The Mexico disaster and a lasting legacy

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.
Lytham lifeboat Charles Biggs – photo from RNLI
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.
St. Annes lifeboat Laura Janet – photo from RNLI
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.
Southport lifeboat Eliza Fernley – photo from RNLI
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.
The Mexico wreck – photo from RNLI
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.
The former Palace Hotel coach house, now the Fishermen’s Rest pub
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.
Duke Street cemetery, Southport
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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.
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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).
St. Annes Parish Church
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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.
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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.
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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.
Lytham’s original lifeboat house, now a lifeboat museum
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St. Annes original lifeboat house, now a funeral director’s
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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.
Southport’s original lifeboat house
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.

Snapshots of sunny Southport

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Snowdrops at Lytham Hall

What happens when you go somewhere to take some photos only to find when you get there that the sky is cloudy and grey and doesn’t show your subject at its best? – well, you just go back again on a much nicer day. Such was the situation just recently when ten days ago I went to Lytham Hall to photograph the carpets of snowdrops in the grounds around the Hall. It was sunny when I left home but by the time I got to Lytham an hour later the blue sky had been obliterated by grey cloud, however just two days ago the weather gods decided to present me with a day full of widespread sunshine and an almost cloudless sky. It was a day not to be missed so off I went, back to Lytham to retake some of my previous photos.
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Walking round the lily pond it was nice to see that the fountain was in action and some very slow progress had finally been made on the restoration of the old boathouse. Built around 1885 it was never very sturdy and it eventually fell into disrepair under the last Squire Clifton who owned the Hall until 1963.
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The boathouse – February 2022
The boathouse – 2023
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Just as in previous years several wooden picture frames on stands were dotted about in strategic places around the grounds and though some of them were well worn or a bit wonky they were very useful in framing photos of various views.
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In the days between my two visits a few clumps of miniature daffodils had appeared here and there among the snowdrops and various things were beginning to come to life in the border near the kitchen garden. A look round the plant sales area gave me a couple of photos of some colourful things growing in pots then giving the cafe a miss as there was a long queue I set off back home.
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Although the morning had started off quite frosty the day had warmed up nicely with the sunshine and it was even warm enough to drive with the window down. It was a complete contrast to the previous week and the glorious day showed that spring is definitely hovering just around the corner.

Hornby Castle Gardens and a quick trip to Morecambe

Just a few days ago the dogs and I paid a visit to Hornby Castle Gardens during the snowdrop open weekend. I’d originally been undecided about going as (according to the website) with it being early in the season some of the snowdrops were only just getting going but this was the only weekend the gardens could open, however we hadn’t had a decent day out so far this year and the weather was promising so off we went.
If I thought that getting there soon after the 11am opening time would avoid what would later be a lot of visitors I was wrong, there was quite a queue to pay at the table set up just inside the main gates. With a history talk scheduled for 12 noon at the main house most people seemed to be heading up that way so I went in the opposite direction to where it might be a bit quieter, starting with the woodland walk.
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Past the pond the path led me to the walled garden but with bare flower beds and nothing much growing anywhere there was very little to see so I went down to the riverside, walking along by the water then following a steep path up to the corner of the castle lawns. Across the front of the castle steep steps took me back down onto the main driveway and with nothing else to see I headed back to the main road and the car park.
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The Lodge
River Wenning from the road bridge, Hornby village
Still only lunch time and with the rest of the afternoon ahead it was too early to think about going back home once I left Hornby Castle so I headed for Morecambe and an excellent filling lunch of home made steak pie, mash, veg and gravy in Rita’s Cafe on the promenade, followed by a mooch round the indoor Festival Market then a walk down to West End and back along the promenade as far as the Eric Morecambe statue before returning to the van and finally heading for home.
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The daylight hours increasing slowly each day meant that I was back home before it started to go dark, with the dogs having slept all the way back. As far as days out go there had been nothing special about this one but it had been good to have a few hours away from my local area, and if dogs could talk I’m sure Snowy and Poppie would agree.

Hest Bank canal walk – heading south

Following on from my tour of the Winter Gardens theatre in October and lunch in a nearby cafe I drove the couple of miles north to Hest Bank for another walk along the Lancaster Canal, this time heading south. Unfortunately the weather gods had decided they no longer wanted to play ball – although it had been beautifully sunny with blue sky while I was in the theatre it was now cloudy and dull, not the sort of weather to show the canal at its best and I did consider coming back home, but with the afternoon stretching before me I decided to do the walk anyway.
Parking on the foreshore at Hest Bank, directly in front of me across the grass was a rather cute looking metal shelduck sculpture with an attractive information board at its base. Created by Ulverston-based blacksmith Chris Bramall on behalf of the Morecambe Bay Partnership it’s one of seven unique bird sculptures situated in different locations around the bay, with each one being associated with that particular location.
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Across the nearby level crossing and the main coast road Station Road took me up to Bridge 118 on the canal where I walked north for a hundred yards or so to check out the weird canalside people and their pets which I’d seen on my walk along there a month previously. With a large banner now fastened to the hedge they were definitely ready for Halloween and even their weird pets were dressed for the occasion.
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Retracing my steps I went back to the bridge and headed south with my goal being the Milestone Bridge which carries the relatively new (opened in 2016) dual carriageway over the canal, linking Junction 34 of the M6 with Heysham and its port.
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As far as canal walks go there was nothing remarkable about this one though maybe if the earlier sunshine and blue sky had still been around the surroundings would have looked a lot nicer. Reaching my goal of the Milestone Bridge and with no desire to go any farther on such a dull afternoon I turned and headed the almost two miles back to Bridge 118. Having seen no-one at all during the first part of the walk, at one point it was nice to see an approaching narrowboat and as it passed me the guy at the back of it shouted a cheery greeting. Having messed about on boats myself in previous years I’ve always thought boat people are a friendly lot.
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Almost back to civilisation I saw just three more people, a couple walking a small dog and a guy sitting on a bench, then no-one else until I got back onto Station Road. Back at the level crossing I found the barriers were down so I crossed the line via the overhead bridge where I took my final shot of the day looking north along the shore to the hills across the bay.
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With hindsight, if I’d known that the afternoon would turn out to be so cloudy I would have booked a later theatre tour and done the walk first while it was sunny but as the saying goes, hindsight’s a wonderful thing. Would I do that walk again? It would be nice to see that section of the canal in better weather so I might be tempted sometime next year.

Morecambe artists wall 2022

Following my tour of the Winter Gardens Theatre in October I had a walk along the promenade to the artists wall. I’d noticed one or two new artworks as I’d driven along to the theatre and though several from last year were still there others had been replaced and I was quite surprised to see just how many new ones had been added since I photographed last year’s batch.
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It was good to see that the artists wall is continuing to brighten up what is otherwise a redundant and derelict section of the promenade. Morecambe isn’t a place I would purposely visit in the winter months so it will be a while before I return but I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing some more new artwork on the wall next season.

Morecambe Winter Gardens theatre tour

The middle Sunday in October saw me heading to Morecambe for a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the Winter Gardens theatre situated on the Central Promenade. The late Victorian building became Grade ll listed in 1987 and since the formation of the Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust in 2006 the theatre has been undergoing the long slow process of major repair and restoration, and in September 2020, after being intrigued by some photos of the ornate interior, I booked myself onto one of the guided tours. I wasn’t disappointed, the theatre’s history was fascinating, and though I intended to go back in 2021 I decided to wait until this year to see what progress had been made with the various renovations.
The tour guide this time was a very friendly and knowledgeable volunteer named Lesley and with only three other people in the group I had plenty of opportunities to ask questions and discuss things. Although I’d already seen many areas of the theatre on the previous tour other areas were now accessible and it was interesting to see photos and things I hadn’t seen before and to learn some more fascinating and quirky facts about the place.
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Architects’ drawings of proposed new theatre

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Theatre interior in its early days

Theatre exterior, early 20th century, advertising various entertainers appearing there

Unfortunately there is no knowledge of the various entertainers advertised in the photo above – I would love to know what the ‘monkey music hall’ was and if it featured actual monkeys – although I have managed to find out about Cullen & Carthy. Johnnie Cullen (1868–1929) was born in Liverpool while Arthur Carthy (1869-1943) was born in Birkenhead and they met while working together in the machinery room of the newspaper printers producing the Liverpool Echo. They were eventually fired for entertaining their co-workers with singing and dancing and soon afterwards went on to form a comedy double act, achieving popularity on the British and Irish music hall, circus and variety stages and with the Winter Gardens theatre being a venue where they regularly appeared. With a career spanning almost four decades their partnership lasted from 1890 until Cullen’s death in 1929.

Theatre auditorium, late 1960s/early 1970s

The auditorium today

Just as previously the tour went from the ground floor of the auditorium, along different rear corridors and up and down various staircases, with stops along the way to see different interesting features. In an as yet unrestored area behind the Grand Circle it was nice to see a few more of the original seats uncovered for the tour and intriguing to see that they are of two different designs, with the red seats and arm rests being deeper than the blue ones, although no-one knows why.
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The Grand Circle looking up to ‘The Gods’

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The upper level of the central staircase featured typical late Victorian flocked wallpaper, ornate marble columns and balustrades, and though it’s not really noticeable in the photos all the carved cherubs have slightly different features and a different shade of hair colour.

Central staircase with entrance to the Grand Circle and stairs up to The Gods

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Above the Grand Circle stairs led up to the underside of The Gods, now undergoing restoration, and halfway up a door led to the void underneath the seating, something which I hadn’t previously seen. Apparently in the past some of the theatre cleaners, rather than removing any rubbish properly, would just throw it into the void where it lay undisturbed for many years and it was only discovered when volunteers cleared out the void prior to renovation – a few of the items found are on display in one of the foyer’s ticket booths.

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Another new feature of the tour was the opportunity to go out onto the wide balcony overlooking the promenade to get a closer view of the carved medallions on the wall above a central door – the interlinked letters MWG (Morecambe Winter Gardens) on the left and the date on the right. Access to the balcony was temporarily through the old and very basic Victorian gents’ toilets (no, I didn’t take a photo) and there were good clear views over the promenade and across the bay to the South Lakeland hills.

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On the way back down to stage level there was the opportunity to look inside one of the upper boxes, which I’d seen on my previous visit, then the basic general dressing room and the star’s dressing room which now had the added ‘luxury’ of a tv, kettle, and a couple of pictures on the walls, before ending on the stage itself.

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One anecdote tells of the theatre having a door big enough for an elephant to go through; sometime in the past an elephant did feature in one of the shows and behind the rear backdrop there is indeed a huge sliding door in the outer wall. The theatre has played host to many famous faces over the years and the final scenes for the 1960 Laurence Olivier film The Entertainer were shot on the Winter Gardens stage.

Behind the stage – the elephant-sized door in the outer wall

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On display in the foyer, some of the items found in the void under The Gods


Although I’d seen many parts of the theatre on my previous visit two years ago it was good to see other parts which have now been made available for the tour and standing on the stage had once again brought back memories of my own days in local theatre. It’s great to see that hard work and dedication are slowly returning the Winter Gardens to its former glory and I’m looking forward to doing another tour in the not-too-distant future.

Southport Botanic Gardens – a walk and some history

A sunny but breezy Sunday at the start of this month saw me heading out to Southport for a look round the botanical gardens in the suburban village of Churchtown on the outskirts of the town. In spite of the numerous times I’ve been to Southport over the years I’d only found out about this place recently so I was looking forward to seeing what was there.
The Botanic Gardens were originally founded in 1874 by a group of local working men who formed the Southport and Churchtown Botanic Gardens Company and acquired a parcel of land from the Hesketh Estate. The company raised £18,000 to landscape the gardens, build a lake, a conservatory, tea rooms and a museum, and the gardens were officially opened in 1875 by Rev. Charles Hesketh from whom the land had been acquired, with the opening ceremony including laying a foundation stone for the museum.
The building was designed by local architects Mellor & Sutton and built by George Duxfield of Duxfield Brothers, Southport, with the famous showman, politician and businessman Phineas T Barnum being an advisor in the construction. The museum eventually opened in 1876 and Barnum donated his top hat which could later be seen on display. The running of the museum was funded by donations from the public and the local council while the gardens themselves were run as a commercial venture funded by entrance fees.
The gardens’ serpentine lake was formed from part of a stream, known as The Pool, which flowed through the grounds of the nearby Meols Hall historical manor house and out to the Ribble Estuary, and it’s said that monks who lived close by fished for eels in the stream. Attached to a magnificent glass conservatory was a fernery which proved very popular with visitors as it featured many tropical plants from around the world, and though the conservatory was eventually demolished the fernery still remains to this day.

The magnificent conservatory – photo from the internet

ferneryIn 1932 the gardens sadly closed as they were earmarked for an eventual private housing development but after a local uproar Southport Corporation intervened and bought the site with money raised by public subscription. The gardens reopened in August five years later as a public amenity renamed The Botanic Gardens and King George Playing Fields, though the name eventually reverted to the original Botanic Gardens.
All the museum’s collections were sold off when the gardens closed in 1932 but the museum was eventually reopened by John Scoles who started a new collection from scratch. A Victorian Room was constructed, many artefacts related to Southport’s heritage were donated by local residents and exhibits included the Cecily Bate Collection of Dolls, though one special exhibit, and probably the oldest item in the museum, was an ancient canoe which in recent years has been dated to 535 AD.
The canoe was found in April 1899 by a local farmer who was ploughing a field near what was once the northern shore of Martin Mere and a local historian at the time identified it as being of significant age and interest. It was first displayed in the Botanic Gardens conservatory then in 1907 it was loaned to Liverpool Museum until 1946 when it was returned to the Botanic Gardens and displayed in the museum there.

The Martin Mere ancient canoe  – photo from the internet

Fast forward through the years and in the 1980s the Friends of the Botanic Gardens Museum organization was formed. They successfully stopped the proposed closure of the museum at the time and later set up their own shop within the building; sadly it was closed permanently on April 24th 2011 as part of a cost-cutting exercise by Sefton Council and the collections were transferred to the Atkinson Museum on Lord Street where many are still on display, including the Martin Mere canoe, P T Barnum’s top hat and the Pennington taxidermy collection.
Along with the closure of the museum horticultural activities at the gardens were also significantly reduced. Sefton Council proposed further closures within the gardens which would see the loss of the fernery, aviary, garden nursery and toilets, along with the conservatory at nearby Hesketh Park. A group of local residents got together to save the remaining facilities at both sites, in particular at the Botanic Gardens, which along with the museum’s closure had also lost the boats on the lake, the boat house, the road train which provided a ride around the park, and the services of the park gardeners. The flower beds have since been maintained by the Botanic Gardens Community Association volunteers who spend Mondays and Fridays every week tending to as much of the park as they can.
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A side entrance had taken me into the park near the bowling greens and a walk through the arboretum led me to a pleasant path around the lake but when I got to the flower beds near the fernery I felt rather disappointed. Having previously seen photos of them on the internet I’d been looking forward to a lot of bright colour but they were very pale and didn’t really live up to my expectations, although the planters and borders along the path from the main entrance were much more colourful. There was a cafe too and an aviary with budgies, parrots and various other winged creatures, but the density of the mesh panels prevented me from getting any decent photos of them.
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With my walk around the park complete, and not wanting to cut short a really nice day, I drove into Southport itself, parked up by the Marine Lake and went for a leisurely walk round King’s Gardens. Over towards the Pleasureland amusement park was what later information told me is Southport’s newest attraction, the 35-metre tall Big Wheel with an Alpine Village around its base, although everything seemed to be closed up at the time.
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Back at the car park my thoughts turned to finding a cafe for coffee and cake but I decided instead just to enjoy the drive home in the mid afternoon sunshine and have a proper meal when I got back. In spite of my disappointment over the lack of colour in the flower beds at the Botanic Gardens I had enjoyed exploring somewhere new – it was a lovely park which I’ll probably visit again next summer and hopefully when I do those flower beds will be a riot of colour.

Morecambe artists wall – brightening up the promenade

On a visit to Morecambe in August 2021 I was very surprised to see that the long expanse of plain blue solid wooden fencing fronting the large area of derelict land once the promenade’s Frontierland amusement park, had undergone a makeover and most of the panels now sported a painting or a paste-up.
Frontierland wild west-style theme park started life at a different site in 1906 as the Figure Eight Park, named after the figure-of-eight miniature railway which operated there. The park operated successfully until the late 1920s when it suffered a downturn in fortunes due to various complaints from tourists and a mountain of bad press; in 1929 it was taken over by Blackpool-based Hitchens Ltd but in spite of much investment and a name change to Morecambe Pleasure Park the downturn in visitor numbers continued until the park was closed and the attractions dismantled in 1938.
Just months after being dismantled the amusement park was resurrected on the current site and was purchased in 1939 by Leonard Thompson, owner of Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Southport’s Pleasureland. An ice dome was built on the site and opened in 1949, the park underwent another name change to West End Amusement Park and new rides were added each year. Various shows appeared at the ice theatre until 1962 when the dome was made into a bingo hall and then an indoor amusement place called Fun City.
In spite of the regular addition of new rides over the years, by the 1980s visitor numbers were dwindling again so in an effort to save the park Leonard’s son, Geoffrey Thompson, set about giving the site a complete overhaul and Frontierland was born in 1986, though as a themed amusement park it didn’t have a good start. On November 14th that year a fire ripped through Fun City, burning it to the ground and creating £1m worth of damage, but the park recovered and rides like the Silver Mine, the Texas Tornado, and the Western Carousel saw visitors flocking back.

The Ranch House, Frontierland – photo from the internet

The Thompson family continued to introduce new rides and features to Frontierland throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s, and in 1993 the Space Tower was installed. Sponsored by the company behind Polo Mints and commonly referred to as the Polo Tower the 150ft gyro tower was transferred from Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and although the ride resulted in a significant boost in visitor numbers it was to be the last major investment at the park. In July 1998 Frontierland hit the headlines when the old wooden Texas Tornado roller coaster set off while the safety bars were still up; several riders were put in danger and one man who was on the ride with his 6-year old daughter at the time later told the Daily Mirror ”we could have been killed”. Whether this incident was the final straw for the site or not that year signalled the beginning of the end for Frontierland and it began to downsize.
Three seasons of staged demolitions were planned across the site and while some rides were moved to Southport’s Pleasureland and rebranded other rides and attractions were sold on to various theme parks in the UK and other countries. The 62-year old Texas Tornado enjoyed its last outing in 1999 then remained dormant until being demolished in late 2000, leaving only the Polo Tower and Log Flume on site, along with a giant pile of rubble. The park’s entrance was sealed off using construction fences and the site remained in this state until Morrisons purchased the land in 2007. A supermarket was built on land adjacent to it and three retail outlets were built on the rear section of the park itself, opening in 2008, and though later plans were passed to develop the rest of the Frontierland site into an outlet village nothing came of them and planning permission eventually lapsed.
In 2009 the Log Flume, which had survived in situ for ten years after the park officially closed down, was finally removed, leaving the Polo Tower as the last element of the former theme park though its only purpose was to fulfil a 20-year contract, signed during its 1993 installation, for the positioning of a telephone mast at the top. The Polo Tower survived until 2017 when it was finally demolished in June that year.
With the former Frontierland site being left unused for so long the 600ft-long blue fence was branded an eyesore by residents and town politicians, with one local councillor calling on Morrisons to do something about it. The fence remained as it was though, that was until March 2021 when a local artist took it upon himself to paint a mural of Dame Thora Hird on one of the panels; this inspired other local artists to want to add their own creations to the fence and through an art-based outreach project around 40 of them have used their artwork to decorate the hoardings.
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In August 2021 the Frontierland site was bought by Lancaster City Council with the hope that the land can once again be put to good use but until such time as it is then hopefully the blue fence now known as the Artists Wall will continue to brighten up that part of Morecambe’s promenade.

Hest Bank circular walk

During a week’s leave from work in mid September and on a lovely warm sunny day I took myself off to Hest Bank just north of Morecambe for a canal and coast circular walk. Parking by the foreshore not far from the railway level crossing I made my way across the main road and up to bridge 118 on the canal; I hadn’t gone far along the path when I noticed I was being watched and at the end of a garden across the canal was a motley band of weird people with their equally weird pets, looking like escapees from a fairground ghost train. Maybe they were getting ready for Halloween but in mid September they were a bit early.
Being mid week the canal was very quiet and other than a couple of cyclists and a boat making its way up towards Carnforth I saw no-one. I’d walked this section of canal a year ago, going as far as bridge 122 before turning round and retracing my steps, but this time when I reached that same bridge I went up onto the lane which took me down onto the main A6 road.
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Across the road the lane continued up a short incline and took me through a very pleasant estate, a mixture of detached houses, bungalows and semis with well kept gardens, and I couldn’t help being amused at the quirky sign on the back of a van belonging to a chippy down in Heysham. Down the hill was another level crossing with the lane at the far side going uphill again, this time between hedges with a caravan site on one side. Through a hamlet of a dozen or so houses and I was on Bolton-le-Sands foreshore where a vast expanse of saltmarsh stretched out to the sea; across the bay was Grange-over-Sands and in the far distance to my right I could see the cottages and old chimney at Jenny Brown’s Point near Silverdale.
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Passing a few more houses and a large field I came to a roadside parking area and Red Bank Farm caravan and camping site, and that’s where things went a bit not-quite-right. I wanted to find the Praying Shell sculpture and though I knew it was in the vicinity of the farm I didn’t know exactly where. A low stone wall separated the lane from the rocky foreshore and a few yards away was a very small and rather insignificant sign fastened to the bottom of a wooden post; with just one word – ‘Sculpture’ – it pointed south along the foreshore so that’s the way I went.
To say that the terrain was rough was an understatement. With no proper path and many large ankle-twisting rocks I had to pick my way along carefully and I was more than relieved when the rocks eventually gave way to shingle which in turn changed to grass, but I still hadn’t found the sculpture. A stone wall separated the foreshore from a field and set back in a corner was a bench with a couple sitting there so I asked if they knew where the sculpture was – they did, and it seemed that somehow I’d missed it. Rather than send me back along the rocks they directed me over a stile and across two fields where I finally found it on a small corner of the headland and almost back at the caravan site.
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The Praying Shell, unveiled in November 2013, was carved from limestone by artist Anthony Padgett. Although it overlooks the site where 23 illegal Chinese cockle pickers tragically lost their lives in 2004 and is generally thought to be a memorial to them it was (according to the artist) designed to inspire walkers venturing along the coastal path and was imagined before the tragedy occurred, though maybe its location isn’t exactly a coincidence.
That small piece of headland was surrounded by a wire fence with a locked farm gate but it was easy to climb over to get to the statue and just round the corner I found a rough steep slope leading from there down onto the rocky foreshore. I remembered passing the bottom of the slope as I walked along the rocks earlier but there had been nothing obvious to indicate that the sculpture was at the top – no wonder I hadn’t found it.
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With just a few shots taken I climbed back over the fence and headed back through the fields and down to the foreshore which was now much easier to walk along than previously. Past the house which had featured in the 2021 series of The Bay and which I photographed last year and the next lane along the foreshore took me back to where I’d left the van. I did consider getting a snack from the nearby cafe but decided to wait until I got back into Morecambe where I could get a meal from the seafront cafe I usually go to when I visit the resort.
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Aside from negotiating the hazards of the rocky section of foreshore the walk had been a good one, especially along the canal, but I’ve done that particular section twice now so the next time I’m up that way I’ll have a change of direction and head south instead.