Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners Royal Benevolent Society and the Parkgate fishermen

by Stella Young

In the latter half of the nineteenth century a number of fishermen from Neston and Parkgate subscribed to the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society (Shipwrecked Mariners for short) known locally as the ‘boat club’. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century membership had largely declined.

The Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariner’s Society was founded in 1839 to assist merchant seamen, fishermen and their widows and dependents. It was established by John Rye, a surgeon of Bath, and Charles Gee Jones a former Bristol pilot and later landord of the Pultenay Arms, in November 1838 after 21 men of the Clovelly fishing fleet were lost in a severe storm. It was incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1850. The Society’s first patron was Queen Victoria and Admiral Sir George Coburn was President.

The Society undertook to help the survivors of shipwrecks by providing food and lodgings and the means to return home, to make payments and provide support for the family of mariners drowned at sea and to compensate fishermen for loss and damage to boats and equipment. It was funded by subscriptions from mariners and fishermen and by donations from the public. Between 1851 and 1854 the Society also provided lifeboats, including one at Rhyl, but it was decided in 1854 that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) should be responsible for rescue at sea and the Society for supporting survivors and their families.

In December, 1839 Chester Mayor, John Uniacke chaired a meeting at the Exchange in Chester with a view to establishing an auxiliary branch in the Chester area. It was financed by donations and subscriptions from mariners and fishermen. President of the Chester branch was Duncan Stewart with Henry Raikes as Vice President and George Brydges Granville was Treasurer. The Hon Secretary was Edward Watson Lloyd (see Parkgate Regattas). Agent for the Society in 1842 was John Lloyd of the Mount in Chester. E.W. Watson Lloyd succeeded his father as agent and in 1851 he in turn was replaced by Mr Beck.

Severe weather conditions increased the numbers of claims and put the Society’s finances under pressure and in January 1853 an advert was placed in the Chester newspapers asking for public support.

Chester Chronicle – Saturday 01 January 1853
Incorporated by Act of Parliament.
Her Most Gracious Majesty—His Royal Highness Prince Albert, K.G.
Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Gloucester—His Majesty the King of Prussia.
The Right Hon. Sir George Cockburn, Admiral of the Fleet.
Lord Henry Cholmondeley.

THE late awful and unprecedented gales having pressed most heavily upon the finances the Society, the Committee take the opportunity to bring the merits of the Institution under the notice of the public.
Between 600 and 700 vessels are annually lost at sea, or wrecked upon the coast, besides fishing boats. The Crews saved are taken charge of by the Honorary Agents of the Society acting at convenient distances from the Orkneys to the Lands End; clothed, if necessary, and sent to their homes. 3,257 shipwrecked men were relieved in like manner last year, and 918 widows and orphans of the drowned within the same period were liberally encouraged in the hour of distress. Upwards £2OOO has been expended during the last four months in relief under this head. The Society have now eight Life-boats, with other Apparatus for saving life on the Coasts, and had they the means would be glad to supply forty other places in great need of Life-boats.
Subscriptions and Donations in aid of the ” General,” or ” Life-boat” Funds received by Messrs. Williams, Deacon, & Co., and by the following Honorary Agents of Society : –
Mr. George C. Parker, Solicitor.. Wrexham,
R. Beck, Esq Chester,
Thos. Wanklyn, Esq Rhyl,
Lieut. Hookey, R.N Birkenhead,
Mr. John Williams Parkgate & Neston,
And by Francis Lean, R. N., Secretary. Offices, Hibernia Chambers, London Bridge.
Note.—The Public are respectfully reminded that by supporting this Society, they provide effectually against being importuned by persons travelling the country under the pretence of having been shipwrecked, by it all shipwrecked persons arc relieved and conveyed to their homes.

Local, volunteer agents were appointed  to deal with claims and in 1853 the agent for Neston and Parkgate was Mr John Williams. A. S. Grenfell of Mostyn House School also took an interest in the Society and served as agent at point.

The Society initially seemed to offer fishermen a means of making provision for themselves without recourse to charity when bad weather (see Stormy Weather) damaged the boats and equipment on which they depended for their livelihood. However, in November 1888 (Cheshire Observer – Saturday 24 November 1888) this particular function of the Society was called into question. The agent at this time was the Reverend William Ferguson Barrett, M. A., curate at Neston Parish church and headmaster at Mostyn House School. There was also a local committee of three experienced fishermen to guard against any fraudulent claims upon the Society.

Reverend Barrett received a letter from the Society which stated that the Society would no longer make payments to those men working in ‘port, harbour or sea’ except as an act of charity or special concession. It went on to say that even those who did fish on the open sea had to be ‘on board’ at the time of the disaster. This requirement made no sense to the recipients at Parkgate.

This latter unreasonable condition elicited an apt, if somewhat vague, comment from one of the fishermen present. ” Would any captain stop on board,” he exclaimed, ” if he could get ashore ?” — viz., if a man’s boat, and consequently his life, was in danger, is it at all likely that he would sacrifice the latter in order to comply with one of the rules of the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Society ?

The comment was made at  meeting held at the Parkgate National Schoolroom attended by fishermen, residents and other parties who took an interest in the welfare of the fishermen and their families. Mr Thomas Comber, J.P chaired the meeting and also present, as well as Rev Barrett were local clergymen, Revs Gleadowe, Lyon and Towert. The Parkgate representative on the Dee Board of Conservators, the Hon. Henry Holbrook also attended, as did Reginald Haigh, a member of the Local Board. Not surprisingly the fishermen themselves were well represented and included James Bushell, James Bushell, junior, Benjamin Higgins, William Campion and members of the Matthews, Bedson, Brierley, Roscoe, Cunningham and Mealor families.

The Rev Barrett read out the letter which he had received from Mr. W. R. Buck, secretary of the Society which quoted the Rule 11

‘Under the provision of Society’s Rule 11 the cases ordinarily allowable are those of loss or damage by shipwreck, storm or accidents of the sea, of fishing boats when on the sea (not in port, harbour or river), in bona fide pursuit of their calling, with the owners on board,’
Rev Barrett then gave an account of the correspondence which had been exchanged since he received the letter. In response to his letter asking for a further explanation he had received a second letter which pointed out that the loss or damage to boats was not the only or even the main circumstance for which the Society provided relief and that further payments may be made in future under clauses relating to ‘stress of weather’ or ‘charitable’ cases.

Rev Barretts’ reply asked Mr Beck to clarify if he meant that any claims would only be met as an act of ‘charity’ rather than right and warning that such a decision might well result in local fishermen deciding not to continue their subscriptions. He also stated that all were aware that subscriptions of the members did not meet the full cost but that they would hope to receive some payment. He also pointed out that Parkgate and Neston fishermen rarely fished outside the estuary of the Dee, that the anchorage at Parkgate was exposed with no shelter from bad weather and that in the past most claims had related to damage whilst boats were moored and that these always been  paid without objection. He also pointed out that many men had been paying subscriptions for decades and some had certainly paid out more than they had received in payments. Mr Beck’s reply on behalf of the Society’s committee was unsympathetic.

Mr Barrett presented a summary of the payments which had been made and received in the previous six years; during this time the Society had made payments to the sum of £114 and had received in subscriptions £47 17s and donations of £14 11s leaving a shortfall of £52.

Mr Comber pointed out that according the Society’s rules subscribers of 3 shillings a year were entitled to a payment of between £1 10s and £6 if their boats suffered damage. He argued that the Society’s action was, in effect, an attempt to change the terms of a contract which they could not legally do without the consent of the other party to the contract, namely the fishermen. He advised a more vigorous response.

James Bushell pointed out that he had been subscribing to the Society for 50 years. It was decided that a sub committee consisting of Rev Barrett, Thomas Comber and Reginald Haigh be appointed to make further representations to the Society on behalf of the fishermen.

Whatever action they took it was evidently successful as the Observer of Saturday the 15th December 1888 reported briefly –

The Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners Society— The local agent (Rev. W. F. Barrett) has written to the local members of the society stating that the society has re-considered the case of the Parkgate fishermen, and that “the relief claims of existing members for boat loss or damages, will be met as heretofore in accordance with the scale.”

The scale however never covered the full cost of any losses. Less than a year later a violent storm again damaged the fishing boats anchored at Parkgate, as the wind and tide swept some boats into the wall and in some cases lifted them over the wall onto the road. Despite the efforts of the fishermen 23 boats were damaged beyond repair and when the loss of tackle and equipment was taken into account the total losses amounted to £200. The newspaper reported that only a small number of men would receive compensation from the ‘boat club’. (Cheshire Observer, 12th October 1889).

On that occasion local fisherman, Benjamin Higgins, lost only lost a punt but in the following year he lost a trawling boat when he went to the aid of another fishermen, George Norman. Higgins was caught in a storm one evening and while heading for home he came across George Norman and tried to help him by towing  him back. But in the end Norman had to abandon his boat go aboard Higgins trawler  but eventually both were swept onto Dawpool beach. Higgins saved what he could from the boat but it was destroyed leaving him with no means of working and supporting his wife and six children. One local resident, signing himself, ‘ A Landsman’, wrote to the Cheshire Observer pointing out that although Higgins had made what provision he could by subscribing to the Shipwrecked Fishermen’s and Mariner’s Society the few pounds he would receive from them would not be enough to replace the trawler and tackle he had lost.

The writer of the letter was most probably Reginald Haigh, a Liverpool cotton broker who lived at Leighton Banastre. A member of the Neston and Parkgate Local Board he had married Flora Grenfell, a sister of A. F. Grenfell. He took an interest in the welfare of the fishermen and their families,  was also at that time the Parkgate representative on the River Dee Board of Conservators and was mainly responsible for providing Benjamin Higgins with a replacement for his lost boat. Sadly though this boat in turn was wrecked in a storm in February 1894 (Cheshire Observer – Saturday 17 February 1894)

Another fishermen, Tom Robinson, owner of a four ton boat named John and Betsy, saw his boat sink ‘as if a cannon shot had gone through it’ when the masts broke of and plunged into the side.  There other losses including Dan Roscoe’s boat which was also badly damaged as was ‘Jack’ Campion’s, Tom Sayers. Some of them would receive a payment from the Society but the few pounds would not be enough to make good the loss and damage. (Cheshire Observer – Saturday 17 February 1894). The newspaper account suggested that entertainments be put on in the Town Hall to raise funds to assist them.

There were similar scenes at the end of the year in December when severe gales again hit Parkgate and Benjamin Higgins boat was again amongst those damaged. Trawlers belonging to Christopher Jones, John Lewis and Thomas Mathews were also damaged or buried in sand. (Cheshire Observer – Saturday 29 December 1894). The grants from the Society, a maximum of £4, were unlikely to meet the costs and the formation of a local ‘boat club’ funded by subscriptions from the fishermen and local donations was suggested.

Locally membership of the Society declined. Many local fishermen paid into the Neston and Parkgate Tontine which was established in 1887 and by 1902 had 61 members, mainly fishermen. It provided grants on death and sickness for a payment of 1d per week or 6 shillings per year but did not cover damage or loss of boats or tackle. In 1902 two men acted jointly as agents for Parkgate and Neston members of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society: William Jones and Richard Lewis Price, bank manager. They had the unenviable job of adjusting local claims on the society and when William Jones’ trawler was the object of malicious vandalism on a number of occasions it was suggested that some ill feeling arising from this

In 1903 the level of claims from Parkgate and Heswall was again a cause for concern to the Society and the two agents received a visist from Captain Cecil J. G. Cadogan, R.N a member of the Finance Committee.  Although the claims seemed high to the Society the payments continued to be inadequate to meet the losses sustained. In September of the same year Thomas Matthews lost his boat the Sarah Ann when he and Joseph Smith were caught in a sudden gale. They were returning from taking Mr and Mrs Seddon of the Chester Hotel to Rhyl together with the Seddons young daughter, aged six. The two men had just left Rhyl with the intention of setting the trawl when they were caught in a sudden gale which, combined with a rough tide off Rhyl, eventually forced them, after a long and desperate struggle to save the boat, to escape to shore using the punt which they had in tow. The fishing gear was lost and the boat was washed up in pieces in the early hours of the morning. They both returned to Parkgate by train in an exhausted state. His loss was estimated at over £50 whilst he could hope for little more than a few pounds from the Society.( Chester Courant and Advertiser 2nd September 1903)

But for Thomas Robinson’s family the Shipwrecked Mariners Society’s assistance was required, in the same year, for the worst of reasons. On the morning of 10th November he got up at 3 am and after having a cup of tea told his wife, Annie, that he would go out to see how the weather was and if it was no better he would come back home. He never returned. Aged 52 he was an experienced fishermen and a good swimmer and despite the bad weather he set sail for the fishing grounds beyond Heswall.

Chester Courant and Advertiser, 18th November 1903
A stiff breeze was blowing in the early morning from the north-north-west, and this increased to such an extent as to make it a somewhat risky procedure to put out in anything smaller than the sturdy trawling boats, which are specially built to withstand the many boisterous seas that sweep over the estuary. The large-sized punts are, however, frequently used at this season for trawling, and while the majority of those who sat out in the darkness of the early morning betook themselves to the mussel beds, several set out in these frail crafts for the fishing grounds at the river mouth. Among these was Thomas Robinson, one of the most able fishermen on the Dee. He knew every trick of the fisherman’s trade, and his pluck and cleverness in handling a boat under the most adverse conditions were proverbial among the fishing fraternity. He was, moreover, an excellent swimmer, and his well-known prowess in this respect lends an air of mystery to what followed

He was drowned in a freak accident when his boat, swamped by a sudden wave, sank and Robinson became trapped by the mast or the fishing gear and was unable to swim to safety. Thomas Matthews junior, in another boat, was with Robinson off Caldy Blacks past Thursaston when the accident happened.

…and with his jib and mizzen only set, and the mainsail closely furled, Robinson adroitly tacked hither and thither against the wind until he got beyond Heswall. He was followed at a distance of about 200 yards by Thos. Matthews, junr. who in a similar but more sea- worthy boat was bent upon the same errand and followed the same tactics. Another boat lay & mile away, and yet another two miles away, both of the latter being much too distant to witness the tragedy that was approaching. The doomed man, Robinson, and Matthews had now reached Caldy Blacks beyond Thurstaston and in the ordinary course would soon have put down their their trawls. Glancing carelessly towards the leading boat, Matthews noticed Robinson sitting on the side grasping the tiller in one hand, while he worked the sail with the other, and this was the last seen of him alive. Matthews turned his head for a moment, and looking again towards Robinson, was horrified to find that, he and his boat had disappeared, with the exception of a foot or so of the mast, which was just vanishing under the water. There had not been a sound, and although Matthews was sailing over the spot a moment afterwards, there was not a sign of the strong swimmer. An oar floated on the surface. As Matthews hovered over the spot the rudder, tiller, sprit and well lid rose from the depths. It was now about. 6 45. and so light that if Robinson had risen to the surface in any direction he must at once have been seen. Matthews returned home with the sad intelligence, and it was only on their return from fishing that the absent fishermen learned what had occurred. The deceased sank in the “Deep,” where there is a width of from 200 to 300 yards, and where there is always from 20 to 30 feet of water after the tide has ebbed. It is supposed that Robinson was in the act of bailing out the boat, when it shipped sea that sank it to the bottom like a stone, and that the mast fell over him as he went down, or that he was entangled in some way in the gear, as otherwise, unencumbered as he was with sea boots he would easily have swum over the few hundred yards that separated him from the shore.

Attempts were made in the following days to recover his body but with no success. He left a wife, Annie, and six children, although some of them were now adults. As he was a member of the Shipwrecked Mariner’s Society his family were entitled to a payment of about £15 with a small weekly allowance for the two youngest children while value of the boat itself amounted to £20. However in the absence of a body his death could not be proved and no claim could be made.  It was more than six months before his body was finally recovered when it was washed ashore at Parkgate not far from his home. At the inquest which followed the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. The jury foreman, William Tattersall, raised the matter of the lack of a mortuary at Parkgate and the Coroner suggested that the local authority should investigate the cost of providing one. (Chester Courant and Advertiser for North Wales, 11th May 1904).

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