TWO historcial researchers are hoping to trace descendants of two members of the Ardrossan lifeboat crew who lost their lives in 1880.

Alexander Grier and William McEwan lost their own lives while saving the lives of ten crew members from a sailing ship.

Douglas Gorman contacted the Herald with the request for help and explained: “My great great grandfather, William Breckenridge, was the coxswain of the lifeboat that night and although he survived he died shortly after from illness as a result of exposure and immersion in the sea.

"His name, along with those of his crew mates, is on the Royal National Lifeboat Institution Memorial Sculpture in Poole, Dorset.

"The memorial records the names of lifeboat crew members who saved the lives of others before losing their own.”

We are now approaching the bicentenary of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Douglas feels it is an appropriate time to remember these crew members who gave their lives as well as all those who served on the Ardrossan lifeboat from 1870 to 1930, saving 122 lives.

Douglas is being assisted in his research by local historian George McGrattan, who provided more context for the historical event.

He said: “Both William Grier and Alexander McEwan lived in Harbour Row. We do not know the exact location of their homes but we think they may have been on what is today Harbour Road.

"William was 53 years of age and left a widow and a grown-up family. Alexander was 47 years of age and left a widow and six young children. Both men were rigger journeymen.

"Both families came together for a single funeral. We know William Breckenridge, against medical advice, rose from his sick bed to attend. Our search has become complicated as we have also seen their names spelt as Greer and McEwen.”

George went on to say that the bodies of the two men were quickly recovered and that both men were buried in a joint ceremony at Ardrossan Cemetery on March 3.

Some 27 days later William Breckenridge, who had succumbed to illness and left a widow and two children, joined his fellow lifeboatmen.

William's descendant Douglas continued: "This was a tragedy for the whole community of Ardrossan where those working in the harbour quickly and selflessly responded to help a ship in distress. Captain Steele was the harbour master.

"The lifeboat, the 'Fair Maid of Perth', was a rowing boat with ten oars. It was crewed by harbour workers who were not only work colleagues but friends and, in some cases, related.

"The lifeboat was assisted by tugs moored in the harbour that were quickly crewed, including by other members of the lifeboat crew not required to take an oar but eager to help. A lifeboat from the Brodick steamer was also launched to assist.

"Nothing illustrates the impact on the community more than the desperately sad experience of the family of harbour pilot Alexander Brodie. He was involved himself in assisting the rescue.

"His son, also Alexander, was a member of the lifeboat crew along with his son-in-law Alexander McEwan. His son narrowly survived by grabbing an oar of a rescue boat but his daughter Catherine was widowed and six young children had lost their father."

Douglas went on to tell us what caused the lifeboat to be launched.

He explained: “A sailing ship, the 'Matilda Hilyard', was approaching Ardrossan on a voyage from Dieppe and in atrocious weather and sea conditions ran aground on Horse Island.

"In the early hours of March 1, 1880 the lifeboat was launched and towed out by the harbour tug under the command of Robert Bannatyne together with engineer William Brown, fireman James Ardneil and a crew boy.

"In these days the lifeboat was a rowing boat with 10 oars. When the tow rope was released the lifeboat could not get near the stricken ship aground high on the reef and so went to the other side of the island.

"Six crew members were able to scramble across to find the Matilda Hilyard in a terrible state. With great effort the lifeboat men got a line aboard and were able to bring the twelve crew members ashore on to Horse Island.

"Although safer than on the vessel, the conditions were harsh and with no shelter from the atrocious weather. The harbour tug returned to Horse Island first thing the next morning with the pilot tug in tow and extra hands.

Douglas continued by explaining how the crew would then return to shore.

He said: "The harbour tug then set off back to harbour towing the lifeboat holding 25 people that in turn towed the empty pilot tug.

"The sea conditions were appalling and despite the expert seamanship of those involved the lifeboat capsized.

"Those tossed from the lifeboat struggled in the sea to get hold of the upturned boat. Unfortunately William Grier and Alexander McEwan perished.

"Two crew members of the Matilda Hilyard also drowned. Vincent Luthemburger was an able seaman from Vienna and John Hickey was the cook and steward who came from Norwich, Nova Scotia.”

The other eight members of the lifeboat crew were: Hugh Crawford, Patrick Doran, Alexander Brodie, James Findlay, James Gillies, Robert McMurtrie, William Robertson and John Templeton.

There were two other members of the lifeboat crew that were not required when the lifeboat went into action. However, they later went out in the pilot tug to help and made the return to harbour in the lifeboat. They were James Leitch and Edward Moloy.

Douglas is hoping any descendants of Alexander Grier and William McEwan or indeed other members of the lighthouse crew that night.

Anyone who feels they may be able to help can get in touch by contacting

He would be happy to share his own extensive research on the tragic events and hope to be able to add to it through the family history of others.

There may also be the opportunity to discuss if there should be a more permanent local memorial to the crew’s bravery.