Southport Lifeboat has a proud and dramatic history. The earliest service, crewed and organised by local fishermen, was saving lives 20 years before the formation of the RNLI.
In the 19th century Southport’s coast was one of the busiest and most dangerous in the country, for more than 100 years the oar and sail driven boats saved countless lives.
The Mexico disaster of 1886, in which 14 crewmembers of Southport's Lifeboat and all 13 crewmembers of the St Anne's lifeboat died whilst trying to rescue the crew of the stricken barque. This catastrophe remains the highest loss of life in lifeboat history.
Over time the sandbanks shifted and by the turn of the 20th century sail had giving way to steam. The Bog Hole channel at Southport Pier where the lifeboat was originally moored began to severly silt up. In 1925, the RNLI decided to withdraw its lifeboat service from Southport.
In the 1980’s, after a series of tragedies off our coast, bereaved relatives and local people campaigned to bring a rescue service back to the town. Amazingly, after only 14 months of the idea being first mooted, the dream was realized. Southport once again had an independent lifeboat, paid for with your donations, crewed, and run, by the people of Southport.
The crew, all unpaid dedicated volunteers, are immensely proud of their lifeboat's history. The new service has helped rescue over 100 people, and three crew members have received bravery awards from the Shipwreck and Humane Society. The spirit and heroism and dedication of the 19th century lifeboat men lives on in the present day crew.
“Buried three men and a woman, drowned, belonging to the Anne and Mary Sloop, of Emsworth, loaden with Flour and Wheat”
North Meols is a small parish on the north west coast of England. In the eighteenth century it was a poor community relying heavily on fishing for its primary source of income. The stretch of coastline between the River Mersey and the Ribble estuary was notorious for shipwrecks because of the shallow water with its many hidden sand banks. In the event of grounding or wrecking, the only means of assistance was from the local fishermen, who always seemed willing to launch their own boats to help a vessel in distress.
It was after the 1730’s as the impetus of the Industrial Revolution gathered pace that Liverpool and the River Mersey became important to the north west of England. The first two docks in Liverpool were built in 1715. A hundred years later, by 1816, it was estimated that almost 3000 ships docked at Liverpool, and by 1850 this figure had trebled. Although the Port of Preston did not gain the same level of importance, many vessels still sailed up the Ribble estuary. As a result of this huge increase in shipping, many more vessels became casualties of the coast, with great loss of life.
The Port of Liverpool established the first ever lifeboat station at Formby Point, seven miles south of Southport.
“The sloop Castle Creevy wrecked on the coast; the crew saved by local fishermen”
The first Southport Lifeboat Society was formed. It was financed by public subscription, and a boat with a carriage and a boathouse were provided. As the lifeboat proved unstable, it was sold by public auction.
“Two sloops wrecked on the coast; three lives saved by local fishermen”
“The fishing fleet of the parish this year consisted of thirteen trawl boats”
“This year was a most disastrous one for shipping, so far as the coast of North Meols was concerned. No less than nine vessels were totally lost, whilst two others narrowly escaped. One of those, a brig from Ireland, with linen, signalled for a pilot who went aboard and steered the vessel out of danger; he was rewarded with a little raw pork and cold water.”
“ In this year the Marine Fund was established by the exertions of the Rev. Gilbert Ford, Rector.” The fund made awards to fishermen “for saving lives and property in the case of shipwreck and to give assistance to vessels in distress.” A reward was offered for every life saved or vessel assisted:
£2.10s to the first boat reaching the vessel
£2 to the second
£1 1s to the third
Although the fund financed a new lifeboat, it was considered unfit to launch in bad weather, and was only used as a pleasure boat.
August 13th. “This favourite place of resort is now very full of company,and the bathing-ground is in uncommonly fine condition. No fewer that 170 persons arrived in the village on one afternoon last week”
Between 1817 and 1840 nearly 80 vessels and their crews were assisted by the Marine Fund.
During 200 years in which some record has been kept, more than 300 wrecks came ashore, The majority being total wrecks. How many lives were lost the records do not say, but more than 1200 were saved by local fishermen.
A new lifeboat station established at Southport. The new boat was called the “RESCUE”, and Richard Rimmer was appointed the first Coxswain. It was housed on the shore opposite Coronation Walk, and remained in service until 1861, having helped in saving 20 vessels and 175 lives.
The Rescue, 1841
William Rockliffe appointed Coxswain of the “Rescue”. Until his retirement in 1873, aged 69, he had assisted at least 367 people.
August 14th. “The first pile of Southport Pier was driven. A large crowd witnessed the operation.”
August 2nd. “The Southport Pier opened. Its length was 1,200 yards.”
Royal National Lifeboat Institution was given £199 by James Knowles, a Bolton businessman, to establish a lifeboat station somewhere on the Lancashire coast. It was decided to put the new boat at Southport. The first meeting of the newly formed Southport branch of the RNLI was held on July 14th.
A new lifeboat house built opposite the end of Coronation Walk. The new lifeboat, “JESSIE KNOWLES” came into service on 9th. September. The “RESCUE” was sold at public auction to William Rockliffe for £23, and the Carriage to a Mr. Hunt, for £4.10s.
First call out of the Jessie Knowles. The accounts of rescues she made are somewhat confused, but the minutes of the Lifeboat Committee indicated a total of 21 wrecks attended, and at least 79 lives saved.
The Norwegian and Swedish Governments presented Coxswain Rockliffe with a silver medal and £24 for his crew for the service to the “Tamworth” on 31st. October, when 17 lives were saved.
“July 9th. Master Sam Hurst Boothroyd, aged 12, drowned whilst bathing on the shore.”
Jessie Knowles sent away for repair, and never returned.
Boathouse re-erected by the Corporation on a new site under the Esplanade and Coronation Walk.
January – A new boat “ELIZA FERNLEY” was dedicated: She remained in service until 1886. Charles Hodge was selected as Coxswain after the retirement of William Rockliffe.
9th. December – the last call out of the ” Eliza Fernley” proved to be one of the most tragic lifeboat disasters ever known. The German barque “Mexico”, on her way to South America got into difficulty during a fierce storm and went aground at Ainsdale. An immense wave crashed down onto the open boat filling and sinking her almost immediately. She rose again, but keel upwards and failed to right herself. The crew of sixteen did not stand a chance, and only two men survived: Henry Robinson and John Jackson. Eliza Fernley was taken back to the boathouse and condemned after twelve years service.
On 24th December, a new lifeboat named “MARY ANNA” replaced Eliza Fernley, a new crew was recruited, and William Robinson appointed Coxswain.
The Mary Anna, apart from quarterly exercises and inspections was only used in service on a very few occasions.
As a result of the enquiry into the “Mexico” disaster a new boathouse was built by Southport Corporation, further south-west, and nearer to the shore line. This boathouse is still in use today as an independent station, and houses the present Southport Offshore Rescue Trust lifeboat.
Early in 1887 two Southport ladies offered to provide a new boat to replace the Eliza Fernley. After much discussion as to what sort of boat should be provided the “EDITH AND ANNIE” came on station. The whole cost of the vessel (£900) had been defrayed by the Misses Macrae. For some time this boat was the largest and most expensive of the RNLI’s fleet, and at the time was the pinnacle of lifeboat construction. She was permanently moored at the pierhead. Following several accidents and after a career lasting some fourteen years, in 1902 she was declared no longer safe for service, and was condemned.
The Mary Anna was replaced by the “THREE BROTHERS”, also a pulling lifeboat. The Mary Anna remained on station for some time after the station was closed.
“June 26th Another sad lifeboat calamity. The coxswain William Robinson (64) his son John Robinson (44) and his son-in-law Frederick Rigby (37) lost their lives whilst endeavouring to change the moorings of the lifeboat. They were in a punt containing the anchor and chains, when by some mischance the little boat capsized, and of six persons engaged, these three were drowned.”
1904 On 15th September the “JOHN HARLING” entered service on the coast, and for the next twenty years she attended thirteen wrecks, and was the means of saving sixty three lives.
The station service at the lifeboat house was discontinued.
The John Harling was the last boat to be used on active service for the RNLI before it closed the station completely as the Bog Hole Channel had silted up extensively. The Three Brothers was still in the boathouse, but was never called out, and was finally sent to Cork by The RNLI on 12th. April, thus ending the service.
Sixty four years had passed before the re-birth of a lifeboat service in Southport.
Warriors of the Sea
Southport Offshore Rescue Trust moves into its nome premises - the Southport Lifeboat Station.
Content with thanks to:
Botanic Gardens Museum, Churchtown, Southport, for the use of extracts from:
A History of the Southport Lifeboats by J.H. Lawson Booth
Katherine Porter for the use of extracts from:
The Evolution of the Southport Lifeboat
Sources in quotes are taken from: Annals of Southport and District by E. Blands