A ship with three identities: the Mexico disaster, 1886

We are delighted to welcome as our guest blogger this week Roger Burns, who has researched and written this post. Roger describes himself as a ‘retired civil engineer, who, seeking a hobby, volunteered in 2016 with the Maritime Archaeology Trust, for whom he researches wrecks and drafts articles and blogs, and as a result has become a regular contributor of wreck data to Historic England. Prior to volunteering, Roger had minimal maritime knowledge, but is now fully immersed in such an interesting and rewarding pursuit.’

On the anniversary of the final loss on 27th February 1900, Roger tells the story of a ‘wrecked’ vessel which resulted in a horrific tragedy off the Lancashire coast – one ship, three identities, and two distinct fates, with no apparent connection between the two events until his recent research.

Contemporary oil painting of the hull of a wreck under a dark cloudy sky at low tide, allowing salvors to attend the wreck (on the left).

Figure 1: The wreck of the Mexico, Emil Axel Krause, 1886. As a Lancashire painter born in Germany, the wreck of the Mexico must have held double appeal as a subject.
Source: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-wreck-of-the-mexico-66088
Atkinson Art Gallery Collection CC BY-NC-SA

Early career: as the John Bull

We begin with the launch of a barque on 21 February 1860 as the John Bull by Thomas R. Oswald & Co., Pallion, Sunderland for Temperley & Co., White Lion Court, Cornhill, London, a modestly-sized 3-masted sailing vessel of 484 tons gross. (1) Completed in March 1860, it was registered at London as ON28377 of 484 tons gross. With a single bulkhead, the vessel was constructed (2) throughout of iron protected by red lead paint, except for the deck which was yellow pine, provided with one longboat and two other small boats, certified and classed 12A1 by Lloyd’s.

We are able to trace the story of the John Bull in the British Newspaper Archive and elsewhere. The ship was intended for the London to Quebec and Montreal trade, first arriving on 17 May 1860 and these return voyages endured until November 1872, encountering seasonal ice. Exceptions were a return passage in 1866 to Woosung and Shanghai, another when in December 1872, the John Bull departed London for New Zealand, returning to London the following November, then departed again for New Zealand returning via Australia destined for Leith. The 1872 voyage to New Zealand provides exceptional detail in both British and New Zealand newspapers: over May and June 1873 there were several newspaper Notices of Auctions for three bales of curled horse hair, 79 kegs of crushed loaf sugar, 10 packages of Eleme raisins, one bale of bleached cotton waste, two bales of grey blankets, and an assortment of tin boxes of tin plates, all of which had been landed by the John Bullmore or less damaged by sea-water”. An out-of-character destination in November 1876 when en route London to Montreal was Guadeloupe, either as a diversion, or due to storms. The last Canadian trip appears to be mid-1878 and then, on 28 December 1878, when en route from Baltimore to North Shields with a cargo of Indian corn (maize), the ship’s boy, who hailed from London, fell overboard in heavy weather and drowned.

There were several changes of ownership, with the John Bull being regularly advertised for sale between November 1879 and March 1881. During this time, it had been dry-docked, chipped and painted internally and externally and provided with new main mast, main and foretopsail yard, jibboom and windlass. Contained in a Lloyd’s dated 19 May 1881, was another change of ownership to Gebrüder Oetling of Hamburg, including the construction of a ‘house’, 6.55m long, 4.15m wide and 1.96m high, on the deck between foremast and main hatch – unfortunately, records do not show details of previous accommodation. (3)

A change of name: Mexico

At this point it was also renamed the Mexico, re-registered at Hamburg, and a Captain Burmeister assumed command, signalling a change in routes through until summer 1886. Reported ports of call included, in chronological order, Santos, Valparaiso, Iquique, Hamburg, Arica, Corinto, Liverpool, Marseilles, Hamburg, Pauillac, unidentified ports in Central America, Hamburg, La Union, La Libertad, Tebuantepac and Liverpool. Between September and November 1886, regular advertisements appeared for repeat sailings between Liverpool and Guayaquil, Ecuador.  

Between 1860 and 1881, there were 18 Lloyd’s reports, of which eight were regular Annual Surveys, the remainder including repairs, mostly of checking and repainting the hull, always retaining its original classification, thus supporting its ‘For Sale’ advertisements which drew attention to its pedigree.

The first wreck as Mexico, 1886

Media reports of the wrecking of the sailing barque Mexico appeared in the newspapers of 10 December 1886, notably the local Lancashire Evening Post, intimating that the vessel had gone aground just off Southport, was dismasted, and its 12 crew were saved, but also that disaster had struck two RNLI lifeboats, from Southport and St. Annes, with 27 of 29 of their crews drowned. (4)

Map of the Ribble Estuary, showing the location of the wreck west of Southport, with St. Annes and Lytham to the north; inset map at top left showing the location on the north English coast.

Figure 2: Location of the first wrecking of the SV Mexico, and the three involved communities
(Maritime Archaeology Trust)

The Mexico had departed Liverpool the previous night with a general but valuable cargo for Guayaquil, Ecuador but managed only some 15 miles, encountering atrocious weather. The Southport lifeboat, the Eliza Fernley (5) was launched first, but capsized and was swept ashore, with only two of the 16 crew surviving. The St. Annes lifeboat, the Laura Janet (6) was also launched but it too capsized with all 13 crew being lost. The Lytham lifeboat, Charles Biggs, was launched for its maiden rescue, and succeeded in bringing all 12 crew of the grounded Mexico safely ashore. The loss of 27 RNLI volunteer crew remains to this day as its worst crew death toll in its long and distinguished history.

The newspapers were awash with reports for days afterwards. It is salutary to read the experience of John Jackson, one of the two survivors from the Eliza Fernley, who had been a volunteer lifeboatman for 15 years, transcribed from the 10 December 1886 issue of the Lancashire Evening Post:

‘At ten minutes to ten (pm) the horses set off with the boat, and, after experiencing considerable difficulty, launched the boat at eleven o’clock. A large crowd saw us off and the excitement was tremendous. The boat was launched successfully and went nicely for a time. A very heavy sea was running at the time, and our troubles soon commenced. Captain Hodge and Peters, the second coxswain, were at the helm, and as sea after sea washed over us, every man stuck grimly to his seat. We were beaten back several times and shipped an immense quantity of water. It was pitch dark at the time, and the only indication of the distressed barque was the faint glimpse of a lamp, which, as we got closer, we saw hung from the mizzen top. I was able to discern that the vessel had lost her foremast and mainmast. We were at length within 30 yards off the vessel, and could hear no shouting, indeed the storm rose to such a pitch that it was with difficulty that we could hear our own voices. I was just about letting go the anchor to get the boat alongside the vessel—we were then I should say, twenty yards from the barque—when a tremendous sea caught the boat right amidships, and she went over. We expected her to right herself, but she remained bottom upwards. Some of us managed, at length, to crawl out. I and Richard Robinson held firmly to the rowlocks, and was buffeted about considerably. With some difficulty I got underneath the boat again, and spoke, I think, to Hy. Robinson, Thos. Jackson, Timothy Rigby, and Peter Jackson. I called out, “I think she will never right; we have all to be drowned.” I heard a voice–I think it was Henry Robinson’s–say, “I think so, too.” I got out again and found Richard Robinson “fairly done.” He leaned heavily on my arm, and I think he must have been suffocated. Another heavy sea came, and when it receded, he had disappeared, and I never saw him again. While underneath, I called out to my brother “Clasper!” — that is a sort of nickname we gave him—but could get no answer. The boat eventually drifted bottom upwards to the shore, and those who were rescued, like myself, clung to her. I don’t know what became of the rest, I was exhausted. I remember seeing two or three struggling to reach the boat, but I do not know who they were. I drifted with the boat, bottom upwards, to the beach—and staggered home, about three o’clock in the morning.’

The RNLI have authored several reports, including this one on the centenary of the event in 1986.

The ensuing 2½ years

There was an outpouring of condolences from all walks of life, including Queen Victoria. The public relief fund, over an extended period, raised £35,000 (approx. £3.5m in 2022) to which the Emperor of Germany contributed £1,300. Just a few days after the disaster, the National Lifeboat Association announced that they would pay the cost of the funerals, held on 14 December 1886 and witnessed by huge crowds, and would also provide monetary assistance to the families until the public fundraising was complete: later, annuities from the relief fund were distributed to the families, sadly comprising 16 widows and 50 fatherless children. (7)

The St. Annes and Southport lifeboats were replaced in late 1886 with improved with improved water-ballast versions, but still powered by oar, and, weather permitting, sails. (8)

At a ceremony on 1 February 1887, the crew of the Charles Biggs were each thanked in person by Mr Babr, the German Consul, with a modest reward in appreciation of saving the Mexico’s German crew. (9)

On 11 March 1887, after three months partly under water, tugs towed the Mexico to Lytham where it was beached – Messrs Allsopp and Sons of Preston had secured the wreck for £70 in the expectation of reaping the rewards of its cargo, although a significant amount had been salvaged soon after the disaster and sold in local shops. During 1888, three obelisks and a memorial were erected in memory of the 27 lifeboat crew who were drowned.

Montage of four colour photographs of monuments in different styles; top left, obelisk; top right, chest tomb with broken mast feature; lower right, statue of lifeboatman on plinth; lower left, Gothic spire on plinth.

Figure 3: The four memorials, all listed structures, clockwise from top left: lifeboat monument, Southport; monument to the Southport lifeboat Eliza Fernley; lifeboat monument near St. Annes Pier; monument to the St. Annes lifeboat Laura Janet

It was right that the 1886 tragedy brought the RNLI into focus, precipitating the first public street collection in Britain in 1891, nearly seventy years after the RNLI’s inception in 1824.

The Mexico resurrected

A ‘For Sale’ advertisement in Lloyd’s List of 11 February 1889 offered the hull of the Mexico where it was lying on Lytham beach, with anchors, chains, steel hawser, some timber, ropes and a derrick, and with mizzenmast standing. Three months later, the Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette of 14 May 1889, reported that the Mexico had arrived at the Old West Dock in Greenock for an expected two months of repairs by a Mr Thomson, boilermaker, in preparation for the West India trade. It must have been considered a worthwhile investment despite its wide-ranging voyages as John Bull, grounding off Southport as Mexico, enduring over two years of storms at Lytham, and then towed some 200 miles to Greenock, thus being a credit to the structural design and skill of the builders who specialised in iron ships from 1860 – regular survey by Lloyd’s and essential maintenance by the owners also contributed.

Final fate as the Valhalla

The new (managing) owner was Lewis T. Merrow, 65 West Regent St., Glasgow and the Mexico was re-registered with 477 tonnage at Glasgow until 1898. Ownership was then briefly held by J.P. Clausen, Nordby, Fanø, Denmark, who renamed the vessel Valhalla. The final owner was A/S Valhalla, managed by Hans Blom & Frithjof Ohlsen, Fredriksvaern, Norway. By now, it was registered in Fredriksvaern, with new number 1028377, and her tonnage recorded as 494 gross/476 net. The voyage history after repairs at Glasgow is sparse and lacking detail in the cargoes carried, but ports visited from the Clyde included the Demerara region of Guyana, Pensacola, and Belfast.

With nine crew and the master (whose name is either omitted from both British and Norwegian newspapers, or variously spelt as Servig, Sorvig, Sowig etc.) the Valhalla departed Gravesend for Grangemouth in ballast, and while off the North Berwick coast on 27 February 1900, encountered a rain storm, haze, and heavy sea, and ran aground opposite Tantallon Castle. (10)

Location map showing the wreck of the Valhalla off Tantallon Castle; inset map at top left showing the relative location near Edinburgh

Figure 4: Location of the final wreck SV Valhalla (Maritime Archaeology Trust)

The North Berwick lifeboat was called out, and like at Southport, four lifeboatmen were washed overboard but fortunately regained their lifeboat. The Valhalla’s crew were pulled ashore in their own boat, aided by a rocket line from shore, and, except for one injury, were safe and well. (11) The Valhalla was dashed to pieces, and the crew were repatriated.

Text in Norwegian (translated in caption) in Black Letter Gothic typeface from contemporary newspaper

Figure 5: Contemporary report in Norges Sjøfartstidende, 5 March 1900, p2 (excerpt).
Translated, this reads: ‘Valhalla. Dundee, 28th February. Norwegian barque Valhalla has now completely broken up.’
Source: Nasjonalbiblioteket, Oslo, Norway. CC-BY-NC-ND

We would like to express our appreciation to Roger for telling the fascinating story of the Mexico/Valhalla, a ship that was wrecked twice over in two different places, and also to Julie Satchell of the Maritime Archaeology Trust for her kind assistance.

The connection between the two events has until now been obscure, with the two years between the first wreck event involving the Mexico and its eventual recovery for sale highly unusual, to sail again as the Valhalla, and the different names under which the barque went ashore on those two occasions.

The double ‘loss’ of the same ship under different circumstances several years apart is also unusual: it is not unknown, but is a relatively rare event (one of the better-known examples being HMS Thetis, sunk in Liverpool Bay in 1939, which was salvaged and re-entered service as HMS Thunderbolt, only to be lost with all hands in the Mediterranean in 1943).

There are also more interesting features about this ship since it illustrates over the course of the two wreck events that, on the one hand, a shipwreck such as Mexico may entail loss of life (in this case of the lifeboatmen who went so gallantly to the rescue) but the ship itself is recovered; on the other, as Valhalla, the crew may be saved, but the vessel itself lost.


(1) http://www.sunderlandships.com/view.php?year_built=&builder=&ref=105355&vessel=JOHN+BULL/

(2) Iron Ships Report for John Bull, 23rd February 1860 – https://hec.lrfoundation.org.uk/archive-library/documents/lrf-pun-iron434-0176-r

(3) Report of Survey for Repairs, &c for Mexico, 19th May 1881  https://hec.lrfoundation.org.uk/archive-library/documents/lrf-pun-lon665-0613-r

(4) Mexico; https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=3ca4c738-ba17-4906-87cc-d5ec4943fe42&resourceID=19191

(5) ibid (Mexico); Eliza Fernley: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=2e1647cd-fc97-44ae-843b-692e41686884&resourceID=19191

(6) ibid; Laura Janet: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=fd3d560b-8ff7-4e25-99ba-c5240fb2e12f&resourceID=19191

(7) https://rnli.org/about-us/our-history/timeline/1886-southport-and-st-annes-lifeboats-disaster

(8) Leeds Mercury, 15 December 1886; https://lifeboatmagazinearchive.rnli.org/volume/13/143/the-life-boat-disasters-at-southport-and-st-annes?searchterm=fernley&YearFrom=1886&YearTo=1888&page=1

(9) Lancashire Evening Post – 1 February 1887

(10) https://canmore.org.uk/site/120022/valhalla-tantallon-castle-gin-head-firth-of-forth

(11) North British Daily Mail, 28 February 1900

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