Lifeboats 150: The Ladies and the Reverend Gentlemen

The history of the Blackpool Lifeboat is characterised with the ‘manly doings’ and bravery in the teeth of a relentless Sea. However, little is written of the others who, without their intervention, would not have established a Lifeboat at Blackpool, 150 years ago.

This is a story of alternative heroics, how a Preacher Historian, a Congregational Minister and a group of women with foresight, were able to stir a community to found the towns own Lifeboat.

Until the mid 1800’s it had fallen to the fishing families of the town: Bickerstaffes Jollys, Parkinsons, Parrs, Rimmers, Salthouses, Stanhopes and Swarbricks to launch their boats in order to save lives, vessels and cargoes. All too often and in spite of their best intentions, rescue efforts were uncoordinated and dependent on who and what boats were available at the time. The prospect of a fully functioning coordinated service was some time away. That isn’t to say that there wasn’t a groundswell of opinion in favour of a ‘Lifeboat Service’. However, it took a series of disparate events to prompt effective action.

In 1837, The Reverend William Thornber, Vicar of St John’s, Blackpool, was engaged in writing his ‘Historical and Descriptive Account of Blackpool and it’s Neighbourhood’. Coincidentally, he had been writing about the shipwrecks along the Fylde Coast, when looking from his window, he noticed a commotion in the sea opposite. He put down his pen and ran down to the beach to witness the grounding of a brig on the sandbank. He was probably witnessing the wreck of the ‘ROYAL OAK’, in November 1837. She was inbound for Liverpool from Carrickfurgus. Following the incident, he persuaded the Liverpool Dock Commissioners to contribute £20 towards the £100 required to fit out a Lifeboat.

At about the same time, The Reverend Richard Raby Redman of Victoria Congregational Church, raised the issue of need for a lifeboat with his congregation. A visitor, ‘Mrs Browne, of Manchester’, heard the impassioned plea for the establishment of the Lifeboat and ‘showed a deep interest’ in the idea. She immediately contributed £100 ‘to assist any local fund to be formed’. Another initially anonymous lady and her daughter pledged a further £250. The Lady and her daughter were revealed to be Mrs and Miss Hopkins, widow and daughter of the late Robert William Hopkins of Preston. Miss Atherton of Manchester donated a further £100. Mrs Eccles of Blackburn, provided the land onto which would be built the first Lifeboat Station, in Lytham Road.

In March of 1864, a ‘Lifeboat Committee was formed and by May of that year a Coxswain appointed, Robert Bickerstaffe. The first lifeboat , built by Forrestt of London and transported free by the London & North Western Railway, was launched with great ceremony on July 14, 1864. It’s name reflected the generous donation of Mrs Hopkins and her daughter, it was called the ‘Robert William’ and by September of that year was facing its first challenge, in the teeth of a howling gale, the Robert William set out to the aid of the Brig ‘St Michael’, foundering whilst on its way from Le Havre to Fleetwood, rescuing fourteen crew from the wrecked vessel. From then on the Blackpool Lifeboat would rescue 163 seafarers on 121 ‘shouts’ and all thanks in part to ‘The The Ladies and Reverends’.

Sources and further information:

Morris, J.P., (c1974), Blackpool Lifeboats: A Souvenir History, McMillan Martin Ltd

Morris J., (2002), Blackpool Lifeboats, Lifeboat Enthusiasts Society, Coventry, including Jeff Morris, David Forshaw and Lifeboat Enthusiasts Society for permission to use photographs from the book.

Kilroy, F., (1995), The Ladies: A Century of Service, at Blackpool Central Library at: LN434

Clarke, E., (1910), The Story of Blackpool Lifeboat: as well as some account of the Fleetwood, Lytham & St Annes Boats, Teddy Ashton Printers Ltd.

Collins B., ‘Women got Blackpool its first Lifeboat’, Evening Gazette, 29/09/1961, p8, Col 1

Author not known, ‘A Lifeboat at last thanks to the ladies’, Evening Gazette, 24/07/1964, p20 Col 1

Brenda Warburton, RNLI Blackpool,  for additional material and photographs

Images:

  1. ‘Off to the Rescue: The Blackpool Lifeboat Robert William off to the Bessie Jones’ from Clarke above, which includes a full reference.
  2. The Robert William at Sea, original source unknown. This picture extracted with permission from http://gerald-massey.org.uk/laycock/c_warblins_4.htm

This article was originally published in ‘Blackpool Heritage’, Issue 8 – December 2014 and updated on 1 November 2020.

MPC

Sept 2014 & Nov 2020

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