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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 December 2006, 11:53 GMT
'Worst lifeboat disaster' service
Charles Biggs lifeboat crew
The crew of the Charles Biggs rescued 12 sailors
A memorial service for the 27 volunteers who died in Britain's worst lifeboat disaster has been held - 120 years after their rescue attempt.

The lifeboatmen drowned off the coast of Southport, Merseyside, trying to save the crew of a German ship which had run aground in December 1886.

Three boats took part in the rescue - from Lytham, St Annes and Southport - but only one came back unscathed.

A commemoration service was being held at St Annes Parish church on Sunday.

The tragedy, which happened in gale force winds and storms off the North West coast, caused a huge outpouring of grief across Victorian England and was viewed as a national disaster.

Just like today's lifeboat crews, the men who drowned were all volunteers who didn't think twice about going out to help people in difficulty at sea
Frank Kilroy, RNLI

Current lifeboat volunteers based at Lytham St Annes station, as well as many RNLI supporters and local people, were expected to attend the service.

On the night of the rescue, the Lytham lifeboat Charles Biggs saved 12 sailors from the German barque, called Mexico.

The Southport lifeboat Eliza Fernley was the first to launch but was capsized and 14 of her 16-strong crew drowned.

The entire crew of the St Annes lifeboat Laura Janet - 13 men - drowned and she was washed ashore the next day.

A fund was set up to support the 16 widows and 50 children of the lifeboatmen who drowned and it initially raised 50,000.

Charity template

In 1891, local industrialist Sir Charles Macara organised the world's first charity street collection, which raised a further 5,500 to boost the fund.

This became the template for the RNLI's method of raising funds for its lifeboats.

Frank Kilroy, Lytham St Annes RNLI Lifeboat Visits Officer and an expert on the Mexico disaster, said: "Forty-four men went out in atrocious conditions that night, rowing open lifeboats, to rescue 12 men.

"Twenty seven of them didn't come back.

"The aftermath of that tragedy had a lot of influence on the way the RNLI now fundraises to pay for its lifeboat service.

"Just like today's lifeboat crews, the men who drowned were all volunteers who didn't think twice about going out to help people in difficulty at sea.

"Of course, the lifeboats and equipment used today are much more modern and provide the crews with more protection but the bravery and commitment of the crews is no different."


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