Liverpool Bay lifeboat tragedy of 1857

In St. Bridget's churchyard, West Kirby, on the west side is a sandstone gravestone, its inscription now almost illegible. This stone commemorates Robert Beck, skipper of the Point of Air lifeboat who lost his life in the lifeboat disaster of January, 1857.

The Point of Air lifeboat was in a sense complementary to the Hoylake boat. The Liverpool Dock managers had founded the Hoylake station in 1803, other stations around Liverpool Bay following. These early lifeboats relied on the strong arms of their crews to reach a wreck.

On several occasions wind and sea proved too much for them and they were unable to rescue those in distress. To overcome this problem at Hoylake a boat was stationed at the Point of Air in 1842.

Between these two stations it was possible for a boat to reach a wreck on the east or west Hoyle Bank regardless of the direction of wind and sea.

There was, however, one problem about the Point of Air station. Whereas there was a pool of seamen or fishermen available at the other stations from which to draw crews, no such facility existed at Point of Air.

It was necessary to draw on the local population, and so the crew was composed of local tradesmen, miners, gardeners and the like.

In order to provide a professional element in the boat two fishermen were sent over from Hoylake, Robert Beck to be captain, and John Sherlock to be mate.

In modern lifeboat terms this would be coxswain and second coxswain.

The two fishermen were provided with a house by the Liverpool Dock authorities. They received an al-lowance which could be supplemented by the sale of their fishing catch. The market around there does not seem to have been very good as they found it neces-sary to petition for an increase in allowance. The type of boat developed differed from the national lifeboats in that they were not self-righters.

They were 42 ft. clinker built boats similar to a ship's boat intended for either rowing or sailing. When rowing they pulled ten oars, under sail they had two sprit sails and a foresail. Buoyancy was provided by air cases under the thwarts and a large cork fender around the outside of the boat. Total crew was 13 men.

The morning of Sunday January 7, 1857, was a stormy one and a number of vessels were in distress. Two fishing vessels were ashore at Abergele, a small Belfast was in trouble off Pensarn. At 10 a.m. the Point of Air lifeboat launched to go to the assistance of the Temperance. The crew were not wearing the recently issued life jackets. The pattern of these cork life jackets was such that the crew con-sidered they hampered their movements and they avoided wearing them whenever possible. In this case they were left in the boathouse.

The boat got under sail and ran down towards the brig. From the shore onlookers could watch their progress. Off Rhyl they were horrified to see a great sea catch the boat and throw it over. When they saw the upturned boat again a few seconds later three men could be seen clinging to the keel; which three we shall never know.

The people on shore could only watch helplessly. No ordinary boat could have survived in such seas, and ironically the Rhyl life boat was away successfully rescuing the crew from the wreck the Point of Air boat was heading for. For about half an hour the three men clung to the keel then one by one the sea swept them away.

The crew on this unfortunate occasion was composed of three miners, three labourers, two gardeners, shopkeeper, coachman, and sawyer in addition to Robert Beck and John Sherlock.

A public subscription was opened for the dependents of the lost men. It was liberally subscribed to, reaching the total of £3,025.19s. This was more than enough to meet the demands and the balance was held to meet the needs of other sufferers. The Dock Board held an inquiry into the matter. The boat which was recovered was carefully examined but found to be in good condition. One thing that did come out of the tragedy was a tightening of the rules about wearing lifejackets. A fine was imposed for not wearing them.

Later the National Lifeboat Institution awarded a posthumous silver medal to Robert Beck.