Lifeboats 150: The story of the ‘Shoeblack’

On a sunny Saturday in August 1906, a young 10 year old Bolton lad, was happily sitting on the beach steps, opposite Cocker Street, chatting with his three brothers and a cousin. All were dangling their feet in the water and enjoying the rare experience of sea water. The water was rough and they were laughing when they were splashed by the spray, watched by hundreds of holidaymakers.

Catastrophe struck when Harry Gradwell stepped down an extra step and was immediately swept off his feet into a deep and angry sea. He struggled in the heavy swell and in no time had disappeared from view.

The brothers and cousin had arrived in Blackpool from Bolton only an hour before for a holiday with his parents.

On hearing the shouts of the boys and of holidaymakers, seventeen year old George Fox, took off his cap, jacket and boots and ran into the rough sea in a vain attempt to save young Harry. He swam strongly but was no match for the turbulent sea and besides, by now, Harry was no where to be seen.

In the early afternoon at low tide, the body was found by a man, Robert Isherwood, a Railway Clark from Manchester who was paddling in the now calm, shallow water. He dragged the body onto dry sand, the Police were called and the body removed.

Whilst George was fighting the tide, an onlooker thief riffled his jacket. The Blackpool Times on 26 August reported that a ‘coward took 3 shillings from his pocket’. George was a ‘Licensed Shoeblack’ working on the Promenade and the 3 shillings was his morning’s earnings.

Georges story came to light when the Coroner at Harry’s Inquest, commented on his bravery, congratulating him on his efforts, while returning a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ on Harry. The Minutes of the Lifeboat Committee record that George’s action should be recognised and ‘sum of £5 out of the Lowe Award and Relief Fund be invested in a suit of clothes, boots, cap, medal bearing a suitable inscription and a sum of money be placed in his name in the Post Office Savings Bank’

In September 1906, George was presented with silver medal by the Mayoress. The chairman of the Blackpool Lifeboat, Rev W Evans, commented on his bravery and hoped for better times ahead.”

The Blackpool Herald that carried the story of the ‘Shoeblack’ incident, also reported the drowning of an unknown ‘one-armed’ man off the Promenade in front of the Tower, just a few days later. He had been ‘boasting that he could dodge the waves’. His body was also recovered by North Pier later that day

Notes, sources and further information:

George Arthur fox, Born 1889 making him 17 at the time of the incident. George lived with his parents and six brothers and sisters at 38 Wood Street South Shore

This incident was recorded in the Blackpool Lifeboat Archive and was reported in the with details supplied by Zena Burslam the Archivist..

Blackpool Lifeboat Committee Minutes of August 28, 1906.

George’s younger brother Horace would die exactly 10 years later, in Abbeville France, serving with the Kings Liverpool Regt. He is commemorated on the Memorial Window at Waterloo School.

Inspiration: Interview with Brenda Warburton, Education Officer Blackpool Lifeboat, May 2014.

Newspaper Reports:

The Blackpool Times, 21 August 1906

The Blackpool Herald, 21 August 1906, p8 Col 5

The Blackpool Gazette, 2 July 2013,

Sept 2014

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