The 1810 Disaster
Adapted from Hoylake and West Kirby Lifeboats: An Illustrated History, Nicholas Leach (2016)
Although the early lifeboats performed many fine rescues, life-saving was dangerous work. The wooden-hulled craft were relatively small and light, and were reliant on the strength of the crews to row them through heavy seas and strong winds. Largely due to the boats’ lack of power, overcoming the worst seas was sometimes impossible, and lifeboats were then at the mercy of wind and waves. Disasters were not infrequent during the nineteenth century, with lifeboatmen drowning when their craft was capsized or wrecked being an all too common occurrence.
On 22 December 1810, just seven years after the lifeboat had been sent to Hoylake, disaster overtook the station when it was in its infancy. Although details of the tragedy only came to light relatively recently following research by Peter Fitzgerald and others, at least five accounts were published in contemporary newspapers and magazines: two appeared in the Naval Chronicle, one in the Chester Courant newspaper, one in The Cambrian newspaper, and another in The Times of 9 January 1811, the latter under the heading ‘Lifeboat Crew Drown’. The Chester Courant’s account, which was probably the first to be published, described the tragedy as follows:
On Saturday last, a boat [sic] manned with ten people, was dispatched from Hoylake, for the purpose of endeavouring to render assistance to the ship Traveller, which had been driven ashore on the Cheshire coast, about a mile to the eastward of Hoylake. The sea was running dreadfully high, and aware of their danger, they passed a moment before they ventured to approach the vessel. At last, with the characteristic boldness of British sailors, they pushed towards her, but no person being on board, they unfortunately failed in catching the ropes which hung over her side, and were driven beyond her by the violence of the waves.
At that instant, a terrible sea struck the boat on the bow, and overwhelmed her in the deep. By this afflicting accident, eight of these poor fellows lost their lives…, and only two of them survived by being washed on shore, almost exhausted…A number of spectators were standing on the beach…, within a hundred yards of this dreadful catastrophe, distressed beyond all power of description, and agonized at the certainty of being unable to afford the poor sufferers the smallest assistance.
Although the Courant’s account states that it was ‘a boat’ which capsized, subsequent accounts refer specifically to the lifeboat being capsized, with The Cambrian stating: ‘The Hoylake lifeboat, in attempting to relieve the people on board the ship Traveller…was overwhelmed.’ The Courant does state that ‘the signal had been hoisted at the lifeboat house by the person having the care of it [presumably but not necessarily Joseph Bennett], for the express purpose of affording assistance to the above-mentioned vessel.’
The Naval Chronicle, a periodical publication which ran from 1799 to 1818 and often provided accounts of lifeboat work and developments, provided the following account, which seems more authoritative and clarifies the contradiction in the Courant:
On the 29th December 1810 a dreadful storm created by weather conditions way out in the Atlantic swept the west coast of Liverpool Bay with shrieking, moaning winds of terrifying strength. Huge seas thundered over Hoylake beach with such force that the earth trembled. At the height of the storm the vessel Traveller was caught by an enormous sea and in spite of heroic efforts by the crew, nature in a blinding rage showed her awesome power by driving the stricken ship on to Hoyle Bank with a mighty sickening crash, and the exhausted crew of Traveller were thrown into the boiling, icy waves. The plight of Traveller was seen from the shore and the crew of the lifeboat with their team of horses dragged the lifeboat down to the water and the horses went straight into the crashing, white spumed surf and although they were at times almost submerged, the crew and horses safely launched the lifeboat.
Once launched, the crew pulled at their oars towards Hoyle Bank, sometimes missing a stroke as the waves threw the 30 foot long lifeboat about as if it were a toy. Then as they neared the wreck the same forces that had destroyed Traveller gripped the Hoylake Lifeboat and a gigantic wave hit the lifeboat and she capsized throwing her crew into the waves…Although two or three were fortunate in being cast up on the beach by the sea,…eight members of the lifeboat crew lost their lives. The lifeboat was spared and was driven ashore almost undamaged.
A further report in the Naval Chronicle described the aftermath of the capsize:
The bodies were found the same day, and carried to their respective homes, where a scene of misery was witnessed which defies all powers of expression. The deceased were all near neighbours, and lived in a small village called the Hoose, near Hoylake…These brave fellows were the flowers of the Hoylake fishermen, and had always displayed the greatest promptitude and alacrity in assisting vessels in distress; nor could England boast a set of braver men…They have left large families totally unprovided for…
Although the date of the incident in the Naval Chronicle is wrong, being a week too late, the information is much the same as those in the other contemporary accounts. Where the information originated is not stated, but as the other accounts contain similar details, it is likely they all came from the same source or sources.
Those who lost their lives were:
John Bird (40) Joseph Hughes (38)
Henry Bird (18) Richard Hughes (36)
John Bird (16) Thomas Hughes (16)
Henry Bird (43) Nicholas Seed (27)
Thomas Fulton and Thomas Davies survived. Seven bodies were recovered on the same day as the tragedy and taken to their homes; those from the Bird and Hughes families were buried in St Bridget’s Churchyard in West Kirby on 25 and 26 December 1810 respectively.
The small fishing village of Hoose consisted of only about 100 inhabitants at this time, and the tragedy decimated its population, with the Bird and Hughes families particularly badly affected. However, after the lifeboat had been washed up on the beach, it was repaired and returned to its boathouse, and a full crew, ready to man it, was found a few days later.
The Hoylake 1810 Memorial
In December 2010, to mark the bicentenary of the lifeboat disaster, a memorial to those lost was formally unveiled outside the new lifeboat house. This was the culmination of much hard work by a group of local people to raise funds to remember those who lost their lives.
After personnel at the station became aware of the tragedy, thanks to research by historian Perter Fitzgerald, a former lifeboatman, the Hoylake 1810 Memorial Fund was set up in November 2009 and raised £30,000 over the course of twelve months. This paid for an impressive bronze statue, which was created by sculptor Paul Bearman and mounted on a plinth outside the boathouse, depicting a lifeboatman standing at the helm of the boat.
The fund was formally inaugurated on 22 December 2009, with Rev Canon Bob Evans MBE, a former Port Chaplain, conducting a service to launch the appeal. Over 100 people came to the launch event, including some descendants of those who lost their lives in 1810 who had travelled from America, Russia and New Zealand. Hoylake Lifeboat crew were also in attendance. The founder members of the fund were Captain Robin Woodall, John Curry and Eve Roberts. Linda Camm, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of lifeboatman John Bird, was also among those who attended the ceremony.
The formal unveiling ceremony was held on 22 December 2010, exactly two centuries after the disaster. A service of dedication was conducted by the Rev Martin Flowerdew, Vicar of Hoylake and Lifeboat Chaplain. The statue was formally unveiled by Coxswain Dave Whiteley.
At the time of the disaster, the names of seven of the eight crew who were lost were known, but the name of the eighth man, Nicholas Seed, was missing; he had been buried in Wallasey and not included with the other rescuers. However, a search through the archive at St Hilary’s Church in Wallasey stated that Seed’s body had been recovered from the sea, something not known at the time of the original fundraising. As a result, his name did not originally appear on the plaque, but was subsequently added in 2013.
The memorial also pays tribute to a further two crew members of the Hilbre Island and Hoylake Lifeboats who lost their lives in the course of saving lives at sea: Edward Lilley (6th September 1899) and John Isaac Roberts (15th November 1906).
The 1810 Memorial, Hoylake Lifeboat Station