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Published February 15, 2019

Imagine going halfway around the world from your home, and finding a vast expanse of sand beneath an endless sky painted with the vivid colours of the sunset. Imagine standing out there, looking back at the tiny lights of civilisation twinkling in the distance as night falls around you. Imagine the tide rushing in around you, faster than you can run. Imagine not being able to call for help, because you don’t know the language.

In this episode, I’m looking at an event that was considerably closer to home for me than most. When I was in my early teens, my family moved to a village near Morecambe Bay, in Lancashire. The bay is a peculiar kind of landscape. It feels huge and empty, despite the towns and villages that pepper the coastline and the wildlife that you find there. Its flat expanse contrasts sharply with the hills and mountains of Cumbria rising beyond it, and that skyline is famed for magnificent sunsets.

It is the largest inter-tidal area in the United Kingdom – put simply, that means that this vast expanse of sand is only there when the tide is out. When the tide comes in, it’s all sea.

As far back as Roman times, and probably long before that, it was fairly common for people to cross the bay; on foot, on horseback, even in carriages. Up until the 1850s, when the railways arrived, there were even regularly scheduled coaches. It seemed to make sense; it was both swifter and smoother, since the roads around the coast were often rough and poorly maintained, and many journeys could practically be halved by cutting across the sands.

A cross-bay walk in July 2011. Source: Own work.

In 1778, Thomas West described the crossing in “A Guide to the Lakes”; this was the book that prompted the growth of tourism in the Lake District during the Romantic era.

“What most attracts the notice of the traveller is not the objects of the surrounding country (though they are fine) but the sands themselve. For when he has got a few miles from the shore, the nature of the plain on which he treads cannot but suggest a series of ideas of a more sublime kind than those of rural elegance, and which will therefore gain a superior attention. The plain is then seemingly immense in extent, continued on in a dead level, and uniform in appearance. As he pursues his often trackless way, he will recollect, that probably but a few hours before, the whole expanse was covered with some fathoms of water, and that in a few more it will as certainly be covered again. At the same time he may also perceive, on his left hand, the retreated ocean ready to obey the mysterious laws of its irresistible movement, without any visible barrier to stay it a moment where it is.”

Because of the dangers inherent in crossing the bay, there were Crown appointed guides whose duty it was to monitor the shifting channels and escort travellers safely across. This post existed as early as 1548, when it was recorded that one Thomas Hogeson took on the role, and it’s known that the monks of Cartmel Abbey provided guides before then.

Although the road over the sands isn’t used for regular travel these days, the post of Queen’s Guide to the Sands still exists – it’s currently [at the time of writing] held by Cedric Robinson, who has been guiding people safely across the sands for more than fifty years. If you ever have the opportunity to take one of the Cross-Bay Walks, which are often held for charity, I would certainly recommend it.

For the locals, Morecambe Bay has always been a lot more than simply a crossing place; it’s also been a workplace and source of sustenance for them. Many of the locals farm on coastal land, and go out onto the sands to fish for flukes – which some say either gave the local village of Flookburgh its name, or took their name from it – and to gather cockles, a type of shellfish.

Morecambe Bay cockles. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his contribution to Cedric Robinson’s book, “Time and Tide”, author Peter Cherry described going out to pick cockles with the Sands Guide and his son-in-law, Chris.

“Ced hauled the jumbo across the sand and set to work. This implement, thought to be unique to the Flookburgh fisherfolk, is a wooden plank about one foot by four, attached to a pair of handles at waist height by two metal or wood uprights. The plank is rocked to and fro on the sands to soften them, causing the cockles buried an inch or so below the surface to float upwards into view. The cockles can then be flicked into a net using a three-pronged hand fork called a cramb. Some Flookburgh men are able to pick up a hundred or more cockles a minute by this method, but on this day Chris used a short handled rake to gather them. Ced energetically rocked the jumbo, pulling it back after every five or six rocks to prepare a strip of sand for Chris to work on. The expression, “rocking the jumbo”, belies the back-breaking effort involved, especially when the sand is relatively dry and hard, as I found when Ced let me have a go.”

Although locals have been gathering cockles for centuries, in more recent times demand for them had grown, and in response others moved in to exploit the sands. Those others have not always been keen to do that back-breaking work themselves.

That was what brought a large group of Chinese labourers out into Morecambe Bay on the evening of the 5th of February, 2004.

It was a fairly typical February night, which meant that the weather was pretty awful. Although the workers had been given waterproofs to wear, it was cold, the wind was blowing and out on the sands they would have no protection at all from the elements.

A view across the bay from Morecambe’s stone jetty, February 2024. Source: Own work.

While many locals were dissuaded by the conditions, the Chinese workers were given little choice. The cockles out there under the bleak sands were worth millions of dollars, and those they served wanted to make profits.

They had been driven up from Liverpool, where they lived crammed into a house far too small for them, six or seven to a room.

One, named only as Mr Wen, later said,

“It was a Yuan Xiao day, a festival day for family reunions. But our boss said we had to go to work on the sands. There was high demand that day, so there [were to] be two teams. I really didn’t want to go cockling because you’re not supposed to work on Yuan Xiao. I just had no choice because everyone else was going. The journey on the motorway that day seemed particularly long and bleak. Some of us were taking a nap in the van. I just felt exhausted at the thought of raking cockles.”

The van Mr Wen was travelling in was old and unreliable. It broke down along the way. The sixteen workers inside knew that they wouldn’t get paid if they didn’t work, so some tried to contact friends in the second van.

“Ah Hua, a young woman in our team, whose boyfriend was in the other van, was tempted to go with him. But I persuaded her and others not to. ‘Let’s just go back,’ I said. So we returned to Liverpool.”  

Stephen Manning, local fisherman, saw the Chinese workers whilst out cockling with friends.

“We were aware of quad bikes and vehicles coming out and bringing these Chinese fishermen, if you want to call them fishermen, out and it was starting to get dark and by the time it got round to sort of four o’clock and it was coming dark and it was windy and the sand was drying up we couldn’t really find any good areas to fish and I just said, is everybody fed up, and they all said yes and so we came off.”

At about 6 o’clock, local fisherman Trevor Flemming was packing up and heading back to shore when he saw the Chinese workers. “I tried to communicate with one of the Chinese workers to explain that he was pushing his luck, that the tide was coming in. He just put his rake on his shoulder, smiled at me and walked off into the dark that night. I run through to the farm that I operate from and said I think if at any time there’s gonna be an accident I think it’s possibly going to be tonight, they’re still walking out there and I don’t think they’re gonna be able to walk back in time.”

Another local cockler, Trevor Owen, said the Chinese workers wouldn’t have known the danger they were in. “They probably won’t know about the tide conditions with the bad weather. They might have had a tide table and been able to read it, but the tide should have been probably coming back at 9 o’clock and it was coming back about half past 7 and that’s what the problem was. “

Cedric Robinson described the way the deceptive channels of the bay worked against them, as the tide was driven in by the wind. “It crept up behind them and then it came up the other one, secondary, so they knew nothing that night. You can’t hear out there the tide when there’s a wind blowing, they knew nothing, working away cockling until the water was all around them. They was circled, there was nowhere to run.”

Li Hua was one of the workers on the sands that night. He said that the workers first realised the danger they were in when the water covered the wheels on the vehicle that had taken them out onto the sands.

“The vehicle couldn’t move. Everyone was panicking. They got out of the vehicle and tried to swim, but the water was flowing so quickly some were dragged under it straight away. I was in despair. I thought, am I going to die tonight? I have parents, a wife and a child. How have I ended up in this situation? I just couldn’t understand why God would do this to me.”

The first report to emergency services came from a fisherman, who reported that a vehicle was driving erratically in the bay. At first, it was thought that there were only four young people involved.

However, another call soon came in to the Coast Guard with more details. A woman with a Liverpudlian accent told the operator,  “I’ve got a load of Chinese boys in Morecambe Bay and they’re stuck.”

When asked how many there were, the caller said “There’s a lot. And you need a plane or something, you’re going to have to get them out of there.”

An abandoned car stuck on the sands of Morecambe Bay. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of the cocklers, Guo Bing Long, was able to call 999 to alert the emergency services, but the language barrier meant that he couldn’t make himself clear. “Sinking water, many many, sinking water,” he said.

The operator asked, “where are you,” but he could only frantically repeat, “Sinking water, sinking water.”

He had a wife and two children at home, five thousand miles away. He called them, too. “I am in great danger. I am up to my chest in water. Maybe I am going to die. It’s a tiny mistake by my boss. He mistook the time. He should have called us back an hour ago. Tell the family to pray for me. It’s too close. I am dying.”

The team of workers who had returned to Liverpool after their van broke down started to receive calls from friends and loved ones out on the sands.

“Around four hours after we got back, the bad news came. Ah Hua’s boyfriend, Lin Zhifang, 19, called her to say that he and others were being trapped and drowned. ‘I am going to die,’ he said to her. I just sat there, watching Ah Hua in tears, not knowing what to say.”

Some of the workers tried to swim to shore; the lights twinkling on the coast probably seemed within reach, but the waves were too high, and the water too cold for survival. In addition, with only those distant lights to guide them, they couldn’t have known which way to turn.

Li Hua somehow found his way onto Priest Skear, a sand bank which gave him a brief respite from the tide.

“It was pitch black and I was desperate. I thought I might just as well wait to die. It was freezing cold but I didn’t feel it. I was numb… then, I don’t know how, a wave maybe turned me round. I was on my own and was in the shallow water and then a helicopter came. I kept praying and praying like my mother used to do, and I kept waving. They didn’t seem to see me but then they stopped.”

At around ten pm, Li Hua was rescued from Priest’s Skear. He was the only cockle picker rescued from the water that night.

“Believe it or not, I thought I saw God. The feeling at that moment is very hard for me to explain. I could not believe I was going to be rescued and that I was alive again.”

Poet Tim Liardet imagined what it must have been like for the cockle pickers in his poem, also called Priest Skear;

They are bound to each other,
All twenty-three, by whatever part of the human body
Touches at any given second, like a system of branches
Struggling in and out of - trying to climb -
What might be thought of as a trunk of light.
And they are bucked and thrown about, gulping
Until their cheeks are buckled tin. 
They shed coins, A Wellington boot, their eyes shrink back
Into their heads, as if their lips are magnified;
Until they are overtaken, overtaken
And the last lit up cellphone spins
To the bottom, spelling out 
no network coverage. 

Coast Guard Chris Turner was at home in Blackpool when reports of the unfolding tragedy first came in. Soon he was coordinating a huge search and rescue operation; lifeboats and helicopters combed the sea, whilst other rescuers searched the coastline for survivors. However, this search presented a unique challenge.

“Normally when we’re searching for people they want to be found, and obviously the people out at sea wanted that to happen, but there was also a coastal search element of it and a lot of the people that were involved in that incident or the managers of the cockling gangs didn’t want to be found or didn’t want to pass over information when they had been found, presumably because of the immigration issues and the illegal immigration that obviously we’re all aware of now. Right through the night we were still searching and continuing to search for survivors, we were still positive that there may still be some people that were hiding on the foreshore that had made it, unfortunately that wasn’t the case.”

Harry Roberts, a member of the RNLI based at Morecambe, recalled the difficult conditions that night; the hovercraft had to be pulled back onto the beach after nearly capsizing twice on the way to the scene. “The lads on the boat said it was like being in a washing machine, it was very bad.”

The rescuers didn‘t know how many people were lost – they’d been told “Dozens.” They kept searching – but their hopes of finding people alive didn’t last long. “I mean, obviously when it gets to three or four hours that people are missing in water at that time of year, you really are looking… it’s a recovery mission rather than a rescue mission, and obviously when the first casualty was found dead, and obviously dead, that we’re looking for more, more bodies really.”

As the tide began to ebb away, at around three in the morning, the bay began to give up its victims.

Stephen Manning and his eighteen year old son were then part of the search effort; equipped with search lights, they headed out to the sands on their tractor.

“It was eerie, cause it was dark. Y’know there was all the lights on the shore and it was eerie, sort of, oh my god, I hope we don’t find anybody dead, but we hadn’t gone very far we came across a body.”

They flashed their lights up to alert the helicopters, and one of them came down to collect the body.

“The whole thing was surreal, it was almost like, when the helicopter come down it was sort of like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the lights coming down onto us. You sort of think, well this is not happening, y’know. We’re just gonna go through the motions of looking round and so that’s what we did. So we started looking, and we went in another direction, and it wasn’t long before we came across some more bodies. Three of them, all together.”

By the following afternoon, nineteen bodies had been found. Two more followed before the search operation had finished. Six years later, in 2010, the remains of a 22nd worker were given up by the sands. It’s believed that one more body has yet to be found. The victims were aged between 18 and 45, and most had originally come from the Fujian province of China. Two were women, the rest men, and none of them were properly trained.

More Chinese workers were found on the foreshore. Some, like Zhang Ping, had been out on the sands earlier – she had left early because she felt ill. Guo Jinfu had stayed on shore because there weren’t enough waterproofs for everybody. They could see the tragedy unfurling before them, but were helpless.

However, as the police observed the survivors they could see from their body language that they weren’t all equal. Most cowered, and looked to four specific individuals for what to say. Those four were Lin Liang Ren, aged 29, his girlfriend Zhao Xiao Qing, 20, Ren’s cousin Lin Mu Yong, aged 31, and his English girlfriend, Janie Bannister, then 18. She was the Liverpudlian woman who had spoken to the coast guard earlier.

Mick Gradwell, the detective in charge of the investigation, said that Ren, “tried to mix in with the workers, the survivors, and pass himself off as just a worker bee on the night, but what he actually did, it was, he threatened people, and told people to tell a particular story. In fact the first story that came out was that the survivors were supposed to tell the police that they’d been on a picnic and there’d been nothing to do with cockling on this particular night.”

The survivors were under a great deal of pressure to lie, and it wasn’t just because of their status as illegal immigrants.

They had come from rural areas of China where low wages made it very difficult to support a family. They had been lured by the promise of big money to be made in the West – if only they can get there. However, that was the first hurdle. For an unskilled rural labourer in China, getting to the UK is not simple, and it is not cheap. To do so, they would have to raise a lot of money to pay human smugglers to transport them halfway across the world. They might travel for months to reach their final destination, taking a long route over land from China, through Russia, and on into the West. They might risk their lives to hide in hidden compartments on lorries without proper ventilation, without light, without food, until finally they stood on British soil.

And then, they would be at the mercy of the gangmasters. They had to repay their debts; their family’s lives would be threatened if they couldn’t. And they didn’t know that the “big money” they were making, to send back to their family, was just the tiniest fraction of the sums involved. While those at the very top made millions, the migrant labourers worked for a pittance. Newspapers reported that Li Hua was to have been paid just £5 for each 25kg bag of cockles he picked. Back in China, his mother had paid the equivalent of £13,600 to send her son to Europe, and put her house up as security to the snakehead gangs who controlled the debt.

As they tried to break the silence, the investigators quickly realised that they were dealing with something on a huge scale – and which went far beyond their borders.

Gradwell told a reporter for the local newspaper, the Morecambe Visitor,

“The crime scene was 120 square miles, there were vehicles and bodies and evidence in Morecambe, Liverpool and elsewhere.

I’m a Lancashire lad, used to dealing with crimes in Lancashire, not international organised crime gangs and human trafficking – it’s not what you expect, not on the landscaped shores of Morecambe bay.

I was thrown into areas of the shellfish industry I didn’t know about. I didn’t know a cockle from a mussel. I didn’t know about safety issues within the industry, or Snakehead gangs.”

There were other hurdles to overcome, too. There was a language barrier between the English investigators and the Chinese survivors. Identifying the dead meant sending teams to China, where they witnessed first-hand the conditions in which the families of the workers lived. Survivors often didn’t want to be found, and didn’t want to give statements when they were tracked down; they were afraid of the authorities because they were there illegally, and even more terrified of the gangs, and the reprisals which might fall upon them and their families if they cooperated.

The investigation, which would become known as Operation Lund, began by looking for where the cockles were going, and who was organising the human trafficking.

They traced the money first to London, and then to twelve accounts in China – accounts which were making millions.

The police were able to persuade Janie Bannister to talk; unlike the others, she didn’t have the fear of deportation hanging over her head. She was also pregnant with Lin Mu Yong’s child. She would later give evidence against the others at their trial, relating the pressure they had put her under to lie.

The investigators discovered that the cockling operation had been started by Lin Mu Yong, with Janie looking after the immigrant workers – despite not being able to speak any Mandarin. They provided the workers with the equipment they would need for the work, and reaped the profits.

When Lin Liang Ren got involved, however, things got worse for the workers.

According to Gradwell, “He started to cut things down and provided cheap waterproofs and bought eight year old Toyota Previa vehicles that wouldn’t get stuck in quicksand.”

The gangmaster refused to admit his part, however. The police were forced to use an array of forensic techniques to prove his connection.

“…we had to prove it by identifying DNA, fingerprints, and using telephony analysis and forensic analysis. We had to seize the rent books and documents and prove he was the guy paying the money. We had to prove he was the guy who bought the vehicles. His fingerprints were on the credit card receipts used to buy equipment. The European cocklers said that he was the man in charge. There were thousands of telephone calls and the forged fishing permits had links to human trafficking. The trial was over six months long because he would never admit to anything.”

Survivor Li Hua gave evidence at the trial from behind a screen, and had to go into a witness protection programme to save him from gang reprisals.

Ten years later, still in that programme, he spoke about Lin Liang Ren.

“I feel this man is despicable, because he for the sake of earning his own money without thinking about our safety just did not even watch the tide he just said go and work we were just a tool for him.

I think a lot about those who didn’t survive, particularly at Chinese New Year because it happened around that time. From time to time I wake up in the night with a panic attack and remember them. We all came for the same reason. We left our families to make a better life and they were gone just like that. I was just lucky.”

At the end of the trial, Lin Liang Ren was convicted of 21 counts of manslaughter, facilitating illegal immigration and perverting the course of justice. In sentencing him, the judge said he had “cynically and callously” exploited his countrymen and women and displayed total indifference to the fate of the victims. He was sentenced to twelve years for the manslaughter charges, with an additional two years for perverting the course of justice. The facilitation of illegal immigrants charges carried a six year sentence, but that was to be served concurrently. The judge also recommended that he be deported after serving his sentence.

His girlfriend, Zhao Xiao Qing, was convicted on one count of facilitation and three counts of perverting the course of justice, and sentenced to two years and nine months.

Lin Mu Yong was sentenced to four years for facilitation, and nine months for unrelated offences.

Two other men were acquitted; they were the father and son who ran the Liverpool Bay Fishing Company. They had been accused of buying the cockles and therefore breaching immigration law by employing illegal immigrants.

The saddest thing about this tragedy is that there was literally no reason for it to happen but greed. The gangmasters thought only of their profit, not the safety of their workers, and took none of the precautions that would have prevented the disaster. The workers were untrained, completely ignorant of the dangers around them, and in no position to argue with their bosses besides.

If they had heard and understood the warnings of the local cocklers, they could all have survived. If they had known enough about the landscape of the bay to turn the right direction when the tide started coming in, they could still have survived. If they had known how to call for help, and been able to trust and communicate with the British authorities, they could have survived.

Ten years after the tragedy, the loss was still hard for the families left behind. Lin Meiqing, whose husband Lin YouXing was one of the victims, told reporters, “I still think about him. When he was around I didn’t realise how much he meant to me. When he died it was such a loss. Sometimes I think, if he hadn’t died I would live a better life. I have to work hard. I think it’s just my fate. In the past we still owed people money, so I have to work to pay it back.”

Cao Chengle, who lost his son Cao Chaokun, said, “It would be much better if he was still here. He’d be making money, he’d be able to support his family. Now the burden is on us, two people in their seventies, and our daughter-in-law.”

Many can’t help but compare their situation to those around them; others who have successfully profited from the machine of international migrant labour.

“Look at the other people,” he said. “They’ve all made it and have built big houses. But we’re living like cavemen.”

This helps to continue the cycle. Cao Chaokun had a son, who was only six years old when his father drowned in Morecambe Bay. It didn’t put him off the idea of leaving to seek his fortune some day. “When I’m older I want to make money to save my mother from working too hard. I want to go abroad. I want to go the US and start from the beginning, take it slowly and when I have enough money, open a restaurant.”

I can only hope that he’ll find a reality that’s closer to his dream than his father did.

The memorial on Morecambe’s promenade. Source: Own work

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