Writing Cork Jackets and Drill

Even though I have lived in Sefton for all of my life, I had never heard of the Southport lifeboat disaster until a few short years ago, but on first hearing it, the story immediately struck me as being one that demanded a modern re-telling.


Just why such an epic tale has flown under so many people’s radar is a bit of a mystery to me – it certainly has all the elements that a great true story demands:   Death.  Tragedy.  Courage in adversity.


Encouraged by my friend Pete Rimmer to just get on and ‘blooming well write it!’ I had quietly knocked the idea for a performance piece around in my head for a year or two, until finally late in 2013 I took the bull by the horns and, with the help of the definitive work on the disaster*,  I finally put some lyrics onto the bones of melodies and some words into mouths.


Although I’d always intended to tell the whole story of that night with a fair emphasis to the St Annes and Lytham lifeboats (and I hope I have done) it was perhaps inevitable that the Southport crew and its boat would end up being rather nearer the centre of the story – and of course, in justification of this, it must be remembered that what the families of the Southport crew experienced that night, and consequently, happened also in St Annes.  The hurt, the loss, the grief, was inescapably the same – only the names were different.


The rehearsal of this piece has reminded me of the simple, heart-warming feeling that can be had from working towards a common goal among like-minded people.  The Lifeboat Crews of our three local towns depended on agreeing a common goal – an agreed way of working every time they went out onto the water.  Trust.  Co-operation.  Friendship.  Working closely with Chris, Siobhan, Clive, Colin and Pete on Cork Jackets, we too have experienced all those great qualities that reside within.


The word hero is a word so widely misapplied these days.  Applied to the men of the Eliza Fernley, the Laura Janet and the Charles Biggs that word is completely apt, well considered and far too often under-used.  Their story is remarkable and I feel we owe it to their memory that we at least pass their story down to the next generations to come.  Don’t you?


And on that note - the planned changes in the National Curriculum at primary schools will soon demand the study of true local historical stories.  I hope the story of the brave impoverished lifeboat men of Southport, Lytham and St Annes is one that our local schools along this coast might take up and tell to our children and grandchildren.  I hope that, once you have heard the story, you too will agree that it is a tale that deserves to be told to an audience of any age.


Cork Jackets and Drill is dedicated to the memory of my late father, Paul Pentin, and his father Fred - 

a man who sailed around the world on a ship just like the Mexico.


Len Pentin

Southport, February 2014


*The Great Lifeboat Disaster of 1886 by J Allen Miller.  New edition by Andrew Farthing.  Sefton Libraries, 2001.