The Power of the Pulpit: The Mexico Lifeboat Disaster, 1886
Andrew Walmsley | Lancaster University
‘Pulpit References’ hardly seems to be a phrase to quicken the blood, stir the emotions, or capture the attention. However, these two words often appeared as headers for newspaper columns in late Victorian Britain. Here the sermons of local ministers, usually responding to bereavement and tragedy, were reported in detail, often verbatim. The prevalence of these ‘Pulpit References’ evidence the influence of Christian clergymen across all denominations in local and civic life and, belying the inert tone of the heading, these pieces were often heartfelt and passionate reactions to challenging events.
One such event was a lifeboat disaster in the Ribble Estuary, Lancashire, in December 1886. This claimed the lives of all the thirteen-man crew of the St Anne’s on the Sea lifeboat, Laura Janet, and fourteen of the sixteen-man crew of the Southport lifeboat, Eliza Fernley. Both crews had gone out to assist the German barque, Mexico, which had run aground on sandbanks near Southport during a violent storm. The Lytham boat, Charles Biggs, actually managed to affect a rescue and saved the twelve men aboard the Mexico.
The ‘Mexico Disaster’, as it became known, was widely and extensively reported, and the words of local ministers appeared in both the Lytham Times and the Southport Visiter as ‘Pulpit References’. These sermons and texts were attempts to deal with the tragic losses, placing the events and the sacrifice in the context of both Christianity and nationhood. But, as we shall see later, there were also attempts to understand the experiences of the lifeboatmen in direct and personal ways.
Reverend W G Terry of St Anne’s parish church saw the rescue as ‘a noble heroic deed which make them (the lifeboatmen) imitators of Christ himself.’ This correlation is characteristic of several sermons which equated the actions of the lifeboat men with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In effect, they laid down their lives for their fellow men, as Christ gave up his life to save mankind from its sinfulness.
The Reverend Millington of St Paul’s Church in Southport used St Paul’s analogy of the last days of the Earth and the final judgement to show that our passage to eternity may come at any time, ‘like a thief in the night’. The lifeboatmen’s sudden departure from this life could be the experience of any one of us. Would we be spiritually ready if that were to be the case?
Other moral questions posed by the disaster were more practical and centred on an awareness of the social conditions of most of the lifeboatmen. The Reverend Silas Hocking of the Duke Street Methodist Church in Southport highlighted their relative poverty (most were fishermen struggling to make a living) and emphasised that their moral worth should not be related to their social station. There was also a pithy assertion that, whilst the lifeboat crew were battling to save lives, the great and the good of the town were dining grandly with the mayor:
They were not the rich, or influential, or socially great of our own; nay some of them lived in one of the poorest streets we have. But they have taught us by their beautiful heroism and noble self-sacrifice, that true worth is not confined to the socially great. Perhaps their grandly heroic death may do something to break down the caste and pride that are all too prevalent in our midst. We are all too ready to pass our humbler brethren by and treat them as though they belonged to a different type of man. Ah me, while some of us were at our ease in the beautiful hall, where our good mayor was dispensing his almost boundless hospitality, these men were fighting with the cruel and pitiless sea, and fainting in the unequal conflict…They have taught us again “That honour and worth from no condition rise”. (This is probably a misquotation or an adaption of a line from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, ‘Honour and shame from no condition rise’)
Beyond driving moral lessons, the disaster saw many attempts to place the actions of the men in the context of nation and nationhood (often with a maritime theme) and this was also part of the frame of reference of Christian ministers, particularly those within the established church. In Southport, the Reverend C H Hatfield, preaching at St Philip’s Church, lamented,
To think that whilst many of us were lying in sleep and quietness, these noble men – a fine and glorious specimen of our English sailors – in spite of all the dangers they saw before them did not hesitate for a moment to brave all…
One striking aspect of this celebration of nationhood in these ‘Pulpit References’ was the invocation of a Viking heritage. In Christ Church in Southport, the Rev W T Bulpit claimed that the deeds of lifeboatmen showed that, ‘…the Viking spirit yet lived in the breasts of Englishmen, and that it now spent itself not in works of destruction but delighted to encounter the rage of the fierce ocean whilst accomplishing deeds of mercy.’
Andrew Mawn has noted that, ‘In many ways the Victorians Invented the Vikings’. At that time scholars had become interested in the cultures and languages of the Nordic countries through the study of Norse texts. It also became fashionable to claim that a collective Viking heritage endowed Britain with exemplary customs and institutional frameworks and a sturdy genetic inheritance that helped forge a global presence for the nation during the period. This heritage was invoked in other poetry and texts in relation to the lost crew at the time of the disaster, and, as we can see, Reverend Bulpit brought this into a Christian context with the Norse spirit being repurposed for a different age.
The examples I have alighted on up to now have been attempts to draw lessons from the disaster and to place the bravery of the men in Christian and national contexts. It is well-meaning and heartfelt but, at times, rather abstract. However, there were some personal reflections on the men themselves which saw them in more human ways and less as cyphers for desirable virtues.
In Lytham, Reverend H B Hawkins cited the action of one of the crew from his congregation whom he knew to be devout. At the time the alarm was raised, he was praying with his wife and child and was a member of the Bible class: ‘…that man was ready, he believed, for a sudden death’. He goes on to comment that, ‘Often beneath a rough outside, there lived in the men who go down to the sea in ships, a simple worth, often a sterling Godliness’. So, whilst he acknowledged that the lifeboatmen might lead exemplary lives spiritually and morally, there was also an acute awareness of difference.
By contrast, we have some personal commentary in the reported words of Mr James Lawson in a Nonconformist church, the Zion Chapel in Southport, where many of the crew attended. Here the lifeboatmen were seen as genuine equals within a working community. Rather than being socially distanced from the minister or others in the congregation, they were ‘our beloved lifeboat crew’. Lawson went on to recall how some crew members ‘went with me to the Sabbath School and some of them in after years, when grown into young men have been with me to the Lord’s house’. He also attempted to understand how the men felt during their ordeal:
The poor men must have suffered very much. Surely it must have been very hard for them while struggling in the boisterous waves, and it must have been very kind of John Ball to hold up the head of Henry Robinson when he was exhausted. There is love in this act. Look at John, as it were, in his dying moments, holding up his comrade’s head from sinking beneath the waters. (John Ball was actually a victim of the disaster but Henry Robinson was one of only two survivors from the Southport Boat).
Whilst all the ‘Pulpit References’ reveal much about the communities and individuals mentioned within them; it is this personal element that I find most interesting and vital. This is particularly true of the words of James Lawson, which reflect a worship community based less on hierarchy and more on egalitarian principles and present us with more immediate personal connections. Throughout my research, it has been difficult to find evidence of how the lifeboatmen themselves understood their own experiences, and their lives and circumstances were usually framed by others outside and above their social milieu. The type of commentary on ‘ordinary lives’ provided by James Lawson is often the most elusive, but here we encounter real people from real communities, not merely two-dimensional representations of abstract virtues.
‘Bible Gateway Passage: 1 Thessalonians 1 - New International Version’, Bible Gateway <https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Thessalonians%201&version=NIV> [accessed 16 August 2022]
Foundation, Poetry, ‘An Essay on Man: Epistle I by Alexander Pope’, Poetry Foundation (Poetry Foundation, 2022), https://www.poetryfoundation.org/ <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44899/an-essay-on-man-epistle-i> [accessed 16 August 2022]
‘The Lifeboat Catastrophes’, Southport Visiter, 14 December 1886, pp. 2–3, (Pulpit References)
‘Wreck off the Ribble Estuary’, Lytham and Kirkham Times, 15 December 1886, (Pulpit References)
Wawn, Andrew, The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2002)
Kilroy, Frank, The Wreck of the ‘Mexico’, Rev. ed.]. (Lytham: R.N.L.I., Lytham St. Annes Branch, 2012)
The Mexico Disaster 9th December 1886 (Lytham St Annes: Lytham Heritage Group, 2011)
Miller, J. Allen, The Great Lifeboat Disaster of 1886, ed. by Andrew N. Farthing (Southport: Sefton Council, Leisure Services Department, 2001)
Andrew is a part-time postgraduate researcher at Lancaster University. His work focusses on the lifeboat monument on the promenade at St Anne's on the Sea. This is a memorial to the Mexico disaster and the men of the lifeboat Laura Janet and was unveiled in May 1888. Of particular interest is the continued relevance of the monument and the impact it has had within its space and locality through time to the present day. Blog: https://stonesermons.blogspot.com/