Cleveleys Beach Safety: Past tragedy & controversy

A stroll on the main path at Layton Cemetery, a family grave stone displays the names of a family, prompting an investigation of the circumstances surrounding the loss of three children in 1926. However, the story begins earlier.

27 July 1921: Two Haslam brothers, James (16) and Richard (14) of Irlam o’th Heights, Manchester were drowned, while spectators looked on. The boys were on holiday, staying with Mrs Rimmer at Smith Road, Cleveleys. Folk on the beach thought the boys were enjoying themselves and the screams for help were ignored.  A friend, Arthur Scarlet (16), managed to reach the shore and raise the alarm. A boatman set out to help but was unable to find the boys. Five ours later the bodies were found on the beach as the tide receded. Two years earlier a man and woman were drowned at Cleveleys.

At the boys’ Inquest, the Coroner was advised that ‘there had been many fatalities on that part of the coast, and that the council had placed notices and three Lifebelts in the area, in addition they had made it a condition of Boatman’s Licences that they should render assistance’. He recommended that a boat patrol available between certain hours and a notice to that effect. A verdict of Accidental Drowning was returned.

At the height of the season in 1926 a tragedy struck a Cleveleys family that would shake the community and influence Lifeguard services on the Fylde coast to the present day. It serves too, as just one example of the many tragedies associated with Blackpool and The Fylde beaches. This case is doubly tragic for the families involved. One wonders how such tragedies might be dealt with today with the panoply of safety and safeguarding legislation.

The Diggle Family Tragedy

The trio were seen bathing, but the tragedy was not discovered until sometime later, when the bodies were found near the water’s edge..

Harris had been staying with the Diggles, his cousins, at their house in Windsor Bank, Victoria Road, Thornton, and was due to return to his home in Heywood a few days later Ellen and Hilda Diggle were respectively oldest and youngest of the four daughters of Mr. and Mrs. John Diggle of Thornton, a couple of miles from the spot where the drowning occurred. Hilda attended Fleetwood Secondary School, whilst Ellen was a popular member of the Thornton Tennis Club. James Harris, whose parents keep a hairdresser’s shop at Heywood, Lancs, was the nephew of Mr. and Mrs. Diggle.

The Diggle Family Grave at Layton Cemetery

He and his two cousins had swum in the sea several times during his visit, usually at a place west of Beach Road, where hundreds of people took advantage of the warm sunshine. Nothing seemed amiss until the two girls’ bodies were seen floating near the edge of the water, half an hour after they had gone into the water. There were attempts to revive the girls, by artificial respiration, until the arrival of Dr. A. H. Penistan, when he declared both dead who continued the operations for another half hour, when he pronounced life to be extinct. The bodies were then removed to the mortuary, not far from girls’ home. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Diggle were aware of the tragedy until the bodies had been removed to the mortuary, when they were informed by the police.

Unknown to bystanders, it wasn’t known that Harris was missing. An hour later his body also was washed up on to the beach and subsequently taken to the Mortuary. The parents were unaware of the deaths until Police informed them at that time.

When the two girls were found, the Pierrots performing on the beach suspended their concert and the audience (some of them in tears) started singing the National Anthem and then dispersed.

The Inquest

Four bathers lost their lives on the Fylde coast on the same afternoon. The three cousins were drowned at Cleveleys, and a boy visitor, at South Shore. He was found to be dead on arrival at Victoria Hospital.

In returning a verdict on all four casualties of ‘Accidental drowning’, the Coroner, Col. H. Parker, expressed his strong opinion that the protection for bathers there was inadequate. Stating “I shall write to the Urban District Council, giving my views’. The Formby Times of 26/08/1933 carried the headlineBLACKPOOL TRAGEDY: CORONER CRITICISES BEACH PATROL

Reports in newspapers of the time included transcripts of the Coroner’s questioning of key witnesses and Officials, among them Benjamin Booth, in charge of the Bathing machines on the beach. He told the Coroner that it was 3 o’clock in afternoon when the two girls and the youth ordered the two vans. He had seen anything more of them, until he had heard that the bodies had been ‘washed up’. He went on to say that the police arrived later to claim the clothing.  

The Coroner questioned all regarding features of danger on the beach and the facilities available for saving life. He referred to the drowning of the boys in 1921, and what lessons had been learned. He questioned the Police about Beach Patrols. The Constable was unable to comment or describe facilities available, within easy reach for lifesaving.

Turning his attention to Mr Booth, ‘There is no watch kept on the bathers as far as you are concerned. You consider it is no part of your business to watch them when they have the use of your vans?’ Are there any other van men besides you?’. ‘No. I’m the only one’.So, only you there and one Patrol Inspector?’. ‘Yes.’

The Beach Inspector

Mr Pearson, Beach Inspector, employed by the Thornton Urban District Council, explained the sequence of events. The first he heard of the tragedy was when it was reported to him that the two girls had been found floating in the sea. He telephoned for the Doctor and Ambulance. At five o’clock the same afternoon it was reported that the dead body of a man had been found.

The  Coroner then put the Beach Inspector through a grilling, with questions about his duties generally and in an emergency; his experience and qualifications (or lack of them); The help he had available (or lack of it); Lifeboat and Lifebelt provision (or lack of them) and Notices and restricted areas (or lack of them). By the end, the Coroner had a very clear impression of the shortcomings of the Beach Patrol system at Cleveleys and beyond! He was scathing in criticism of the Council’s Beach Safety provision. Declaring that he would be making several ‘recommendations’ to the Council. These would include, at the very least:

  • Two Lifesaving qualified Patrols, covering no more than 100 yards of beach.
  • A Boatman, on the water during Bathing periods
  • Bathing areas named and times restricted.

He went on to say, ‘I hope they will do a little more than has been done up to the present!’

In the following days the nations newspapers provided detailed accounts of the funeral of, and the Memorial Service for the cousins, both attended by large crowds, including holiday makers who were present at the tragedy and those taken up in the groundswell of sympathy in the community. Reports described the 90+ wreaths and dedications.

Local officials are quoted as blaming bathers for reckless and foolhardy behaviour on the beach and in the sea. Possible complacency was reflected a few years later in the Fleetwood Chronicle of 14/08/1931, reporting Mr. A. Cottam, Clerk to the Fleetwood Council saying, ‘Fleetwood is happy in the possession of a beach that has an almost perfect surface, … There has been no bathing tragedy here for the last ten years’.

A few years later in 1933, following another triple drowning at South Shore, Lancashire Evening Post reported The District Coroner, Colonel Parker saying, ‘I’m mad about this.’ he declared. ‘These lives should never have been lost.’ And ‘If there are only nine Patrolmen for five miles of shore it is inadequate’.

On the following day, Col Parker is quoted in the LEP as saying to the Deputy Blackpool Town Clerk ‘I want to wake you up – I want to wake you all up!’. He was still fighting for improvements in Beach Safety for the 5 miles of Blackpool coast, although the headlines stated, ‘Blackpool Beach Safety Plans: New system of Patrols?’ and the LEP congratulated Col Parker ‘…in taking such a deep interest in the safety of the Blackpool coast’.


I’ve been unable to find out how the Coroner’s recommendations were received and acted upon, by Thornton UDC. However, a review of Council General Purposes Committee Minutes of Thornton URDC, there is no mention in wider Council Minutes or Annual Reports, referring to safety on the Foreshore, only a 1929 advert for a Beach Inspector and ‘Foreshore Attendants’.

I’ve written about the origins and history of Lifesaving and Lifeboats, as have many others. However, the safety, supervision, and if necessary, rescue of bathers on the Fylde’s beaches gets scant coverage.  Modern efforts of education, communication and reporting have changed to accommodate the popularity of sea bathing and a more sophisticated population. Unfortunately, lessons are not learned. In 2015 there were 289 serious incidents for the Blackpool Beach Patrol, alone.

The current Wyre Beach Patrol in Cleveleys is operated by Fylde Coast YMCA, with qualified Beach Lifeguards 3 at Cleveleys and 2 at Fleetwood.

Annexe ‘A’ details the record minutes relating to safety on the Foreshore.

Annexe ‘B’ provides the catalogue of incidents in Cleveleys reported in newspapers, collected from the British Newspaper Archive.

Jan 2023

Sources & Acknowledgements

Richard Williams, Manager, Blackpool Beach Patrol
Liverpool Echo, 16/08/1926
Manchester Evening News – Wednesday 18/07/ 1926
Fleetwood Chronicle, Fylde News & Advertiser, 20/08/1926
The Formby Times, 26/08/1933, p4
Lancashire Evening Post,  25 & 26/08/1933, p6.
BNA. British Newspaper Archive Search

Opportunity for further research

BYELAWS: Thornton Cleveleys: Promenade and seashore. National Archive at Kew. Ref: HO 45/16990

Annexe ‘A’
Casualties at Cleveleys, 1903 – 1936 (Press Extracts via BNA)

18/03/1903Ethel Warburton
06/07/1903Minnie Warburton – Body Found
07/07/1903Inquest on Minnie Warburton. Coroner thought precautions should have been taken by the Local Authority to render impossible any such fatalities. Recommend that Thornton Council to indicate dangerous places.
10/07/1903‘Council Bye-Laws prohibiting bathing, save from Vans, had not yet been confirmed by Local Government Board.’ UDC Meeting 09/07/1903
11/07/1903Norah Lord – Reported regular Police Beach Patrols
09/06/1905Harry Gilbert of Stoke
22/06/1905Harry Gilbert Inquest
21/07/1911Christopher Cameron (22) of Aspatria, Cumbria
26/09/1911Artificial Respiration saves lives. Coroner: The least the authority could do would be to provide lifebuoys about the place.’
03/09/1914Boating disaster: Mr Ashton, 3 Children, Miss Smith, Herbert Wilcock (11) and the Boatman Mr Croft
19/07/1919Kathleen Seely, Robert Nelthorpe, George Johnson
29/07/1921James and Richard Hallam (14) of Manchester.
21/10/1921Beach Inspector James Simpson reported he spoke to the defendant regarding carrying 325 passengers on pleasure boat, without a licence.
04/07/1924Robert Shuttleworth (44)
18/02/1927Proposals for a Bathers Patrol Boat; Limited times for Bathing; Provision of Bathing tents.
22/06/1928Council recommended appointment of Major JD Grubb Beach Inspector at £3.10s weekly.
03/08/1928Florence Thomas of Cleveleys – Bathing during unpermitted hours. 2 notices re bathing HOURS. Coroner ‘If people will contravene these regulations, they do so at their own risk.’
19/09/1930Thanks to the Beach Patrol for saving the life of Joseph Pownall
26/06/1931Rescue by Mr Tom Bamber Beach Inspector at Cleveleys.
14/08/1931Fylde Coast Safest in the Country.
16/08/19333 Drowned in Blackpool: Mary Ashton 35, Joan Wilding 13, Stanley Thompson 21.
20/07/1934Record appreciation to the Beach Patrol
17/04/1936Call for volunteers
08/05/1936Annie Rigby murdered children by drowning, June Cissy Rigby  (3)and Eric Eastwood Rigby (4m)
07/07/1936Reported – Thornton Cleveleys Lifeguards Club – ‘Beach was first patrolled 2 yrs before, in return for free use of council cubicles.’ Suggested creating a ‘Women’s Corps’
28/08/1936Reported Mr S Groves supervised the beach from Cleveleys to Squires Gate. Thornton Cleveleys Lifeguard Club/Beach Patrol on duty from 7 until last tide out.’ 20,000 bathers without incident.
30/08/1936Johnstone, drowned retrieving Golf balls

Annexe ‘B’
Extracted Minutes of
Council General Purposes Committee Minutes of Thornton URDC. 1907 – 1923 (Records held at Lancs Archive)

19/07/1907Tenders Rec’d for supply of 2 lifebuoys  
  14/05/1908Foreshore Sub-Committee formed to oversee Activities on the Foreshore
01/12/1910Foreshore prepared a scheme for improvements to shelters and Conveniences. Mr Diggle proposed area from Southern Boundary to Beach Road, at a cost of £15,000.
01/06/1911Permission sought to drilling of Boy Scouts in Fire Brigade work
12/04/1912The Town Clerk to write to Mr Croft, thanking him for his efforts in Lifesaving on the Shore at Cleveleys, expressing hope ‘that he will keep observations as hitherto’.
31/05/1912Letter from the White Star Line acknowledging the resolution of sympathy in the disaster to Titanic.
01/08/1912Police Sgt to give instruction of Lifesaving apparatus.
12/11/1914Requests received regarding billeting of Troops
14/01/1915Informed that there was no probability of Troops being billeted in Cleveleys.
09/05/19183 Lifebuoys to be purchased and that the area for bathing be restricted.
12/12/1918Proposal Rec’d for a Roll of Honour for the town.
20/02/1919Price of Manure set at 10/- per ton, by .12/02/1920 to 12/6
11/08/1921Ref 30/07/1921, from Coroner re the fatality of 27/07/1921 and making recommendations. A sub-committee to consider and report.
08/06/1922Sub-committee reported arrangements for Patrolling of the Beach at Cleveleys for the protection of Bathers. Approved.
10/05/1923Continuation of arrangements for Patrolling of the Foreshore.