Hon. John Lancaster

Hon. John Lancaster
1815 - 1884

John Lancaster was born in Radcliffe near Bury, Manchester on September 19th 1815, one of seven sons. From an early age he showed a liking for mechanics and interest in mining engineering. When John was about 20 years of age, he and his brother bored for coal on Chat Moss. In 1841 he worked on the sinking of the colliery at Patricroft where coal was cut at a depth of 1400 feet. Although this colliery was run by his father and partner for several years, during its working life John retained responsibility for the engineering management of the site. 

In 1841 John Lancaster married Euphemia, eldest daughter of Mr David Gibson of Johnston, near Glasgow. In the years that followed he would become a driving force in the coal mining industry holding several Directorships including the first Chairman appointed to the Standish Coal Company. 

Lancaster took out a lease on Hindley Hall c1855 and resided there for over a decade. During these years he was renowned for his further, considerable involvement with several engineering, mining and railway companies of the day. However, it was through his intervention and rescue of survivors from the Confederate Cruiser, C.S.S. Alabama following her sinking by the U.S.S. Kearsarge in the waters off Cherbourg on June 19th 1864, that would propel him controversially into the public limelight on both sides of the Atlantic. 

According to reports at the time, Lancaster’s was spending his vacation aboard his boat ‘Deerhound’, a steel hulled steam yacht of some 190 tons built by the Birkenhead Ironworks (Messrs Laird & Sons) and one of the yard's first vessels of the new steel construction that subsequently validated many of Laird's construction techniques and theories. Coincidentally, John Laird also built the Alabama under great secrecy for the Confederate Navy in 1862. Regarding the presence of the Deerhound and her owner in the vicinity of Cherbourg, much speculation and anecdotal attendance is given to the Deerhound being a supply ship; but evidence points to Lancaster only arriving the previous day, having travelled north by rail from Caen. On arrival he was informed by the Captain of the Deerhound on the impending battle due the following morning, whereupon he instructed the yacht to be positioned offshore to enable himself, his wife and family to view the action. 

The log of the Deerhound records in full detail, the battle that followed. Finding themselves to be within two hundred yards of the sinking 'Alabama', Lancaster ordered that two boats be lowered and with the assistance of the 'Alabama’s' own whale-boat and ship’s dingy - saved forty one of the cruiser’s complement including the ship’s Captain, Raphael Semmes. At this point, and to avoid any threat of capture by the Union vessel, 'Deerhound' steamed at speed from the scene heading for Cowes and hence to Southampton. During this short trip, Lancaster and crew of the 'Deerhound' tended the wounded sailors from the 'Alabama' until they could be safely delivered ashore in England. By this brave action and enduring care, Lancaster and the crew of the 'Deerhound', ‘by their providential presence’ saved many lives that would have undoubtedly been otherwise lost. 

This rescue created immense excitement in this country and in America, where lengthy letters and opinions appeared in most papers. John Lancaster was condemned by friends of the Northern Government for his conduct but he retaliated in kind, stating what had been done in the cause of humanity and not political bias. Public opinion in England eventually swung behind him, endorsing his action and applauding him for his courage. Lancaster received letters of thanks from many, including one from James Bulloch, the Confederate Agent and another on behalf of President Jefferson Davis himself.
Speculation continues to this day on the true story of the 'Alabama - Deerhound' encounter. Indeed, since compiling this short account, new sources of information seem to confirm that not only was the 'Deerhound' berthed at Cherbourg during the Confederate cruiser's visit; but testimony does exist that Lancaster went aboard the 'Alabama' and held a meeting of some hours with her captain? 

In the late 1868 John Lancaster, then described as a Lancashire Coal Mine Owner and Liberal Member of Parliament for Wigan, left Hindley Hall and bought Bilton Grange, a magnificent and historic Victorian mansion in the picturesque village of Dunchurch, near Rugby in Warwickshire, designed by the famous architect Augustus Welby Pugin and built in the 1840’s. Lancaster remained MP for Wigan until 1874 before giving up politics to concentrate on his role as Chairman of the West Cumberland Iron & Steel Works. At the time of his death at 58 Fitzjohns Avenue, Hampstead on April 21st 1884, John Lancaster was almost bankrupt. The courts subsequently relented and allowed his sons John and Gerald time to put his affairs in order. This they did by selling Bilton Grange and one hundred and seventy five acres of land.