The most important maritime center in the 19th century, Liverpool, had many advantages. Located on the England-facing west coast of the Irish Sea, the Mersey approach was wide, deep and actively associated with all aspects of shipping. It also faced northwest, as the distressed fleet in Witham’s work has discovered on a stormy February 8, 1881.
To the rescue of the 12 ships, the Pilot Schooner No.2, LEADER, signals the fleet to follow, using the pre-1900 commercial code signals “l w c”. She has waited for the rising tide and keeps the line tight to the red starboard buoy, Q1, which marks the beginning of the Queen’s Channel. Within a span of hours, all twelve ships were led successfully to their docks.
Witham painted the scene in conjunction with the great acclaim the Pilots received in 1881, and it became so popular that he painted additional works marking the event over time. His local contemporary, Samuel Walters, and later William H. Yorke in 1899, also painted similar scenes. Witham’s lines are quite fine in depicting the challenge of handling the wooden walls driven by such a fierce gale. Leader uses the wind speed to drive a hard tack for the ships to follow home.
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