George Lennox Watson


HOW George Watson became involved with lifeboats.

The 'Lifeboat', journal of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution produced a report titled in good Victorian fashion, "Sketch of the progress made in the Construction of Coast Lifeboats".

The magazine reports (in wonderfully wordy Victoriana): "In 1887, the standard of self-righting for the self-righting lifeboats was much increased, and as by far the greater proportion of the fleet of Life-boats were of the self-righting type, it became necessary to test all these boats to ascertain what their self-righting power actually was; the result of this proved that a very large number had less than the new standard, and consequently it became necessary either to replace them by new boats, or if possible to alter them in such a way as to increase their self-righting properties up to the requisite power". (whew).

Behind this cumbersome sentence lies a tragedy of epic proportions.

On December 9th 1886, the German barque Mexico, fully laden, and with a crew of 13 men, attempted to beat her way out of Liverpool into the teeth of a full south-westerly gale.

During the day many saw the ship trying to make headway offshore against the full force of the rising tempest. She was gradually driven to leeward and, at about 9pm, in the howling dark, found herself ashore in the treacherous shallows at the mouth of the Ribble, off Southport, Lancashire.

Owing to her deep draught and the fact that the beaches and sandbanks in the area extended far offshore, the Mexico was by no means close to land, but was being subjected to massive breakers and seemed hell-bent to perdition.

The barque's distress signals were seen by three of the local lifeboat stations - at Southport, St. Annes and Lytham - all of which immediately began efforts to come to her assistance. Winds were estimated at Force 7 and the tide setting against the wind caused the sea to break heavily. The Southport lifeboat, the Eliza Fearnley, led by Coxwain Charles Hodge, was transported four miles down the beach by horse and carriage so as to launch to the windward of the wreck.

Eventually, they launched through the breaking surf and the cheers of the launch party and onlookers could be heard above the roar.

The lifeboat eventually reached the Mexico, illuminated by one masthead light, at about 1am. While trying to manhandle the boat in atrocious conditions, Coxwain Hodge made the fateful decision to drop anchor and try to veer down to the wreck. According to one of the two survivors out of a crew of 16: "We had just got alongside the ship when a wave came and capsized us in a jiffy. Why mate, believe me but the weight of the water alone was enough to have killed us".

The Eliza Fearnley was a standard self-righting lifeboat of recent design, but by all accounts it seemed that the weight of the unset anchor hanging off the bow would not allow her to re-right and she rolled several times. Eventually she drifted into shallow water where the two survivors would stumble ashore dazed and in shock.

The lifeboat from St Annes, the Laura Janet, fared no better. She had successfully launched at 10.25 pm from her location on the North side of the river entrance from where she proceeded 500 yards under oars and then made sail, crossing the Salt House Bank. What happened after this will never be known for the crew of the Laura Janet never returned.

Their loss of their fellow lifesavers and their boats was unknown to the crew from Lytham, who set out in the lifeboat Charles Biggs against monumental odds and despite being laid over on her beam, being swamped several times and losing three oars, succeeded in getting alongside the wreck of the Mexico and rescuing her crew.

Twenty-seven lifeboatmen lost their lives that night.

The tragedy revived a debate about the suitability of self-righting boats for all conditions. This debate reflected the fact that British and Irish lifeboats had to contend with an extreme variety of coastal features and some of the worst weather and sea conditions in the world, so it was unlikely that a 'one-size-fits-all' approach would do.

G.L. Watson was hired by the Institution as consulting naval architect to study the problem and make recommendations. Thus started a partnership between Watson and his successor Barnett that was to create a class of all-weather offshore lifeboats which lasted until the 1980's. Watson's first two lifeboats were designed in 1890 - and were not without teething troubles, as they were large sailing and pulling boats with drop keels for sailing. Alas, the keels were a distinct handicap when launching from a beach, collecting gravel and jamming or getting stuck on the bottom. The Lifeboat magazine made the best of it: "When once at sea they won golden opinions, showing a great turn of speed and splendid weatherly qualities. In justice to her designer, it must be explained that he did not contemplate launching from open beach when he submitted his plans. Considerable trouble was experienced with her drop keel, which could not be kept free from the shingle which worked into the aperture, and the trials were all made without the drop keel, much to the disadvantage of the boat.

However one of the principal advantages derived from these trials was instruction and the finding out of weak points, and it was not too much to say that everyone connected with lifeboat work learned a great deal from them.

A classical description of a learning experience! Contemporary politicians take note.

Watson's conclusion was that there was a place for self-righting boats, but only in the case of smaller pulling boats designed for surf and inshore work. For other purposes, especially longer range offshore use, non-self-righting designs could be faster, easier to handle and more seaworthy. This conclusion was shortly to be reinforced by the advent of motor powered lifeboats. Watson lived long enough to advise the Institution on the application of steam and internal combustion power to the larger lifeboats, dying before the full trials of motor lifeboats were complete.


A Watson designed lifeboat

Watson designed a durable class of lifeboats that started with sailing and oars and adapted to petrol and diesel motor power


Other Watson designed sailing craft

But he didn't just design lifeboats........