Advanced search

1886: the Wreck of the Mexico By Frank Kilroy

ON THE NIGHT of December 9, 1886, the German barque Mexico, bound from Liverpool for Guayaquil, Ecuador, with a general cargo and a crew of 12, was wrecked in the Ribble Estuary on the north west coast of England.

Three lifeboats from Southport, St Annes and Lytham were launched to her assistance in atrocious conditions. Forty-four men set out to rescue twelve, twentyseven were not to return alive.

This disaster, the worst in RNLI history, was to have profound effects on the service and was also to lead eventually to a new concept in fund raising.

The Ribble Estuary a hundred years ago was a wild, desolate place. There were few navigation marks, the main one a wooden lighthouse at St Annes, with only one main channel to the wharves at Lytham and Preston. There were three anchorages for local fishing fleets; at Southport, already a well established resort with a lifeboat station taken over by the RNLI in 1860, at St Annes, a new township 'carved out of the sandhills' which had only had a lifeboat since 1881, and at Lytham, the oldest town of the three, mentioned in the Domesday Book, with a lifeboat station taken over by the RNLI in 1851.

The estuary was littered with sandbanks cut by shallow channels, known only to the local shrimpers and cocklers, but the most notorious hazard was the Horse Bank on whose hard sands many wrecks had occurred.

Driven before a gale At 1 pm on December 9, 1886 the German barque Mexico was being driven before a west-north-westerly gale with the visibility obscured by showers of sleet and hail. A low sandy shore was sighted under her lee and her captain, G. Burmester, ordered two anchors to be put out. These did not stop her drift and he ordered the fore and main masts to be cut down. Eventually, at about 3 pm, the Mexico held to her anchors off Ainsdale near Southport.

The stricken vessel was seen from the lifeboat station at Southport but appeared to be in no danger at the time.

The winter darkness soon fell but a watch was maintained. At 9 pm Captain Burmester realised that his ship was once more drifting and he heard the sound of breakers under his lee. He ordered distress signals to be fired and told his crew to lash themselves to the rigging of the mizzen mast. Shortly afterwards the vessel struck the Horse Bank.

At Southport, the Mexico's distress signals were seen and the maroons fired. A full crew speedily assembled and Coxswain Charles Hodge decided, in view of the conditions, that he would take three extra crewmen and that the lifeboat Eliza Fernley should be hauled on her carriage along the beach to launch to windward of the wreck. This took over an hour to accomplish but just after 11 pm she was launched successfully through heavy breakers off the open beach. After a lengthy struggle the lifeboat was a little ahead of the wreck and on her starboard bow. An anchor was let go so that Eliza Fernley could be veered down on to the Mexico where a light still burned in the rigging.

The time was said later to be about 1 am, which, if correct, meant that the survivors had, unbeknown to the Southport crew, already been rescued by Lytham lifeboat. While carrying out this manoeuvre, Southport lifeboat capsized and failed to right. The upturned Eliza Fernley was swept shorewards in the darkness with some of her crew trapped beneath and others frantically clinging to the outside. Of the sixteen lifeboatmen, only two, Henry Robinson and John Jackson, survived. They cameashore under the boat and were found, exhausted, having succeeded somehow in extricating themselves from the upturned hull.

St Annes called out The watchman at St Annes lighthouse had also seen Mexico's distress signals and fired the lifeboat gun to call out the crew. They took some time to assemble as their homes were widely scattered and it was not until 10.25 pm that Laura Janet, under the command of Coxswain William Johnson and a crew of twelve, was launched off the beach at St Annes.

She was under oars for the first 500 yards and then seen to set sail and fire a rocket and make across the banks towards the wreck. This was the last time the thirteen were seen alive. The upturned boat and most of her crew were found on Ainsdale beach the next day. With no survivors, any explanation of how Laura Janet came to grief will always remain hypothetical.

At Lytham, shore watchers saw the Mexico's flares and summoned Coxswain Thomas Clarkson to the boathouse.

He decided to launch even though the wreck was at least seven miles away and on the south side of the estuary. The crew were assembled and the lifeboat Charles Biggs made ready.

She was the second boat of that name to be stationed at Lytham and had only arrived 10 days previously. This was the first time she had been launched on service. She was the same size as the other boats but was fitted with four water ballast tanks to improve her trim—a vital difference on that terrible night.

At 10.05 pm the crew of fifteen men launched Charles Biggs and rowed her down the estuary for the first IVi miles.

They then set sail and made their way across the banks towards the south side of the estuary. Within a quarter of a mile of the wreck the masts and sails were lowered and the oars put out again, but shortly afterwards a heavy breaking sea accompanied by a violent squall threw the boat on her port beam and broke three of the oars. Charles Biggs righted herself, however, and by 12.30 am on December 10, she had let go her anchor and successfully veered down alongside the Mexico which was on her beam ends with huge waves sweeping over her.

A rope was lowered from the Mexico to the plunging lifeboat and although it broke twice and two of the Mexico's crew were injured, all were successfully taken off the wreck. Captain Burmester was the last to leave his stricken ship and calmly lowered himself into Charles Biggs. Another oar was broken in pushing off, but the lifeboat was eventually worked clear and despite being full of water, with all sails set, she clawed herself away from the lee shore.

Captain Burmester remarked to Coxswain Clarkson, 'You have a very good boat!'.

With the gale behind her, CharlesBiggs retraced her course across the banks and regained the main channel, but only after most of the crew had waded her over the shallows as the tide was now dropping, and under oars she arrived at Lytham to a tumultuous welcome from a large crowd.

Limited communications In 1886, communications were very limited, and it was not realised that all three lifeboats had been out that night.

The Lytham crew were not aware until early the next morning that the St Annes boat had not returned, when they were asked to launch yet again to search the estuary. Many of the Lytham men had relatives in the missing Laura Janet, and so at 10.30 am the same crew that had gone to the wreck of the Mexico launched to look for the missing lifeboat. During the search they went alongside Southport Pier and learned that Eliza Fernley and all but two of her crew had also been lost. A lookout on the pier then spotted a white shape in the estuary and when Lytham men went to the spot they found the upturned, partly stove-in hulk of the missing Laura Janet with three bodies trapped underneath. The bodies of the rest of the St Annes crew were subsequently found along the tideline.

At St Annes, as the night had progressed without any news, and dawn had eventually broken on an empty sea,anxious relatives crowded around the bungalow of a Manchester businessman, one Charles Macara, who was also a member of the St Annes lifeboat committee.

His was the only telephone in St Annes and he ordered telegrams to be sent up and down the coast; but only negative replies came back. One telegram was sent to Blackpool lifeboat station and Coxswain Bob Bickerstaffe decided to launch his boat, Samuel Fletcher, exactly the same design as the two missing lifeboats, and join in the search for the St Annes lifeboat. As the Blackpool boat was crossing Crusader Bank to get into the Ribble Estuary she was hit by a large breaking sea and Coxswain Bickerstaffe was swept overboard.

The boat righted and he was successfully hauled back aboard Samuel Fletcher, averting a third disaster. The Blackpool men carried on their search till dusk but then the full extent of the tragedy was known at St Annes. Charles Macara tried to comfort the bereaved and a disaster fund was set up for the 16 widows and 50 orphans left to the two towns.

After effects The disaster raised many questions about lifeboat design; why, for instance, had Lytham survived but not the other two boats? More stringent tests were carried out for self righting and it was decided that all similar boats should be modified to take ballast tanks like those fitted to Charles Biggs. A new design of Watson sailing lifeboat was also introduced and both St Annes and Southport received one in addition to their carriage boat.

The disaster fund was very well supported, eventually realising some £50,000, but Charles Macara looked further into the financial affairs of the RNLI and realised all funding was dependent on the wealthy few. He resolved to bring lifeboats to the notice of the man in the street, and, in October 1891, he organised the first 'Lifeboat Saturday' in Manchester. The St Annes and Southport carriage boats were towed through the streets and collectors used large purses on poles so that those in upstairs windows or on the tops of tramcars did not escape! The LifeboatSaturday movement spread throughout the British Isles and became the foundation on which many of today's fund raising efforts are based. In fact, the origins of all charity street collections can probably be traced back to that first Lifeboat Saturday in Manchester.

Mrs Macara also threw herself into fund raising and organised bands of ladies to help with the collections. They were formed into Ladies Auxiliaries which later evolved into today's ladies lifeboat guilds, a vital part of the RNLI's fund raising effort.

In 1925 both St Annes and Southport lifeboat stations were closed; the moorings at both these places had silted up due to a dredged channel being made to the new Preston Dock. Lytham remained open and is still fully operational today, now known as Lytham St Annes (the two towns were made a borough in 1922) and currently has a 47ft Watson class lifeboat, The Robert, moored afloat in the estuary and also a D class inflatable lifeboat. The original boathouse from which Charles Biggs was launched that fateful night still stands, no longer used by the Institution, but, thanks to the kindness of Fylde Borough Council, it has been restored and will open in May 1986 as a lifeboat museum, with a large display of photographs and relics of the wreck of the Mexico amongst its exhibits.Lytham St Annes station branch will commemorate the disaster in several ways; known dates at present are: Friday and Saturday, July 25 and 26: competitive show of flower arrangements to commemorate the disaster entitled The Sea—Its Changing Moods, at St Thomas' Church Hall, St Annes.

Sunday, July 27: display of lifeboats at Lytham. 10 am: Fisherman's Service at St John's Church, Lytham.

2.30 pm: procession of lifeboats and displays to St Annes. 6 pm: open air service near Mexico memorial.

Saturday and Sunday, August 30 and 31: BBC Songs of Praise to be recorded at the old lifeboathouse, Lytham.

Sunday, December 7: commemorative service at St Annes parish church and wreath laying at the memorials.

PRINTS FOR SALE Colour prints of two paintings of the Mexico by Edward Walker (one of them reproduced on p. 299) are available at £9 each (£11 signed by the artist) or £15 the pair from: Sumar Publications, 1 Richmond Grove, Lydiate, Merseyside L31 OBL. 50% of proceeds to RNLI. A limited edition of 100 prints signed by the Duke of Atholl, RNLI chairman, and the artist are available at £50 each..