Hurricane hits Liverpool, 1839

Rescuing passengers from the St Andrew Packet Ship off Liverpool Samuel Walters, July 1839, Liverpool Record Office
Rescuing passengers from the St Andrew Packet Ship off Liverpool Samuel Walters, July 1839, Liverpool Record Office

Based on research in local newspapers of the time, this article illustrates some tragic losses and heroic rescue attempts off Liverpool in January 1839.

Storms had swept across Ireland and the Irish Sea, causing extensive damage and hit the coasts off Liverpool, reaching hurricane proportions.

Will we make it ashore or wait to be rescued?

In the days before weather forecasts, television or the radio, the city of Liverpool was completely unprepared in January 1839 for a storm that had already caused extensive damage across Ireland and the Irish Sea. For two days Liverpool was battered by a fierce storm with the local newspapers featuring hundreds of eyewitness accounts of the terrible winds and wild seas. These accounts confirm it was a hurricane, as they describe a sudden change of wind direction after a period of calm known as ‘the eye of the storm’.

In the days before the hurricane, the winds had kept many ships in port because it was blowing in the wrong direction. A change of wind on Sunday 6 January meant that more than 50 vessels left Liverpool and its surrounding ports, keen to make-up for lost time. Many of these vessels, having lost their sails and masts, then turned round to find a safe harbour as the weather deteriorated.

One of the first victims of the hurricane was the ‘North West Lightship’, which broke from its moorings in Liverpool Bay. It could not be replaced because of the bad conditions, and this was to have serious consequences. Ships caught in the storm included the ‘Brighton’, the ‘St Andrew’, the ‘Pennsylvania’ and the ‘Lockwood’ as they tried to reach the safety of the port but were blown onto the sandbanks outside Liverpool. Having struck the sandbanks the ships quickly began to break up as a result of the constant battering by the wind and the waves. Those on board were faced with either trying to make it ashore or to wait for rescue. Some of the crew of the ‘Brighton’, which was nearing the end of its voyage from Bombay in India, escaped onto a raft but were never seen again. A boat was launched from the American clipper ‘Pennsylvania’ to get help, and was just 90 yards from the shore when it was overturned.

The severe conditions that had driven ships onto the River Mersey sandbanks also stopped the much smaller lifeboats from helping them. The Magazines lifeboat from Wallasey on the Wirral tried to reach the deck of the ‘St Andrew’ but could only do so on the following morning when it rescued eight people and transferred them onto the waiting steamer ‘Liverpool’. The ‘Victoria’, the Steam Tug Company’s best steamboat was sent out to help the passengers onboard the ships that had run aground. The tug went to help the ‘Pennsylvania’ but was beaten back by the storm. Mr Eccles, the Captain of the ‘Victoria’ was able to sail alongside the ‘Lockwood’ allowing more than 20 people to jump to safety before the conditions threatened to ground the ‘Victoria’ as well. The following day when it returned the ‘Victoria’ was able to rescue more survivors, although 50 people had died during the night. A further 50 people were helped by the lifeboats from the Magazines and Hoylake.

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