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1886: Southport and St Anne’s lifeboats disaster

On 10 December 1886, 27 lifeboatmen lost their lives whilst attempting to rescue the crew from the German barque Mexico.

Lytham lifeboat Charles Biggs with the men that went to the wreck of the Mexico and rescued her crew of 12
Lytham lifeboat Charles Biggs with the men that went to the wreck of the Mexico and rescued her crew of 12

This rescue remains the worst loss of crew in a single incident in RNLI history and was viewed as a national disaster across Victorian England.

The Mexico, a Hamburg barque, left Liverpool on 5 December bound for Guayaquil, Ecuador. Four days later she was caught in a violent gale, and amidst the heavy seas and snow showers, she ran aground on the perilous sandbanks in the Ribble Estuary. Lifeboats launched from Lytham, St Anne’s and Southport to rescue the stranded crew.

Eliza Fernley from Southport and Laura Janet from St Anne’s were the first lifeboats to launch. Tragically, they both capsized during the rescue attempt and 27 of the 29 crew were drowned. A third lifeboat, Charles Biggs, launched on its maiden rescue, and saved the Mexico’s 12 crew members.

The rescue

Southport’s Eliza Fernley was the first lifeboat to be launched in response to the Mexico’s distress signals. As the Eliza Fernley reached the stricken vessel, the rough seas and terrible gale capsized her. Only two of the 16 crew survived, Henry Robinson and John Jackson, who had been trapped under the boat after it overturned. They survived by clinging to the keel of the boat and swimming back to shore to raise the alarm. Two hours later, the lifeboat was found washed up at Birkdale.

Twenty minutes after the Eliza Fernley was called out, the Laura Janet from St Anne’s was launched. She never reached the Mexico and was found ashore the following morning – the entire crew had been lost. As there were no survivors, it’s never been clear exactly what happened to the Laura Janet.

A third lifeboat, the Charles Biggs, was launched on her maiden rescue to assist the crew of the Mexico. By this point, the Mexico has settled on her beam ends and the crew had strapped themselves to the rigging. The Charles Biggs rowed for a mile and a half to reach the Mexico and successfully rescued all 12 crew members.

The aftermath

This is the worst disaster in RNLI history in which 27 men lost their lives, leaving behind 16 widows and 50 children without fathers. A public appeal was launched to support those widowed and orphaned by the tragedy, which was donated to by Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm.

The money raised also went towards a memorial to commemorate the lifeboatmen lost at sea. Six memorials were erected, including on the promenade at St Anne’s, Duke Street Cemetery in Southport and St Cuthbert’s Church in Lancashire, which still stands today.

An 1891 appeal, bolstered by the press in the north-east of England, raised £10,000 in just 2 weeks. In the same year, local businessman Sir Charles Macara and his wife Marion organised the first Lifeboat Saturday, the first recorded charity street collection. It featured a parade of bands, floats and lifeboats through the streets of Manchester and raised over £5,000.

Marion Macara formed a Ladies’ Guild to help organise the street collection and within 10 years, more than 40 Ladies’ Guilds had sprung up around Britain and Ireland, and the RNLI’s income had doubled.

Memorial statue at St. Annes dedicated to the 27 lifeboat crew maembers lost at sea in the 1886 Mexico disaster
Memorial statue at St. Annes dedicated to the 27 lifeboat crew members lost at sea in the 1886 Mexico disaster