The 1886 Disaster
A tale of extraordinary heroism and tragedy that rocked the community.
It was 9th December 1886 and the Christmas Mayoral Ball was getting into full swing at The Cambridge Hall while a strong north-westerly gale was blowing outside. The sudden booming sound of the lifeboat maroon may have startled the revellers for a moment, but as the festivities continued, nobody could have predicted what the rest of that fateful night had in store.
As the weather steadily worsened, 14 crew members from the Southport Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) set out on board The Eliza Fernley lifeboat to rescue the stricken Mexico, a 400 ton Hamburg-registered barque that left Liverpool, bound for South America. With a mixed cargo, The Mexico had got into severe difficulties during the fierce conditions and run aground on Horse Bank, a dangerous sandbank off Ainsdale.
Southport Lifeboat Station had been home to The Eliza Fernley’s for 12 years after John Fernley, a great Southport benefactor and committee member of the RNLI donated the lifeboat to the town, named in honour of his late wife. During her tenure, she attended 14 stranded vessels and saved 52 lives.
After picking up the distress signals that night, together with the Laura Janet from St Annes, and the Charles Biggs from Lytham, the crews put aside any thoughts for their own safety and launched a courageous mission, battling through raging high seas in a desperate race against time to reach the stricken vessel.
The Charles Biggs rescued the 12 men from The Mexico, landing them back on the beach just after 3.00 a.m. Wet through and tied to the rigging, they were greeted by loud cheering from those who had gathered anxiously on the beach, waiting for news for most of the night.
Despite the loss of her two masts, and unbeknown to the successful rescue, The Eliza Fernley had sailed on and reached a position less than 20 yards away from The Mexico when disaster struck, and she was completely capsized by a huge wave and lost to the sea. The Laura Janet was not seen again until it was found upturned on Southport beach the following day.
In all, 27 lifeboat men perished at sea that night; all thirteen of the St Anne’s crew along with all but two of the 16-strong Southport crew. A third crew member was rescued but sadly succumbed to his injuries shortly after.
The loss of the courageous crewmen marked the worst disaster in the 191-year history of the lifeboat trust. Members of the area were stunned by the news, and the sadness was not only felt by locals but across the UK and rest of the world.
Just a fortnight before Christmas, the tragedy left 16 widows and 50 orphans in its wake and soon after marked the start of a number of ground-breaking changes to lifeboat design and fundraising policies. The relief campaign raised more than £31,000 in two weeks, including a contribution from Queen Victoria and the Emperor of Germany.
In 1925, the RNLI pulled out of the Southport Station leaving the town without a lifeboat. A number of tragedies in the town during the 1980s led to fundraising from a number of families to buy a lifeboat that is stationed at the old RNLI boathouse. The Southport Offshore Rescue Trust now manages the Southport Lifeboat and is completely independent of the RNLI and depends entirely on charitable funding and donations.
Today, the monumental Obelisk stands on the Southport Promenade, looking out to sea. The monument commemorates a number of lifeboat events, including The Mexico disaster. A Lifeboat Memorial Plinth tomb chest was also erected in the Cemetery. Both monuments are now recorded in the National Heritage List for England as designated Grade II listed buildings.
130 years later and STORM has teamed up with Southport Offshore Rescue Trust to remember The Mexico tragedy and acknowledge the incredible bravery and rescue efforts carried out by volunteer lifeboat station crews everyday. The Fernley, is set to become an annual high profile event that will ensure the heroic sacrifices will never be forgotten.