Hero image

Cork Jackets and Drill tells the story, through original songs and narration, of the 1886 Southport lifeboat disaster, which claimed the lives of almost all the crew members of the Southport and St Annes lifeboats. Songwriter and musician Clive Pownceby, one of the Cork Jacket Crew, explains the personal significance of the story.

Southport born and bred, I’d grown up with the story of the Mexico lifeboat disaster of 1886. My grandparents were alive then and our part of town once had a museum where the story was graphically described together with artefacts such as a lifebuoy and an oar, and the framed illustrated lines of Clement Scott’s stirring poem Warriors Of The Sea, written just after the event.

“Now Southport is a benign coast but it was not always thus.”

It had quite an impact on me but of course the image of Southport is these days one of “where is the sea?” Now it’s a benign coast of sand, sand and more sand – more desert than shore – but it was not always thus.

At one time a treacherous coastline, Southport’s sands have witnessed more than their fair share of shipwrecks and only over the last 50 or so years has the shoreline been built up by silting and longshore drift from the Ribble estuary.

I always felt that too few people in recent times knew of the Mexico story and local playwright and good friend Len Pentin shared this view. He finally responded to much urging and starting putting pen to paper two years ago. As a songwriter too, it seemed a logical progression to expand his narrative with lyrics and make the project a musical one.

Cork Jackets And Drill was the result, telling the story of the catastrophe that claimed the lives of almost all crew members of the Southport and St Annes lifeboats. On that terrible storm-lashed night in December the dreadfully impoverished fishermen of those northern towns bravely rowed out in an attempt to save the crew of the German ship Mexico, en route to South America from Liverpool and in distress off Southport.

The entire crew of the Southport lifeboat Eliza Fernley was lost while the Laura Janet from St Annes had two survivors. In all 27 men perished that night as the Charles Biggs from Lytham rescued the Mexico’s captain and crew.

This remains the greatest loss of life on a single mission in the The Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s history. At the time the tragedy touched the whole of the UK, with many thousands of pounds being raised to support widows and other dependent relatives of the two crews. However, I know from my personal experience in Southport it is a story that is sadly largely forgotten.

Cork Jackets tries to rehabilitate the memory of the brave lifeboatmen who risked and gave their lives that night for others – volunteers to a man.

The cast was assembled in late 2013 through Pentin’s connections with local folk singers and musicians and, after months of fine tuning, the first performance was in March 2014, since when it has been staged over 20 times to much acclaim from audiences at folk clubs, historical societies and the University of the Third Age.

Apart from me on percussion and Pentin on guitar, Pete Rimmer (guitar), Chris Nelson (fiddle), Siobhan Nelson (shruti box and slides) and Colin Wayte as narrator complete the Cork Jacket Crew (after the early form of lifejacket worn at the time.) We all contribute vocals. Visuals too are an integral part.

Pentin says: “Just why such an epic tale has flown under so many people’s radar is a bit of a mystery to me. It certainly has all the elements that a great true story demands: death, tragedy and courage in adversity. The word ‘hero’ is one that is so widely misapplied these days but here it is completely apt.”

Donations are made both to the RNLI and the independent Southport Lifeboat, from admissions, collections and CD sales. We get so much out of presenting this show, and as someone who has been involved with music for over 50 years, this is the most satisfying work I’ve ever participated in.

We meet relatives of the lost men at many of our shows. For them it is, naturally a poignant experience. As one audience member commented: “Tears in our eyes, tingles on arms, you have done the memory of the crews proud. Wow!”

That is so gratifying to us all, as you’d imagine.

Cork Jackets And Drill’s next performance is at the Studio Theatre, Southport Atkinson on 31 July, including free lecture on local shipwrecks (www.corkjackets.co.uk, www.theatkinson.co.uk). Photo: Wreck of the Eliza Ferneley by Franz Krause

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