After walking along the upper section of the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal three weeks ago the continuing good weather prompted me to take a walk along part of the lower section just one week later. Parking on a residential lane close to the upper canal at Little Lever my walk started at the Meccano Bridge where a wide path took me downhill past what had once been the six staircase locks which joined the two sections of canal. The lower three locks had been filled in sometime in the 1950s but the upper three had still just about been visible and in 2015/16 the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal Society completely excavated the whole flight of six, although nature is now starting to take over again at the lower end.
At the bottom of the locks was the lower canal basin which narrowed into the 185ft long Prestolee Aqueduct crossing over the River Irwell below. The canal was clear for quite a distance before becoming overgrown with reeds for a couple of hundred yards, then as it started to become clear again I spotted a moorhen having what looked like a very enjoyable bathing session.
The canal ended at what was once Ringley Old Lock, and having been infilled many years ago there’s now little evidence of a lock ever being there. A short distance downhill through woodland the canal would have passed under the main road through Stoneclough and Ringley villages; the path continued across the far side but the stone steps down from the road were too steep and narrow to tackle with two dogs on leads so I took a diversion along very pleasant minor road instead.
The road took me to Ringley Old Bridge which crosses the River Irwell and links Ringley with Stoneclough. Grade ll* listed in 1986 it was built in 1677 at a cost of £500, replacing a wooden bridge which was swept away during a flood in 1673. By the end of the bridge was La Roma, formerly the Lord Nelson pub but now an Italian restaurant, and a very attractive grassed area with a couple of benches overlooking the river, plus a flowery installation with a large picture frame placed strategically to frame a view of the bridge.
At the far end of the bridge, protected by metal railings, was the old village stocks and across the lane St. Saviour’s Church with its free-standing tower. The original church, known as Ringley Chapel, was endowed by Nathan Walworth who was born at Ringley Fold but spent much of his life in Wiltshire where he became steward to the Earl of Pembroke. Built in 1625 as a chapel of ease it was dedicated to St. Saviour on its consecration in 1635 by the Bishop of Chester.
In 1826 the chapel was rebuilt with the architect being Charles Barry who later designed the current Houses of Parliament and went on to receive a knighthood. The chapel was consecrated in 1827 but proved to be too small for a growing congregation and after a relatively short life of around twenty years it was eventually demolished although the tower was left intact. The present church, designed in Gothic Revival style by Lancaster architects Sharpe and Paley, was built between 1850 and 1854 and sited further back from the road, leaving the tower in an isolated position close to the churchyard entrance. An altar from the original 17th century chapel is situated at the east end of the north aisle and the stained glass windows on the north side of the chancel also date from the 17th century, while Nathan Walworth is remembered in inscriptions and a portrait.
The tower itself features a date stone from the original chapel with the carved inscription ”Nathan Walworth builded mee Anno : Do 1625” with a later inscription underneath referring to the addition of a vestry in 1720 and the 1826 rebuilt church. Below that, and difficult to read as it was partially in shade, an inscription refers to the tower itself – ”This tower was repaired, raised two feet and a new clock erected in commemoration of the Jubilee of the New Church built 1854. Reopened July 1907”. Unfortunately the church wasn’t open to visitors but I did have a quick look round the grounds which contain the war graves of six soldiers of the First World War and two airmen, a soldier, and a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officer of the Second World War.
Almost next door to the church was The Horseshoe pub dating back around 300 years. One of the oldest pubs in the area it was known as a scheduled stop for all Manchester-bound packet boats on the canal and landlords would serve ale to thirsty passengers before they continued their journey. The canal and its towpath ran directly behind the pub but nature has reclaimed so much over the years that the only way I could tell there had once been a canal there was by the existence of the large coping stones visible in various places along one edge of the path.
Past the back of the United Utilities waste water treatment plant the path took a right-angled turn at what was once Giant’s Seat Lock, bringing me down onto the road which followed the original line of the canal past Giant’s Seat Garden Centre, established in 1964. I made that my turn around point and as there had been nothing of much interest along the path itself I headed back to Ringley Old Bridge by the road.
The water treatment plant was built in the 1930s, updated in the 1970s and again in 2008, and though I expected the place to be issuing some rather obnoxious smells the only aroma I detected was quite a pleasant one similar to perfumed soap. Past the plant I came to an attractive village green on a corner then a couple of rows of garden-fronted terraced houses and the small Emmanuel Mission Church before arriving back at Ringley Old Bridge.
Back across the main road I picked up the canal path again and retraced my steps past open grazing land belonging to a nearby smallholding, along to the basin at the bottom of the staircase locks and my walk ended where it began, at the Meccano Bridge.
I hadn’t been round the Giant’s Seat area since the late 1990s – the last time on a cycle ride – so it was interesting to see it as it is now, especially as so much of the canal has been obliterated by nature, and as I only had vague recollections of the area around the old bridge it had been nice to spend a while wandering round there. Altogether it was a good canal walk and I’m now looking forward to the next one.
Continuing my trek around the city centre I decided to seek out some of the fringe displays and in the cobbled courtyard of the Science & Industry Museum I found Planting Stories which is actually a permanent display. A series of planters and raised beds filled with trees and flowers represent the goods which would once have passed through the site when it was Liverpool Road Station, with small information boards relevant to the plants and flowers in each bed.
In Lincoln Square near the Town Hall ‘The Lincoln’ contemporary office building sported columns of flowers at its entrance and a cute little garden in one corner while at the top end of King Street was the Town Hall Clock display. The Town Hall itself has been closed and kept under wraps while undergoing a long and major restoration and refurbishment, due to be completed in June 2024, so this display was a tribute to the grand neo-gothic architecture of the building and its clock tower.
Also at that end of King Street was the Rain Garden which, according to the description, utilized clever planning to aid nature, but having read the online information and got the impression that it was something I could walk through I was quite disappointed to see how small it was. With a tiny stream running through it was actually quite pretty but it was so small that I could quite easily have walked past without seeing it or even tripped over it. In the middle of the pavement a few feet away from it, and part of the exhibit, was a painted 6ft x 4ft garden shed supposed to represent Manchester in the rain, but plonked there with no plants or flowers for enhancement it just looked stupid. Heaven knows what was going on in the artist’s mind when she painted it but needless to say that was the one exhibit I wasn’t impressed with.
In the lower part of King Street the Kuoni travel shop had an American-themed display complete with a 4-piece band to entertain visitors, and though the Wildlife Trust stand didn’t have an actual display there was a very cute looking spikey-leaved hedgehog on the ground in front of it, while a couple of nearby shops had their own flowery installations.
Farther down the street was The Gracienda, a garden themed around Manchester’s iconic former Hacienda nightclub (now modern apartments) with a soundtrack of 90s club classics and planters painted in the venue’s well-known bright colours and stripes.
Before the establishment of Manchester’s Gay Village around Canal Street Deansgate was at the heart of the city’s gay scene and specifically placed at its junction with King Street was the red telephone box containing an explosion of vibrant flowers in the colours of the LBGTQ progress flag. After last year’s dull and disappointing display it was nice to see it looking so bright and colourful.
Although not actually the final section of my trek round the city I’ve saved this one till the end as I was really impressed with it, though my attention was initially caught by a giant-sized deck chair on the terrace of the InnSide Hotel and a colourful arrangement above its main entrance.
Great Mancunians of First Street consisted of five individual displays honouring five Mancunians (some born, others ‘adopted’) and celebrating each individual’s contribution to Manchester’s successes. First was a tribute to radio and tv presenter Tony Wilson, founder-manager of the Hacienda nightclub and co-founder of Factory Records. Known as ‘Mr Manchester’ he was behind some of the city’s most successful bands including Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays.
Next was a tribute to Jack Rosenthal, award winning writer of countless television plays, sitcoms and films who also scripted 129 early episodes of Coronation Street. One of his sitcoms was the 1969/70 The Dustbinmen and the display included a flower-filled domestic wheelie bin sporting a picture of the series cast.
A flower-filled writing bureau and an old typewriter on a stand paid tribute to Isabella Banks, born in 1821. A novelist and poet, she is most widely remembered today for her novel The Manchester Man, published in 1876. It brings to life 19th century Manchester, its people and the events they lived through and a quotation from the book forms the epitaph on Tony Wilson’s gravestone.
Annie Horniman, born in 1860, became an independent-minded free-thinking woman of the times, supporting the Suffragettes, sexual equality and freedom. She founded the first regional repertory theatre company in Britain at Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre and went on to establish many others across the country. She smoked in public, cycled around London and twice over the Alps, and a lady’s cycle formed part of her tribute display.
Lastly was the tribute to Scottish-born James Grigor OBE who was chairman of the Central Manchester Development Agency from 1988 to 1996. His energy and expertise were instrumental in the re-invention of 460 acres of Central Manchester including the current site of First Street where all these tributes were situated, as well as Castlefield, the Northern Quarter, Canal Street and many others.
Well that just about wraps up my long but very enjoyable trek around the city centre. Apart from the American-themed display in King Street all the installations were connected to Manchester in some way and especially with the last five it was nice to learn a bit about some of the people who have contributed to the city as it is today. As for all the different displays, there were so many which were unique and with colour everywhere this had to be the best flower festival yet.
The recent bank holiday weekend has seen this year’s Manchester Flower Festival taking place over four days with many colourful displays and installations situated in different locations around the city centre, and armed with a list I spent several hours trekking round to find them.
First on the list was the giant inflatable sculpture Turing’s Sunflowers in the Arndale shopping centre, paying tribute to the brilliant mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turing who believed that the spiral shapes on sunflower heads followed the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical concept which appears frequently in nature.
Round in New Cathedral Street several displays ran the length of the pedestrianised area and in the open-sided floral marquee I found Baby Bloom, a pretty take on the world’s first electronic stored-programme computer, the Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) otherwise known as The Baby, invented in Manchester and running its first programme in June 1948. Another display I liked was Best Day Ever, a table set for a romantic occasion with colourful blooms including roses, hydrangeas and peonies.
Towards the end of the row was the Grey Goose ‘Vive Le Spritz’ terrace with the world’s smallest spritz bar serving summer spritz cocktails, and on the nearby steps a large Vimto can planted with flowers and fresh berries celebrated Manchester’s iconic fruit cordial, while round the corner twinned mannequins looked out from one of the windows of M & S.
Across the road and in the Royal Exchange arcade was something which made me smile – a lovely display of late spring flowers celebrating Hilda Ogden, the iconic and much-loved Coronation Street character, complete with hair curlers, mop, bucket and rubber gloves. Close to the St. Ann’s Square entrance was Suffragette City, inspired by Emmeline Pankhurst and the women’s suffrage movement which started in Manchester. The figures were made of twisted willow and the horse and rider from last year’s festival had been repurposed to represent the most infamous protest of the movement where Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in June 1913.
Past the play zone and sensory garden was the Cotton Bud Fountain representing the county flower of Manchester, turned green with moss and surrounded by wild flowers, followed by The Hive, a unique construction of coloured ‘glass’ panels surrounded on three sides by plants and flowers, with the fourth side being partially open for visitors to walk in. It was the highlight of the festival for me though the photos really don’t do it justice.
Round in St. Ann’s Place were the wheelbarrow gardens with the first one displaying red and blue plants celebrating the city’s two football teams, while a pair of wheelbarrows were planted with bee-friendly flowers and plants to encourage and increase pollination, helping to bring bees back to the city. Sitting under a Canal Street sign was Queer As Flowers, a tribute to Manchester-based tv writer Russell T Davies and his ground-breaking 1999 drama Queer As Folk which was set in the city’s Gay Village. A bold wheelbarrow filled with an array of bright colours representing the Manchester Pride flag, it included an abundance of pansies as a tongue-in-cheek response to the use of the word as an insult to certain members of the LGBTQ community.
On the next corner was Mamucium, a display bringing the past and present together with the modern high rise towers of Deansgate Square contrasting with the old mosaics of the city’s Town Hall, surrounded by plants representing those first brought to the UK by the Romans including rosemary, thyme and roses.
Although not included in the official Festival list the Belvedere contemporary office block, tucked away down a side street, had a lovely cottage garden display outside the entrance. With a wishing well, miniature watering cans, butterflies and lots of colourful blooms it was worth the extra steps to find it and photograph it.
I got so many photos during the hours I spent in the city that it would be impossible to put them all in one post so I’ve split them into two lots and the next post will feature some of the fringe displays plus those in King Street, with lots more colour to come.
This is a walk I wanted to do on a couple of previous occasions but the weather let me down, however last Saturday was glorious so I didn’t miss the opportunity this time. Parking in a lay-by just out of Bolton-le-Sands village a short path took me up onto the canal close to Bridge 126 where I headed in a vaguely northerly direction with my goal being Carnforth Marina.
The marina turned out to be not as far away as I’d first thought and I got there sooner than I expected. It was an attractive place with a petrol station nearby, facilities for boaters, the Canal Turn pub, and several boats moored alongside the towpath. A sign in the pub car park rather amused me – I don’t know if the management would ever actually clamp any cars but the pub was closed anyway.
As I’d only walked a mile there was no point going straight back to the van so I decided to carry on walking. After a while I came to a children’s playground separated from the path by a long metal fence then round a couple of bends and across the canal a pony grazed peacefully in an attractive paddock. A handful of boats passed by with their occupants waving or shouting a friendly greeting, pretty cow parsley lined the path and I was surrounded by the gorgeous sweet smell of hawthorn.
After a while the trees gave way to more open land where sheep and cattle grazed and across the fields to the west I could see Warton Crag hillside in the distance. Passing under the busy M6 I eventually came to Bridge 130 and having walked just short of three miles I decided to make that my turn around point, though first I wanted to see what the view was like from the top. With nothing but fields stretching into the distance there was no sign of any civilisation but just along the lane and almost hidden among the trees was a cottage where several goats and chickens wandered freely in what passed for a front garden.
Back at Carnforth Marina a newly arrived narrowboat was approaching the moorings and I spotted a rather cute design on the side of a boat already there. Further along and up ahead I could see some paddling cows although they were out of the water by the time I got there, then close to my starting point I found a mother swan with three babies almost hidden beneath her wings while another little one tagged along behind her.
By the time I got back to the van I’d walked almost six miles. With the blue sky, just enough clouds to make it interesting and a gentle breeze taking some of the heat out of the sun it had been a perfect afternoon and a walk which had been worth waiting for.
What a difference a month makes! After a rather disappointing visit to Gresgarth Hall in April my visit there last Sunday showed that the garden had burst into life during the previous four weeks and it was all starting to look rather lovely. The same couldn’t be said for the weather though – a check on the live webcam for that area before I left home showed sunshine but by the time I got there just over an hour later it was all rather dull. The sun did reappear briefly a couple of times but not enough to make a difference and without any actual grey clouds I was left with the one thing I hate when taking photos – a featureless white sky.
Exploring the hillside on the south of the river, which I hadn’t done on previous visits, I was pleasantly surprised at what I found. A mixture of grass paths and gravels tracks meandered through the trees and I came across some features which I didn’t expect to see – a cute and quirky stone building nestling among the greenery, a rustic bridge across the river, and a stone folly set back off one of the paths. A set of recently built steps took me down to the bridge so I crossed over and headed along the opposite hillside and back down to the main part of the garden.
The sweet smell of hawthorn perfumed the air in several places, rhododendrons in a variety of colours were dotted here and there, many still in bud, and wild garlic (which I can’t stand the smell of) grew in abundance beneath the trees in a shady corner.
At the stall by the entrance gate a cute little dog mooched quietly about round the table; it was called Kipper and belonged to one of the ladies on the stall. It was rather a sweet little thing and I couldn’t resist taking a couple of photos of it before I left.
Wandering round the garden for a couple of hours and discovering things I hadn’t seen before had been very enjoyable, it was just a shame that the weather couldn’t have been brighter. Blue sky and sunshine would have made so much difference to the photos so I’m keeping my fingers metaphorically crossed that’s what I’ll get if I go back next month.
Some glorious weather last Saturday prompted me to finish the household chores early and take a walk along the upper section of the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal, a walk which I haven’t done for just over six years. The Bolton arm of the canal originally ran right into the town itself and ended near the Parish Church but the demolition of a couple of aqueducts, in 1950 and 1965 respectively, plus the late 1960s construction of the three-and-a-half-mile long dual carriageway section of the A666, almost entirely destroyed a significant section of it, meaning that the last (or first) section of canal still in water is now just off the main road through Little Lever, which is where I started my walk.
In its heyday most of the traffic along the canal transported coal from the many collieries which existed along its length at the time, and what was once a boatyard and coal depot is now an attractive backwater used for fishing and it’s that which I came to first.
Further along is an attractive row of three canalside cottages and a bungalow then the Meccano Bridge which took me over the long-disused but now excavated top flight of staircase locks which lead down to the lower canal. The Meccano Bridge was commissioned by the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal Society and constructed in 2012 to replace the old wooden footbridge which had collapsed many years previously. Designed by a Manchester artist with a love of Meccano and manufactured by two Bolton companies all the 400 parts and 700 nuts and bolts were made in the same style as a toy Meccano set but scaled up to be ten times larger, ten times thicker and a thousand times heavier. The bridge was assembled on site using the old but refurbished bridge supports and after construction the threads on all the bolts were purposely damaged to prevent it from being dismantled. It was painted in the same colours as toy Meccano and has two matching picnic benches situated nearby.
Beyond the bridge quite a long section of the canal is filled in and nature has taken over, filling the area with shrubs and bushes. Throughout its working life the canal suffered several breaches along its 15-mile length into Manchester but the most serious one occurred here in July 1936. When the canal burst its banks a gap about 100 yards long opened up and millions of gallons of water cascaded 300 feet down into the River Irwell below, taking hundreds of tons of earth and stones with it. Bricks and iron reinforcements from the side of the canal were torn away and carried down into the river and coal barges were smashed up as they too were swept down the hillside. The river rapidly became blocked on the Bury side and with nowhere to go the banked-up water flooded the surrounding land and part of a nearby paper mill.
Although the river was soon cleared of all the mess the breach itself was never repaired; a dam was created further along near Ladyshore Colliery and though the canal saw continued use between there and Bury it eventually closed for good in 1961, with the colliery being demolished some time after 1968. Today a purpose-made path leads from the towpath, across the dry bed of the canal and round the edge of the fenced off tree-filled breach to rejoin the towpath on the far side of it.
The next feature along the canal is the Mount Sion steam crane constructed by Thomas Smith & Sons of Rodley near Leeds, sometime between 1875 and 1884, and bearing the number 3184. It’s thought to be one of the earliest surviving steam cranes in the country and is one of only a small number which survive in-situ; it’s also the only example in England which still remains in an original canalside location. Grade ll listed in 2011 it was formerly used to unload coal from canal barges into the yard of the Mount Sion Bleach Works situated down below the canal bank, though it’s not known when it went out of use. Although in a derelict condition its component parts remain remarkably complete and give a reasonably clear understanding of how the crane operated.
Opposite the steam crane is the attractive area known as Dingle Reservoir. Although at one time it may well have been an enclosed body of water there’s now only a line of reeds separating it from the canal, making it look more like a large canal basin rather than an actual reservoir.
A distance along from there I came to a paddock where several ponies were grazing peacefully, then a row of six semi-detached cottages and a bungalow with their rear gardens bordering the towpath. Eventually I could see signs of civilisation up ahead – I was now on the outskirts of Radcliffe and close to where several not very attractive industrial premises bordered the canal heading into the town so I knew it would soon be time to turn round and retrace my steps.
Not far back past the paddock with the ponies I heard some rustling in the trees close to a nearby bridge and at the far side of the canal were three deer staring at me from the undergrowth. Standing completely still I lifted the camera slowly and just got the photo before a fourth deer ran through the trees, spooked the first three and they were off before I had the chance to get a second photo.
Back across the Meccano Bridge and I was on the last part of the walk along what I consider to be the most attractive section of the canal, and my last photo was of some adorably cute little swan babies. There were nine altogether but they wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to get them all in one photo and I didn’t want to annoy mother swan.
This part of the canal from Little Lever into Radcliffe may not be as pretty as the further section from Radcliffe to Elton Reservoir but it does have some interesting history attached to it, and with the sun shining, the perfume from the hawthorn trees, the sounds of nature and very few people around it made a very enjoyable Saturday afternoon walk.
The Sunday before last saw the first of this year’s ‘open days’ at the animal sanctuary and though I never need an excuse to go up there anyway I did have several items to donate. After dropping them off at reception I went for a browse round the stalls in the barn before taking my usual wander round to visit all the various animals.
The smallest pony at Bleakholt is Tweedle who arrived at the sanctuary in 2010 along with his friends Deedee and Jeffrey. He has a teddy bear called ‘Ralph’ for company and standing at only 7 hands he’s so tiny you have to look right over his stable door to see him.
A long term resident in the cat section is 6-year old Lola who arrived at Bleakholt in April 2019, given up by her owners due to her unpredictable behaviour and dislike of men. She was eventually rehomed but returned to the sanctuary for the same reason and now lives a life of luxury with a large heated pen and hideaway cabin all to herself. She was quite happy to let me stroke her nose with my finger and I spent several minutes with her; as a permanent resident she is one of several animals on the sponsorship scheme so once I’d finished looking round I went back to reception and arranged to sponsor her for the next twelve months – which of course I’ll renew in April next year.
It was raining when I came out of reception but the event was winding down anyway so as I’d been round everywhere twice I set off back home. Over £6,300 was raised that day, an amount they will be hoping to beat at the summer fair in July, so here’s hoping for some fantastic weather when the time comes – and my first port of call next time will be a visit to Lola.
Compared to last month my most recent street art hunt around the city centre didn’t produce much new stuff so I’m thinking that I may have to start looking for murals in Manchester’s outlying districts, however I was rather pleased with the first two finds – a couple of very colourful advertising murals, and though the bottom of them was obscured by several parked cars and a couple of vans I managed to get most of each one in the shots.
Not far away and in a short side street which has, up until recently, been completely closed off to the public for quite a while, I found a couple of new paintings, while the former Tib Street/Thomas Street substation had undergone a recent change. This was a bit of a weird one and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
On the edge of the Gay Village I found ‘Lily Savage’ on a corner wall, painted by the same artist who did the original Paul O’Grady mural which was defaced with graffiti within two days of it appearing. It was on the outskirts of the city and difficult for me to get to but having seen a picture of it I didn’t like it anyway as it was more of a caricature than a proper likeness – at least this one looks like who it’s supposed to be, and as murals in the Gay Village seem to stay put it should be around for quite a while.
The unexpected highlight of the day though wasn’t on a wall but on the ground. I don’t normally venture into Market Street as it’s always so busy but I was attracted by a crowd gathered round something and found an artist lying full length and working on a canvas taped down to the cobbles. He had a couple of finished canvasses on display and I was immediately attracted to the largest though it was difficult to photograph it properly, however I waited until some of the crowd had dispersed and managed to get close enough for a couple of reasonable shots.
The large painting was one of those you could study for hours or look at many times and still find something different every time – the amount of detail was incredible and impossible to see in just one shot so I’ve highlighted just a few parts of it.
I don’t know who this guy was, I didn’t get the chance to ask him, but whoever he is he’s exceptionally talented – his artwork really made my day so I hope I come across him again sometime in the future.
On a stormy night in December 1886 the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, founded in 1824, suffered its worst loss of life ever when 27 brave lifeboat men died while attempting to rescue the crew of the German ship Mexico which ran aground off the coast of the Ribble Estuary near Southport.
During the late 19th century the Hamburg-registered Mexico was involved in shipping cotton from South America to Liverpool’s markets and had docked at Liverpool in early December 1886, leaving just a few days later to return to Guayaquil in Ecuador to continue trading, but sadly it never left British waters. The 10-mile wide Ribble Estuary between St. Annes and Southport on the Lancashire coast was, and still is, littered with sandbanks cut through by shallow channels and on December 9th that year the Mexico was driven by a fierce west-north-westerly gale towards the shore.
With visibility obscured by showers of sleet and hail the Mexico’s Captain Burmester ordered two anchors to be dropped but these didn’t stop the ship drifting so he ordered the fore and main masts to be cut down and eventually, at about 3 pm, it held to its anchors close to Ainsdale just south of Southport. It could be seen from the Southport lifeboat station but appeared to be in no danger at the time, however by 9 pm that evening Captain Burmester realised that his ship was drifting again so fearing imminent danger he ordered distress signals to be fired and told his crew to lash themselves to the rigging of the mizzen mast; shortly afterwards the Mexico struck the notorious hazard of Horse Bank and became stuck fast with huge waves sweeping over the decks.
The ship’s distress signals were seen onshore at Southport and St Annes and when the St Annes lifeboat gun was fired to summon the crew the shot was heard at Lytham. Coxswain William Clarkson assembled his crew of 14 and their new lifeboat was launched shortly after 10 pm – the same size as the other lifeboats but fitted with four water ballast tanks the Charles Biggs had only arrived at Lytham ten days before so this was the first time it had been launched in service.
The second lifeboat to set out was the Laura Janet with a crew of 12 under the command of Coxswain William Johnson and launched off St. Annes beach at 10.25 pm. Under oars for the first 500 yards or so it then set sail to head across the banks towards the Mexico – and this was the last time the 13 crew were seen alive.
The Southport boat, Eliza Fernley, was the last of the three to launch as Coxswain Charles Hodge decided that in view of the conditions he would take three extra crewmen and the boat would be pulled on its carriage three and a half miles along the beach towards Ainsdale so they were in the best position to reach the Mexico. This took over an hour to accomplish but just after 11 pm Eliza Fernley was launched successfully through heavy breakers off the open beach.
The crew of the Charles Biggs had initially rowed a mile and a half down the estuary from Lytham before setting sail to head across the banks towards the stricken Mexico. With limited visibility they were guided by the distress lights showing aboard the ship and when they were within a quarter of a mile the coxswain ordered the sails to be taken in and masts dropped. The men then rowed the last part, putting out a green light to show the sailors that a lifeboat was approaching, but a sudden and violent squall threw the Charles Biggs onto its port side and broke three of the oars. The boat righted itself however and by 12.30 am on December 10th had successfully reached the Mexico.
A total of three lines were lowered from the Mexico to the lifeboat, with the first two breaking under the heavy swell, and though two of the Mexico’s crew were injured all were successfully taken off the wreck, with Captain Burmester being the last to leave his stricken ship. Another lifeboat oar was broken in pushing off from the Mexico but despite being full of water, with all sails set the Charles Biggs retraced its course across the banks to regain the main channel, arriving back at Lytham at 3.15 am under oars and to loud cheers from a waiting crowd. The rescued and their rescuers were then taken to the Railway Hotel where they were revived with hot food and drink and Captain Burmester publicly thanked the crew of the Charles Biggs for their efforts in rescuing him and his own crew.
After a lengthy struggle through the stormy sea the Eliza Fernley and the Southport crew reached the Mexico a little after 1 am, not knowing that the sailors had already been rescued by the Lytham lifeboat crew. As they were turning to come alongside the ship they were hit by a massive wave – the Eliza Fernley capsized and failed to right itself. The upturned boat was swept back towards the Southport shore with some of the crew trapped underneath, entangled in the lines and equipment, while others clung helplessly onto the side. When it finally reached the beach just two of the sixteen crew, John Jackson and Henry Robinson, had survived and were found exhausted, trying to make their way home.
A search for other survivors was quickly organised by the police, aided by local men and a Dr. Pilkington, and when the Eliza Fernley was located on Birkdale beach, upturned in water, the bodies of three men were found underneath it. Ralph Peters was discovered on the beach but died in the arms of one of the policemen while for Peter Jackson there appeared to be more hope, but in spite of several attempts at artificial respiration he couldn’t be saved. One of Henry Robinson’s two brothers was found in shallow water by his father but couldn’t be revived, while John Ball was found standing in a pool of water near the lifeboat; he was taken by horse cab to Southport Infirmary but died of hypothermia within the day. The other bodies were taken on carts to the coach house behind the nearby Palace Hotel then with no sign of the six men still missing the search was called off at 7 am.
At St. Annes people had remained on the foreshore all night waiting for the return of their lifeboat but it never came, so when morning dawned the telegraph office contacted lifeboat stations up and down the coast to see if they had any news. In 1886 communications were limited and it hadn’t previously been realised that all three lifeboats had gone out – it was only then that the Lytham crew became aware that the Laura Janet hadn’t returned so at 10.30 am and despite their feelings of exhaustion the same crew that had gone to the wreck of the Mexico launched again to look for the missing lifeboat.
During the search they went alongside Southport Pier and learned that the Eliza Fernley and all but two of the crew had also been lost, then a lookout on the pier spotted a white shape in the estuary. When the Lytham men went to investigate they found the upturned and partly smashed Laura Janet with three bodies trapped underneath. The bodies of the rest of the St. Annes crew were subsequently found along the tideline and with no survivors there was no way of knowing how the Laura Janet and its crew came to grief. The bodies were taken to the Palace Hotel coach house and laid out with those from the Southport lifeboat then in the following days the public were allowed to view the lifeboatmen, pay their respects and make donations for their relatives.
On Monday December 13th the bodies of the Laura Janet crew were returned to St. Annes and Lytham on a special train and the first Southport lifeboat man was buried at St Philip’s Church that same day, then the following day, amidst sleet and hail showers, all the other funerals took place. The rest of the Southport crewmen were interred in the town’s cemetery, seven of the St Annes crewmen who lived at Lytham were buried at St Cuthbert’s Church in Lytham and five coffins were laid to rest at St. Annes Parish Church, while the remaining St. Annes crewman, James Harrison, was buried at Blackpool Cemetery.
This was, and still remains, the worst disaster to occur in the history of the RNLI lifeboat service, with the 27 drowned men leaving behind 16 widows and 50 children who had no means of support. A disaster fund was set up and following nationwide appeals it eventually raised around £50,000, including donations from Queen Victoria, the German Emperor, and the Port of Hamburg where the Mexico was registered. The disaster also raised many questions about lifeboat design and why the Lytham boat had survived the storm while the other two boats hadn’t. More stringent tests were carried out for self-righting and it seemed that the answer lay in the ballast tanks fitted to the Charles Biggs so it was decided that all similar boats should be modified to take similar tanks. A new design of Watson sailing lifeboat was also introduced and both St. Annes and Southport received one in addition to their carriage boat.
In the aftermath of the disaster boat builders Allsup and Sons of Preston believed the Mexico could be salvaged from the sandbank it was stuck on and paid £45 to the ship’s underwriters to enable them to do so. Some of the mixed cargo was taken off before operations were set in place to move the Mexico then two tugs were used to pull it off the sand bank and tow it onto the Southport shore where some quick repairs were carried out. The following day the tugs pulled the Mexico to the shore at Lytham where a jetty was built out to it and a caretaker installed to show visitors around for a small fee.
After two years of exhibition at Lytham the Mexico was towed to Allsup’s yard at Preston to be fully repaired then on September 5th 1889 it was re-registered and sold to J P Lybecker of Nordrey, Denmark, for £910. Under their ownership it sailed to Port Gallegos in Argentina and from there to the Falkland Islands then back to Britain where it was sold to Sparing and Waldron of London for £950. They in turn sold the Mexico on to Blohm and Osen of Frederiksvaern, Norway who renamed it Valhalla but on the first voyage for them, sailing from London to Dundee, it became stranded off the coast near North Berwick in Scotland and was finally written off.
Although the disaster fund had been well supported it prompted Charles Macara, a Manchester businessman who lived in St. Annes and was a member of the town’s lifeboat committee, to look further into the financial affairs of the RNLI, and realising that all funding was dependent on the wealthy few he resolved to bring lifeboats to the notice of the man in the street. In October 1891 he organised the first Lifeboat Saturday in Manchester where the St. Annes and Southport carriage boats were towed through the streets along with a procession of decorated floats and with volunteers collecting donations from members of the public; they even used large purses on poles so those in upstairs windows or on the tops of tramcars couldn’t avoid giving a donation.
The committee of the disaster fund decided to set aside £200 for each of the three local communities to have a memorial constructed to honour the lifeboat men, with each memorial being a different design and construction. In Southport a competition was launched to select a memorial, with Ernest Walter Jones’s design being the winner; the monument was created by Thomas Robinson and erected in Duke Street cemetery.
Southport also commissioned a second monument, an obelisk erected on the promenade, to commemorate not only the loss of the Eliza Fernley but also to mark the launch of its two successors, the Mary Anna and the Edith and Annie. Designed and sculpted by Thomas Robinson from grey granite with bronze inscribed plaques it was unveiled by Mayor Unwin on June 28th 1888.
In St Annes parish churchyard the memorial to the five Laura Janet crew buried there is in the form of a Celtic cross made of red sandstone and sculpted with the names and ages of each of them. Although it was refurbished in 2009 it now looks as though it needs some more attention as the detail and names are extremely difficult to make out, however they are: Charles Tims (43) Reuben Tims (30) Thomas Bonney (35) James Dobson (23) and Thomas Parkinson (28).
The memorial for the St. Annes men who lived at Lytham was designed by Scotsman William Birnie Rhind and erected in St Cuthbert’s churchyard. Made of red sandstone with a spire on top it has gilt lettering and the sculpture of a lifeboat under oars in curling waves.
William Birnie Rhind also designed the statue of the lifeboat man located in St. Annes promenade gardens, close to the pier and looking out towards where the Mexico was wrecked. He was supplied with a portrait of Thomas Harrison, the new coxswain of the St Annes lifeboat crew, wearing a lifeboat man’s sou’wester and cork life jacket, and though the statue was carved using this image the face is believed to be that of drowned coxswain William Johnson. The statue was unveiled by John Talbot Clifton, the Squire of Clifton Hall, on May 2nd 1887.
In 1925 the St. Annes and Southport lifeboat stations were closed as the moorings at both these places had silted up due to a dredged channel being made up the Ribble for access to Preston Docks. Lytham however remained open and the service is still fully operational today with two lifeboats housed in separate modern boathouses 3.5 miles apart – a Shannon class all-weather lifeboat housed at St. Annes and a D class inshore boat housed at Lytham. The original boathouse from which the Charles Biggs was launched that fateful night still stands next to Lytham windmill and now operates as a lifeboat museum housing a fully restored sailing lifeboat from 1900, while the original boathouse at St. Annes served as an ambulance station between 1949 and 1974 and is now the premises of a funeral directors.
After the RNLI closure of the Southport lifeboat station the building was used for many years by the local council for storage then in the mid 1980s, after a series of accidents off the coast in which local men lost their lives, bereaved relatives and locals campaigned to bring a rescue service back to the town. Amazingly, after only 14 months, Southport once again had a rescue service, this time run independently by the Southport Offshore Rescue Trust and financed entirely by public donations and fundraising efforts. As of New Year’s Day 2022 the rescue service is now housed in recently built modern premises overlooking the shore though the original lifeboat house is still used for storage by the lifeboat crew.
From that first charity event back in 1891, prompted by the Mexico disaster, the Lifeboat Saturday movement spread throughout the British Isles and became the foundation on which many of today’s fund raising efforts are based, in fact it could be said that the origins of all charity street collections can probably be traced back to that first Lifeboat Saturday in Manchester.
The Mexico disaster was without doubt a terrible tragedy but thanks to the brave crew of the Charles Biggs 12 men were saved. Following the disaster a poem was written titled ”Warriors of the Sea” and this is the last verse, as appropriate now as it was back then –
Think of the sailors round our coasts who, braving sleet and snow
Leave sweethearts, wives and little ones when duty bids them go.
Think of our sea-girt island, a harbour where alone
No Englishman to save a life has failed to risk his own.
Then when the storm howls loudest, pray of your charity
That God will bless the lifeboat, and the Warriors of the Sea.
After several days of almost continual rain yesterday turned out to be beautifully sunny so I decided to forgo the usual Saturday shopping trip and take advantage of the sunshine, heading off for a few hours at the coast during which I spent some time wandering along the promenade and round the Marine Lake and King’s Gardens in Southport. With hardly any breeze it was t-shirt weather and with the number of people there it could almost have been the middle of summer.
Along the promenade was the Fernley Drinking Fountain erected in 1861. Recorded as having originally carried a thermometer, weathervane and barometer in addition to supplying drinking water it was restored in 1995 and became Grade ll listed in 1999 although it seemingly no longer supplies water.
A bit further along was what I first thought was an old post box but seems to be an old Southport Corporation electricity box. Unfortunately I’ve been unable to find out anything about it although one photography website says it’s a post box, however given the wording on the front of it and the fact that there’s no slot to post letters I doubt that’s the case.
Across the road on a gable end wall was the huge mural of Red Rum done by Liverpool-based artist Paul Curtis. It was commissioned in March 2020 by the Sefton Borough of Culture Committee and measures 15 metres tall by 20 metres wide. I actually photographed it that summer but as yesterday was the day of this year’s Grand National I thought I may as well get another shot of it. Back round the far end of King’s Gardens I got my last few photos then headed back to the van for the drive back home.
Weather-wise today has been cloudy and dull all day, both here at home and on the coast, so I’m rather glad that I took advantage of the sunshine yesterday. I had a lovely few hours out with the dogs, got some good photos, and my first visit of the year to Southport proved to be very enjoyable.