Mexico Lifeboat Disaster

Mexico Lifeboat Disaster

The Mexico lifeboat disaster was one the RNLI’s worst-ever tragedies. It was a German cargo ship, a barque that was wrecked in a full WNW gale off Southport on 9 December 1886. It was on its way from Liverpool to Guayaquil in Ecuador.

Mexico Barque. Image from Wikipedia
Mexico Barque. Image from Wikipedia

Fearing the vessel would be blown on to the sandbanks to her doom, the Captain sent out distress signals. The Lytham, St Annes and Southport Lifeboats answered the call. They rushed to save the crew of the Mexico – which by this time was being blown down the River Ribble.

The Eliza Fernley lifeboat was launched first from Southport, and that capsized, losing 14 of the crew of 16.

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Shortly after the Southport lifeboat was launched, the St Annes lifeboat Laura Janet set sail. No one knows exactly what happened to it – except that the next morning the lifeboat was found washed ashore. Three dead bodies were still clinging to it, and all the crew of 13 men were lost.

A third lifeboat, the Charles Biggs from Lytham was also launched. On its first rescue they successfully saved the twelve crew of the Mexico.

Wreck of the Mexico, painted by Emil Axel Krause
Wreck of the Mexico, painted by Emil Axel Krause

The Mexico Disaster – the RNLI’s worst loss of life

To date this is still the worst loss of RNLI crew in a single incident, with 27 men lost.

16 widows and 50 orphans were left behind. An appeal was launched to raise money to help them, and for a memorial. It was this fundraising which led to the first RNLI flag days. Generous donors included Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm.

This is the memorial of a lifeboatman looking out to sea, you can find it on the promenade at St Annes, not far from the Pier.

Memorial to the Mexico Lifeboat Disaster at St Annes
Memorial to the Mexico Lifeboat Disaster at St Annes
Monument to the Mexico Lifeboat Disaster at St Annes
Monument to the Mexico Lifeboat Disaster at St Annes

Other memorials can be found in the lifeboat house at Lytham St Annes and at St Cuthbert’s Churchyard, Lytham. There’s also one in the churchyard at Southport.

Laura Janet Memorial Cross, memorial to Mexico Lifeboat Disaster, photo Keith Worden, Wikipedia
Laura Janet Memorial Cross, memorial to Mexico Lifeboat Disaster, photo Keith Worden, Wikipedia

Local RNLI Heroes

Denys Barber is a local historian and tour guide at Layton Cemetery. Thanks for their information about one of the RNLI graves.

During the successful rescue of the Mexico’s crew, 27 of the 29 gallant Lifeboatmen drowned. This was the worst tragedy, involving the greatest loss of life, in the history of the RNLI.

One of those gallant Lifeboatmen was 19 year old James Harrison. He was in the St Anne’s Lifeboat “Laura Janet” and lies buried in Layton Cemetery.

Grave of James Harrison from the Mexico Lifeboat Disaster in Layton Cemetery. Photo: Denys Barber
Grave of James Harrison from the Mexico Lifeboat Disaster in Layton Cemetery. Photo: Denys Barber

There were altogether 15 widows and 50 children were left without fathers, making this a tragedy of national importance.

More about the Mexico Disaster Memorials

Both the Laura Janet Memorial Cross and the nearby gravestone of Sir Charles Wright Macara are situated in St Annes Parish Church churchyard. They’re fitting reminders of the 1886 Mexico disaster in which all 13 crew members of the Laura Janet, the St Annes lifeboat, drowned.

The red sandstone Laura Janet Memorial Cross sits atop the communal grave to five of the lifeboatmen. It’s next to the gravestone of cotton magnate and St Annes resident Sir Charles. After the disaster, he instigated the fund-raising Lifeboat Saturdays which became the current RNLI flag days.

Laura Janet Memorial Cross to the Mexico Lifeboat Disaster- photo Denys Barber
Laura Janet Memorial Cross to the Mexico Lifeboat Disaster- photo Denys Barber

The 2.5m-tall memorial cross was funded by a public appeal for the families of the dead men and also for memorials to be built in their honour. Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm 1 contributed to the cross and to other memorials on the Ribble estuary.

All of the memorials are Grade Two-Listed. Thanks to Lytham St Annes Civic Society, St Annes Parish Church memorial and gravestone were recognised with listing in May 2015.

Marion Coupe, Civic Society chairman, said: “By 2008 the Laura Janet Memorial Cross was in a dangerous state and we raised £16,000 to restore it. It was a great community effort but worth it. This tragedy is very important in the history of the area. It was re-dedicated in December 2009 on the anniversary of the disaster. These are two important monuments with a heart-rending story to tell.”

The cross bears a plaque detailing the names of the five St Annes crew buried in the communal grave:

  • Charles Tims (43);
  • Reuben Tims (30);
  • Thomas Bonney (35);
  • James Dobson (23);
  • Thomas Parkinson (28).

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