Dr. Sumner and the Formby Lifeboat

Lifeboat station with crew c1880

In our book on Britain’s First Lifeboat Station, first published by the Alt Press in 1982, Barbara and I wrote an account of the services of the Formby Lifeboat in the rescue of the crew of the Liverpool Pilot Boat, Good Intent, in 1855. On this occasion, public attention was subsequently focused on the efforts of one who was not himself a member of the lifeboat crew, Richard Sumner, the village doctor, who nevertheless apparently often went out to wrecks with the Lifeboat crew and exercised his medical skills assisting in the recovery of shipwrecked mariners.

This occurred 1833; five years prior to Grace and William Darling’s famous rescue and Richard Sumner was afterwards rewarded with even greater recognition than Grace Darling but has (unlike her) been largely forgotten. We ended the account by saying “yet who now remembers Richard Sumner?”

We are pleased to find that he is in fact remembered with great pride by a descendant in Queensland, Australia, who has recently discovered he was an ancestor and has now made contact with ourselves to find out more.

Pilot Boat No. l, the Good Intent, with 21 pilots and crew aboard, had been caught in a great storm on the night of 19/20th November 1833. In mountainous seas, the crew lost control of the vessel and it was blown on to the beach amongst raging surf a mile or two north of the Boat House. The tide at this time was high and, with the force of the gale behind them waves beat heavily against the Boat House door, delaying for some time the possibility of launching the boat. Finally, the boat was launched, but could not itself get near the distressed vessel as the latter was stranded on one of the longitudinal banks which characterise the Formby shore. A large crowd watched helplessly but were unable to assist the plight of the crew members who could be seen clinging to the rigging.

Meanwhile, two of the lifeboat crew, who had not gone out in the boat, found the Pilot boat’s punt cast up on the beach. They righted and launched it and started out to the wreck. At this stage, seeing the body of a man in the vicinity of the wreck someone shouted from the lifeboat to Dr. Sumner “We are going to need you doctor!” At this, Dr. Sumner, a strong and brave man then aged 35, plunged into the surf. He was then helped into the Lifeboat. Using the punt two crew members and Dr. Sumner managed to take off the casualties from the wreck and bring them ashore. The surgeon had previously sent a lad for a bottle of rum and used this to good effect as a restorative for those of the Good Intent’s crew who had reached the limit of their endurance.

It is clear that, in very difficult circumstances, Dr. Sumner had shown great courage and initiative, for which he was subsequently highly commended. The Lifeboat crew had however not been inactive and indeed it was subsequently claimed that without their combined efforts Dr. Sumner would have himself perished. Of the Good Intent’s complement of 22, only 9 were saved.

For his intrepid exertions, Dr. Sumner received the Gold Medals of both the Royal Humane Society and the ‘Shipwreck Institution’ together with £50 from Liverpool Common Council. William Formby and R. Kershaw were given £1 each by the ‘Shipwreck Institu­tion’ and £1 each from the Liverpool ‘Marine Fund’.

This was the second Royal Humane Society gold medal to be awarded to a Merseyside doctor, the first one having been awarded to the founder of the ‘Liverpool Scheme’, Dr. Houlston, in 1782. It is interesting to note that Richard Sumner’s ‘double gold’ was in fact a greater honour than was to be afforded to Grace Darling and her father five years later as although they received the Humane Society’s Gold Medal, the ‘Shipwreck Institution’ only gave them a Silver Medal.

A descendant of Richard Sumner, Greg Nichols of Salisbury, Queensland, Australia has researched his ancestor and discovered that Richard married Jane Tunnell in Preston, Lancashire (twice!) – the first entry in the register, dated 3rd October 1818, was crossed out, with a note in the margin Richard Sumner being under age and not having the consent of his parents; the couple were re-married on 1st December 1819″.

Greg Nichols found records of eight Sumner children for this couple (1820-1837), from Lancashire on-line Parish records, cross-referenced with Census records. The 1841 Census shows Richard, surgeon 40, Jane 40, Charles, Septimus, Henry and John, a printer. Also of interest, the next Census, in1851, has consecutive entries for the Sumners and Tunnells. At “Beech Tree House” in Brows Lane, the Sumners, Richard, 52, born in Lathom, Jane,  53, born in Yorks, Scarborough, Henry, farm labourer, who moved to Victoria, Australia in 1857, and Fanny, living in Victoria Cottage in Brow’s Lane.

Jane died in 1855 of chronic bronchitis and it is interesting to note that the signature of the Registrar is that of her husband, Richard. By the 1861 census Richard has a new wife, Sarah, born in Liverpool, and slightly younger than Jane. The 1871 census then lists the family address as Hawthorn Cottage 87 Brows Lane (N.B. the Post Office was listed as “88”) Richard, 73, Sarah, 70, daughter Fanny, 33; there was a grandson, Edward, 14, and grand-daughter, Mary, 12 (both born in Formby)

The 1881 census has Richard, 83, John Bennet Sumner, son, 59 and Fanny, daughter, 43. Dr. Sumner died on 30th April 1884 at Brows Lane, aged 86. His Probate entry dated 10th June gives his personal estate as £1.269, his spinster daughter Fanny being sole Executrix. At present we are not sure where Richard’s grave is.Formby village has altered dramatically since Richard Sumner lived and practised here. The only buildings present in Brows Lane (which then included what is now known as Chapel Lane) in the mid 19th century were seven cottages, four on one side and three on the other, separated by spacious gardens, arable land and meadow. It was one of these houses Beech Tree House, near the corner with Elbow Lane, that was occupied by Richard Sumner and his family. There were only fourteen other inhabitants in the heart of the village (Brows Lane/ School Lane) in 1851: the parish priest, the doctor’s family (which included two sisters-in-law, running a small private school), a lady ‘landed proprietor’, five farmers, a cow-keeper and four agricultural labourers, one retired. The farmers between them farmed just 64 acres and it is interesting that one of Richard’s sons, Henry took up Farming and emigrated to Australia.

By 1900, Formby had changed dramatically. On the south side, all the cottages except one had gone, replaced by a more or less continuous row of houses and shops and two banks. At the suggestion of this Society, Dr. Richard Sumner is now commemorated by the name given to the road which today connects Three Tuns Lane with Elbow Lane between the shops and car-park.