The Hoylake lifeboat tragedy of 1906


An official guide to Hoylake and West Kirby of 1906 proclaimed the beauty of the area and the low incidence of respiratory diseases. The coastal location of the two towns and their openness to the fresh south-westerly gales has always been one of their greatest assets.

However, the inhabitants of Hoylake had cause to view their vulnerability to the weather in a different light. At the turn of the century about 30% of the population of Hoylake earned a living by fishing and the majority of these were smacksmen — some of them giving their services as members of the lifeboat crew. Consequently, tragedy was never far away.

The gravestones in the churchyard record the death of many fishermen in the winter seas. One family memorial speaks of a double bereavement — it mentions the loss of Peter Roberts, aged 33, from the smack ‘Daisy’ in 1914 and of his brother John Isaac, aged 23, from the Hoylake Lifeboat on 15th November 1906.

His epitaph says ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he gave his life for his friends.’ The loss of this young man was a blow to both his family and to the community.

On the evening of 15th November north westerly gales blew up in the Irish Sea. The Hilbre Lifeboat, under the command of Joshua Armitage, went to the assistance of the yawl ‘Livida’ which was stranded in the Dee estuary. However, the skipper of the vessel reported that his crew were safe and the lifeboat returned home.

The 15 man crew of the Hoylake Lifeboat, the new ‘Hannah Fawcett Bennett’ were alerted by distress signals at 20.02 and performed a marvellous feat of teamwork and dedication: the boat was in the water by 20.28 after being hauled across half a mile of sands by Jesse Bird’s horses. She was soon battling purposefully towards Leasowe from whence the distress signals had come. The ‘Hannah Fawcett Bennett's’ crew must rarely have been required to concentrate as much as they did that night The wind had whipped the sea into ‘a boiling cauldron of water’.

Even the lifeboat's coxswain, Tommy Dodd, confessed ‘I never saw such a sea as broke over our lifeboat. I have had an experience of 32 years in the neighbourhood and the sea was simply terrific.’

The object of their mission was the flat ‘Swift’ from Runcorn. She lay stranded on the sandbank, her crew clinging to the rigging as the sea pounded her. The lifeboat approached, but was suddenly swamped by a large wave, which crashed over her side.

Several crew were knocked about the boat like dolls and received serious injuries. Five oars snapped like carrots and six rowlocks were warped beyond repair. The men were dazed with shock and fright. Only when they came to did they realise that one of their comrades was gone. He was John Isaac Roberts, who was on his first trip as a crew member. The sea was too violent and the night too black for him to be found. His body was finally recovered, in a dreadfully injured state, on the Moreton embankment.

Eventually the lifeboat could only stand by the ‘Swift’ as her three man crew clung to the rigging and waited for the tide to recede.

Thankfully the wretched mariners were taken ashore — unharmed but wet, cold and extremely tired — where coastguard Norris attempted to find shelter for them. Inexplicably and shamefully, the Hoylake Hotels would not accommodate the men and a fisherman had to care for them in his cottage. The lifeboat returned at 09.50 the following day — her wounds obvious for all to see.

Everybody was thankful that the lifeboat had once again done superb work, but all were mortified by the death of this young fisherman — none more so than his widowed mother, Isabella, and his seven brothers and sisters. The Community was united in grief and produced a plaque for the parish church which says:

‘In pleasant memory of John Isaac Roberts who, while serving on the Hoylake Lifeboat on the night of 15th November, 1906, was drowned. This brass is placed here by his neighbours. ‘Sleepe after toyle port after stormie seas’ (sic.)’

A relief fund was opened and nearly £200 was raised for Mrs Roberts within a week. A teacher at the local girls’ school composed the following:

‘So young, so brave, so strong, so full of life,
So fair of promise, radiant, bright and glad;
How furious was the raging and the strife,
When duty called the gallant lifeboat lad.
Called to his doom, and dashed upon the rocks,
Called by the storm one dark November night,
Deafened by billows with their mighty shocks,
Drowned in the dark — alone, no light, no light.
Ah! not alone, for on the lonesome sea,
Shone a bright light, more radiant than the sun;
For He who sailed on stormy Galilee,
Caught at those hands, whose life-work now was done.
Clasped that poor form, all maimed and bruised and torn,
And set it by the throne above the storm.’