Tragedy at the riverbank as killer landslide strikes

On Remembrance Sunday 70 years ago two friends were swept them to their death in the Ribble, as local historian Keith Johnson recalls

Saturday, 14th November 2020, 3:45 pm
Scene of the Red Scar fishing tragedy, which killed two anglers in November 1950 when the riverbank gave way
Scene of the Red Scar fishing tragedy, which killed two anglers in November 1950 when the riverbank gave way

Seventy years ago, on November 12, 1950, four keen anglers decided to treat themselves to an afternoon’s fishing on the Ribble, despite it being a wet and windy day.

Among the group were two lifelong friends, Albert Edwards, 42, and Jack Southern, 40, from Wigan, who were known locally as the inseparables.

With the exception of the war years, when Mr Southern served in the Royal Artillery, the two men were almost always together.

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Jack Southern and Albert Edwards

They had been companions from childhood when they attended the same school, and as keen fishermen had fished at all the popular angling haunts together.

On this day the pair were accompanied by friends William Edwards and Arthur Gray, and decided the best place for fishing would be the Horse Shoe Bend on the Ribble.

Travelling by car from their Wigan home along the Longridge Road they drove down the cart track at the side of Courtaulds factory, left their vehicle at the edge of Red Scar Wood and scrambled down the high, steep bank to the water’s edge. Soon the men were set for an afternoon’s fishing side by side in the shelter of trees at the foot of the steep bank.

On the opposite bank of the river a group of young lads soon appeared. The eldest of them was 16-year-old Gordon Sharrock, of Waldon Street, in Preston, who was accompanied by three younger pals who had also taken up angling and started to enjoy the pleasures of a day on the river bank.

Horse Shoe Bend where the two anglers were killed

It was a full fast flowing river on account of the rainy spell which had greeted the start of November and on both sides of the river the fishermen young and old were absorbed in the challenging conditions. Suddenly, as the lads looked across the water they were horrified to see a crack opening up at the top of the incline opposite above the fishermen from Wigan.

Then, with a tremendous crash, a huge mass of earth and trees began tumbling down towards the men. The lads shouted across the river to warn the fishermen and both Grey and William Edwards immediately dashed to the side as the landslide approached, but the less fortunate Albert Edwards and Jack Southern were engulfed by the crumbling cliff side.

Edwards disappeared under the mud as it crashed into the river while Southern was swept into the water. The falling earth unleashed large waves which swept up the opposite bank and had the boys abandoning their fishing tackle and running for safety.

As they scrambled to safety they saw Jack Southern come to the surface of the water and then be swept away by the current. Gordon Sharrock and a companion ran to a near by farm and the farmer telephoned Preston Borough Police headquarters immediately.

Ambulances and the Fire Brigade joined the police in a rush to the scene equipped with rescue apparatus. But there was nothing they could do. It was apparent that Albert Edwards had been buried beneath hundreds of tons of debris while his pal had been swept to death down the river.

It was raining heavily and rescue workers scrambled down the still crumbling slope with caution, but as dusk began to draw in it was decided to abandon the search for the day. The two distraught friends of the victims recounted the details of the tragedy and their own narrow escape after they had been alerted by the shouts of the boys on the opposite bank. William Edwards had a badly bruised leg after being hit by a falling tree, but otherwise the pair had escaped serious injury.

The families of the missing men were informed of the tragedy that Sunday evening. Albert Edwards leaving a wife, two girls aged 14 and 12 and a seven-year-old boy, while Jack Southern left a wife and two sons aged 17 and 11. It was only by a twist of fate that the tragedy was not greater.

For the previous seven weeks, Arthur Gray’s father and a couple of other Wigan fishermen had been fishing at that spot at Red Scar, but had decided to try their luck further along the river.

The search for the bodies of the two men was resumed on the Monday morning, but despite carrying out dragging operations the only trace found was part of a fishing line and float.

As the day drew to a close it was decided by Chief Constable Henry Garth (pictured inset)put a halt to the search and warning notices were placed to make people aware of the perilous state of the riverbank. The two anglers were never seen again.