselves heard. John Jackson managed to let go of the outside hull and dived underneath. When he came up under the boat, he was able to speak to five of the men who had been trapped under there, but could still breathe in the air pocket that had formed. He told the men that he believed the boat could not be up righted, and feared they would all drown. He then swam back out to re-join the men clinging to the outside. There, they were being pummelled by huge waves, which carried the rest of the men away, leaving only John hanging on.
The Lytham Lifeboat Men Return with the Mexico’s Crew
The Lytham crew rowed back to the South Channel passing by the crowd on the Southport shore who were burning guiding lights. The captain was asked by Coxswain William Clarkson if he wanted to be put ashore there, but he replied “Where you go, I go”. As the Lytham boat headed for home, the onlookers at Southport could not understand why it did not land, mistakenly thinking it was their own lifeboat. The Lytham crew retraced their route back towards the Lytham boathouse, this time having to manually pull the lifeboat through the Gut Channel.
At 3.15 am, the Lytham men approached the shore. A cry rang out from the waiting crowd “How many have you saved?”. When the reply was shouted back “Twelve”, a loud cheer erupted from the crowd. The sailors were taken to the Railway Hotel (now the Hansom Cab) where they were revived with hot food and drink. Before entering, Captain Burmeister stood on the steps and declared to those assembled there “I do thank you very much and everyone in your town for the gallant manner in which you have this night rescued me and my crew”. More cheering ensued.
The Fate of the Southport Lifeboat Men
The capsized Southport boat drifted back towards the shore, amidst a howling gale. When it finally reached the beach, just two of the crew were able to scramble across the sands amidst crashing waves in the darkness. They were completely dazed and oblivious of each other. John Jackson, the last man to have been able to cling to the outside of the boat, struggled home, at times crawling along the ground. Henry Robinson, one of the men that had remained underneath the upturned boat, was found by Thomas Rimmer in Boundary Street. He helped him home and then headed to Birkdale Police Station to raise the alarm. Henry’s father went down to the beach to see if he could help with the rescue and to look for his other two sons, John and Richard. He found one of them in the shallow water and attempted to revive him, but to no avail.
A search was organised by the police, aided by local men and a Dr. Pilkington, to look for survivors. When the Southport boat was located on Birkdale Beach, upturned in water, the bodies of three men were found underneath it. Ralph Peters was discovered on the beach, but died in the arms of one of the policemen. For Peter Jackson there appeared to be more hope and he was carried into a cabin on the Cheshire Lines railway, where he was laid by a stove. Dr Charlick from Birkdale was summoned, but despite two hours of attempting to use artificial respiration, he could not be saved. John Ball was found standing in a pool of water near the lifeboat, and was taken by horse cab to the Southport Infirmary. He died within the day, probably of hypothermia.
Carts were brought down to the beach to take the remaining bodies to the coach house behind the Palace Hotel, and the search was called off at 7 o’clock that morning. The rescuers were worn out, having worked for hours on the dark, cold, windswept shore, often up to their waists in water.
The Search for the St Annes Lifeboat Men
At St Annes, people had remained on the foreshore all night, awaiting the return of their boat. It never came. When morning dawned, the telegraph office contacted all the nearby lifeboat stations to see if they had any news, but there was none.
Despite the exhaustion the Lytham crew must have felt, they launched their boat that same morning to search for the St Annes men. The Blackpool lifeboat crew was also alerted, and they put out their boat Samuel Fletcher of Manchester for its maiden voyage. On reaching North Channel, it nearly capsized and the coxswain was flung out of it. Unobserved by the crew, he managed to hang on to one of rudder yoke lines. He kept silent, fearing that if they tried to rescue him the boat would fully upturn. He quietly pulled himself back towards the boat, whereupon a startled crewmate hauled him aboard.
At 1pm that afternoon, Edward Bland spied the upturned St Annes boat on Ainsdale Beach with his telescope. As the rescuers headed on to the shore, the bodies of the crew were found lying near it. They were taken to the coach house and laid out with those from the Southport lifeboat. In the ensuing days the public were allowed to view the lifeboatmen, pay their respects and make donations for their relatives.
On Monday 13th December, the bodies of the St Annes crew were put on a special train to return them to Lytham and St Annes. The first Southport lifeboat man was buried at St Philip’s Church that same day. The next day, amidst sleet and hail, all the other funerals took place. The rest of the Southport crewmen were interred in the town’s cemetery. Seven of the St Annes men were buried at St Cuthbert’s Church in Lytham and at St Annes parish church the remaining five coffins were laid to rest. The remaining St Annes crewman, James Harrison, was buried at Blackpool Cemetery.
This was the worst disaster in the history of the lifeboat service, with 27 men drowned. They left behind 16 widows and 50 children, who had no means of support. A nationwide appeal was set up, and within six weeks it had raised £30,000. The RNLI donated £2000, the Daily Telegraph £6,646, The Port of Hamburg (where the Mexico was registered) £1,400, the German Emperor sent £250 and Queen Victoria £100.
Messrs Allsup and Sons of Preston believed the ship could be salvaged from the sandbank it was stuck on and paid £45 to the ships underwriters to do so. Mr Allsup had some of the cargo taken off before operations were set in place to move the vessel. Two tugs were then used to wrench the Mexico off the sand bank and tow it on to the Southport shore, where repairs were carried out. The following day, the tugs pulled her to Lytham, bringing her to shore near the custom house. A jetty was built out to the Mexico and a caretaker installed who would show visitors around for a small fee.
The Memorials and Monuments
The committee of the disaster fund set aside £200 for each of the three local communities to have a memorial constructed to honour the dead men. Each were of very differing design and construction.
At Southport, a competition was launched to select a memorial to be erected in memory of the lifeboat men. Ernest Walter Jones’s bid was the winner, and the monument was created by Thomas Robinson. It was constructed from sandstone and granite, with marble plaques. A broken boat spar protruding from a rough sea tops off the monument. At one end is an anchor and lifebelt, with the name Eliza Fernley inscribed upon it. An inscription reads “While erecting here, at St Annes and at Lytham Memorials of the Courageous Bravery of those who perished in the terrible disaster, their fellow countrymen adequately provided for the support of their widows and orphans”. The names are inscribed: Charles Hodge, Ralph Peters, Harry Rigby, Henry Hodge, Richard Robinson, John Robinson, Timothy Rigby, Thomas Jackson, Peter Wright, Peter Jackson, Thomas Rigby, Thomas Spencer, Benjamin Peters and John Ball.
In the St Annes parish churchyard the memorial erected in is the form of a Celtic cross, made of red sandstone. Both the name and the age of each man is recorded. They are: Charles Tims (43), Reuben Tims (30), Thomas Bonney (35), James Dobson (23) and Thomas Parkinson (28).
The memorial for the St Annes men who lived at Lytham was erected in St Cuthbert’s churchyard. Designed by William Birnie Rhind of Edinburgh, the monument is also made of red sandstone, with gilt lettering. A spire stands atop it, and beneath are four panels. On one is a sculpture of a lifeboat under oars in curling waves with the inscription “Ready, Aye Ready”. The men’s names and ages are inscribed: James Bonney (21), Nicholas Parkinson (22), Richard Fisher (45), Oliver Hudson (39), James Johnson (45), John Wignall (22) and William Johnson (35).
William Birnie Rhind also designed the St Annes statue of the lifeboat man looking out towards where the Mexico was wrecked, (shown in the photograph at the top of this article). He was supplied with a portrait of Thomas Harrison, the new coxswain for the St Annes lifeboat crew. He is depicted wearing a lifeboat man’s sou’wester and cork life jacket. Although the statue was carved using this image, the face is believed to be that of drowned coxswain William Johnson. It was unveiled by John Talbot Clifton, the squire of Clifton Hall, on 2nd May 1887.
Southport also commissioned a further monument to commemorate the loss of their boat Eliza Fernley and the launch of her successors the Mary Anna and the Edith and Annie. Designed and sculpted by Thomas Robinson from grey granite, with bronze inscribed plaques, it was unveiled by Mayor Unwin on 28th June 1888. Rather poignantly one of the plaques states “Will some kind person please place a flower on this obelisk in honour of all lifeboat men”. There is a photograph of the obelisk below in the ‘Access’ section.
The Mexico’s Re-birth
After two years of exhibition at Lytham, the Mexico was towed to Allsup’s yard at Preston. She was fully repaired and, on 5th September 1889, was re-registered. She was sold to JP Lybecker of Nordrey, Denmark for £910. Under their ownership, she sailed from Port Gallegos to the Falkland Islands. Subsequently, she was sold on to Sparing and Waldron of London for £40 more. They in turn sold her on to Blohm and Osen of Frederiksvaern, Norway who renamed her Valhalla. Unfortunately, on her first voyage for them, sailing from London to Dundee, she became stranded off Tantallon near North Berwick in Scotland and had to be written off.
Sites visited by A. and S. Bowden 2022
Lytham Lifeboat Museum is the former lifeboat station for the town and is situated next to Lytham Windmill. Park at Bath Street Car Park, just off East Beach Road. The museum has display boards detailing the Mexico disaster with lots of contemporary photographs. It is also home to a lifeboat which gives a sense of the vessels that the men would have been working in. The museum sells Frank Kilroy’s excellent book The Wreck of the Mexico. Along with the windmill, it is open from April to September. See the opening days here
The Lytham Memorial for the local men of the St Annes crew is in St Cuthbert’s churchyard. Park on Seafield Road.
St Annes old lifeboat station, now a funeral directors, is on East Bank Road. There are good views of it from the road. Park at North Promenade Car Park. It has a painting of the foreshore monument on its front window, and a blue plaque in memory of its former use.
St Annes lifeboat monument, depicting the lifeboatman, is on the South Promenade, near the Victorian paddling pool. Park at North Promenade Car Park.
St Annes lifeboat memorial, the Celtic cross, is in the graveyard of St Annes Church. Park on Headroomgate Road.
Southport old lifeboat station is on the Esplanade, close to one of the entrances to Pleasureland. Park at the Esplanade car park (the park and ride). It is a short walk from the car park to the lifeboat house. Only recently has this building been supplanted by a new purpose-built one, but it is still used for storage by the Southport lifeboat crew.
Southport lifeboat monument, the granite obelisk, is on Scarisbrick Avenue, towards the edge of Kings Gardens. Park at the Esplanade car park.
Southport lifeboat memorial, which depicts the crew in stormy seas, is in Duke Street cemetery. Park on Duke Street.
The Fishermens Rest is on Weld Road. It has a car park. Local tradition is that the brass mermaids on the bar are in memory of the lifeboat men that were lost.
Nearby at Lytham
The Wreck of the Mexico, Frank Kilroy (1986/2012) Lytham St Annes RNLI. This excellent book, packed with detail and photographs, is available from the Lytham Lifeboat Museum.
On Those Infernal Ribble Banks (2006) David Forshaw Lytham St Annes RNLI. This book gives a gripping historical account from the founding of both Lytham and St Annes lifeboats, up to the present day. It contains a chapter on the Mexico disaster.
North Meols and Southport: A history (1998) Carnegie Publishing
Interpretation boards at Lytham Lifeboat Museum