On February 5th, 2004, a group of Chinese cockle pickers set off from the shore of Morecombe to gather cockles at the low tide line, near the confluence of the Keer and Kent Channels. Trafficked into the UK from Fujian province, the workers were forced into Modern Slavery and hired out by criminal gangs. They very little understanding of the deadly situation their exploiters were forcing them into.
Few places in the world have as much tidal range as Morecombe Bay - a massive 10 meter (32 foot) change between the low and high tide points makes the estuary landscape at low tide a treacherous spot to the unprepared. When the tide changes, powerful waters flood into the bay at speeds of 9 knots (10mph).
At around 9:30pm that night, the returning group was cut off by the incoming tide, and in the darkness and chaos, quickly divided. In spite of a massive search and rescue operation, 23 cockle pickers drowned. Only 15 survivors made it back to solid ground.
Today marks the 20th Anniversary of the Morecombe Bay Cockling Disaster. At 6pm, a service will be held at the Cocklers’ Memorial next to the Morecambe RNLI station, led by the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Rev. Philip North, and the Rector of Morecambe Parish Church, Rev. Chris Krawiec.
Also, in attendance on Monday evening will be Mr Kim Leong, Chairman of Lancaster and Morecambe Bay Chinese Community Association; The Right Worshipful, the Mayor of Lancaster, Councillor Roger Dennison, alongside representatives of the RNLI; the police, fire and ambulance services and other civic dignitaries.
A silent vigil will be held, and those present will also be invited to join in hymns and prayers, and will be offered a cockle shell to take away as a permanent reminder of the ongoing fight against modern slavery and of those who died that day.
Bishop Philip said: “This will be a solemn moment for the community in Morecambe as we join together to remember the innocent lives lost to greed and slavery in the waters of Morecambe Bay.
“We mourn with and pray for the families and loved ones of our Chinese brothers and sisters who died 20 years ago and for an end to the curse of modern slavery.”
Rev. Chris added: “At times like these it’s important to come together as a community, itself made up of different communities, to acknowledge and remember.
“As we do so we also consider how, 20 years on, trafficking and modern slavery remains a huge problem and we continue to call for change and action to bring the scourge of modern slavery to an end.”
The Mayor, Councillor Roger Dennison, said: “Our thoughts at this sad time are with the families of those who died in this terrible incident 20 years ago and also all others who have lost their lives over the years in Morecambe Bay. The tragedy was a stark reminder of the dangers posed by its treacherous tides.
"It's also a time to thank all those who bravely put their own lives at risk in the rescue operation, particularly the unpaid volunteers of the RNLI."
For more information, see Blackburn Diocese's post on the service here.