No.32: The Matchless Tragedy

Caught in a Squall

As the holiday season draws to a close, it seems apt to look at summer holidays in times past.

A recent PastScape correspondent, Mr Simon Williams, drew my attention to the Matchless, lost in Morecambe Bay in 1894, an example of a wreck largely overlooked by history because she was very small and the incident, in terms of both crew and passengers, involved the working class. On 3rd September a little fishing vessel of ‘Lancashire nobby’ type, working as a pleasure craft for the holiday season, took out a party of visitors who had left behind their lives in the textile mills across the Pennines for a week. Crossing the Bay on an excursion to Grange-over-Sands, their vessel capsized in a sudden squall, turning a day trip into a tragedy.

Sketch from the Lancashire County and Standard Advertiser, 7th September, 1894, as drawn by an eyewitness to the Matchless tragedy.
Sketch from the Lancashire County and Standard Advertiser, 7th September, 1894, as drawn by an eyewitness to the Matchless tragedy.


Mr Williams, a local historian, has not only offered further information to improve the record based on his researches, but has also turned the research into a very interesting book (available directly from him at, £5). He also told me about another excursion in the same area in 1850 which turned into tragedy, involving a party of middle class Mancunians and their boatmen who failed to meet their boat at the end of a day out at Grange-over-Sands.

These two stories reveal that opportunities for leisure filtered down the classes within the space of half a century. In between 1850 and 1894 we see mass tourism taking off. By the same token, a shipping accident could impact on huge numbers of people simultaneously: several hundred lost their lives when the Princess Alice went down in the Thames in 1878, drowned, pulled down by weeds, trapped in the wreckage, or poisoned by raw sewage.

At an earlier date fewer numbers were involved, since opportunities for leisure were confined largely to the gentry. Our earliest account of a wreck involving an excursion party was in 1733 when ’13 or 14 gentlemen and ladies, having been at Mr Weld’s seat’ and their boat capsized off Weymouth in an accident very similar to the Matchless. From a fairly early date owners of fishing vessels exploited the possibility of supplementing their income by taking on these well-heeled passengers: at Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1739, ‘two masters of fishing smacks, to wit, Hanks and Stebbing, with a young gentleman from London, and three servants, going to take their pleasure in a boat at sea near Berwick, the boat was cast away, and every soul lost.’

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, we see a number of accidents on the Yorkshire coast as Scarborough and other Yorkshire resorts became fashionable. The dangers of such excursions extended beyond squalls to human error, as one such incident at Whitby in 1802 demonstrates.

The account is injected with a vein of grim humour:

‘On the 6th inst. a sailing boat, with 7 persons in her, belonging [to] Whitby, was . . . nearly cut in two, by a vessel under full sail coming out of the harbour. Some saved their lives by swimming; others were picked up alive by boats: amongst the latter was a ci-devant serjeant of the Durham militia, who had nearly left his “blooming bride” of fourscore to lament his premature death.’

It is notable that most of these incidents took place in September rather than earlier in the summer, but then, of course, in the 19th century, the extent of the holiday season was influenced by the “Wakes weeks” in which factories closed down at different times in different places. It was also not defined by compulsory education in the way it is now.

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