Since the Mumbles station was established, eighteen lifeboat crewmembers have died trying to save the lives of others. Many of these crewmembers are buried at Oystermouth Cemetery. Here are their stories…
One of the greatest challenges faced by the Mumbles lifeboat crew came on Saturday 27th January 1883, when the sea around Gower was made deadly by storm force winds. The ‘Wolverhampton’ was launched to attempt a rescue of a German ship, named ‘Admiral Prinz Adalbert of Danzig’, which had become stranded off Mumbles Head rocks. During the rescue, the sea flipped the lifeboat over and over again, throwing the men overboard.
Two of the German sailors managed to cling on, whilst the lifeboat crew battled against the sea to save their own lives. Ten of the crew were saved – and at least one of these men was dragged ashore by the lighthouse keeper’s daughter (as immortalised in Clement Scott’s poem, ‘The Women of Mumbles Head!’*). One man, Bob Jenkins, was found alive two days later sheltering in Mumbles Head cave, now known locally as Bobs’ Cave. Sadly, four of the crew were drowned.
The lifeboat itself was damaged beyond repair and replaced with a new and larger boat, also named ‘Wolverhampton’.
*The Women of Mumbles Head!
By Clement Scott, 1883.
Bring, novelists, your note-book! Bring, dramatists, your pen!
And I’ll tell you a simple story of what women do for men.
It’s only a tale of a lifeboat, of the dying and the dead,
Of a terrible storm and shipwreck that happened off Mumbles Head,
Maybe you have travelled in Wales, sir, and know it north to south;
Maybe you are friends with the “natives” that dwell at Oystermouth;
It happens, no doubt, that from Bristol you’ve crossed in a casual way,
And have sailed your yacht in the summer in the blue of Swansea Bay.
Well! It isn’t like that in the winter, when the lighthouse stands alone,
In the teeth of Atlantic breakers that foam on its face of stone;
It wasn’t like that when the hurricane blew, and the storm-bell tolled, or when
There was news of a wreck, and the lifeboat launch’d, and a desperate cry for men.
When in the world did the coxswain shirk? A brave old salt was he!
Proud to the bone of as four strong lads as ever had tasted sea,
Welshmen all to the lungs and loins, who, about the coast, ’twas said,
Had saved some hundred lives a piece – at a shilling or so a head!
It didn’t go well for the lifeboat! ‘Twas a terrible storm that blew!
And it snapped the rope in a second that was flung to the drowning crew;
And then the anchor parted – ’twas a tussle to keep afloat!
But the father stuck to the rudder, and the boys to the brave old boat.
Then at last on the poor doom’d lifeboat a wave broke, mountains high!
“God help us now!” said the father. “It’s over, my lads. Good-bye.”
Half of the crew swam shoreward, half to the sheltered caves,
But father and sons were fighting death in the foam of the angry waves.
Up at a lighthouse window two women beheld the storm,
And saw in the boiling breakers a figure – a fighting form,
It might be a grey-haired father, then the women held their breath,
It might be a fair-haired brother, who was having a round with death;
It might be a lover, a husband, whose kisses were on the lips
Of the women whose love is the life of men going down to the sea in ships.
They had seen the launch of the lifeboat, they had seen the worst and more,
Then, kissing each other, these women went down from the lighthouse, straight to shore.
There by the rocks on the breakers these sisters, hand in hand,
Beheld once more that desperate man who struggle to reach the land.
‘Twas only aid he wanted to help him across the wave,
But what are a couple of women with only a man to save?
What are a couple of women? Well more then three craven men
Who stood by the shore with chattering teeth refusing to stir – and then
Off went the women’s shawls, sir: in a second they’re torn and rent,
Then knotting them into a rope of love, straight into the sea they went!
“Come back!” cried the lighthouse-keeper, “for God’s sake, girls, come back!”
As they caught the waves on their foreheads, resisting the fierce attack.
“Come back!” said the three strong soldiers, who still stood faint and pale,
“You will drown if you face the breakers! You will fall if you brave the gale!”
“Come back!” said the girls, “we will not, go tell it to all the town,
We’ll lose our lives, God willing, before that man shall drown!”
“Give one more knot to the shawls, Bess! Give one strong clutch of your hand!
Just follow me, brave, to the shingle, and we’ll bring him safe to land!
Wait for the next wave, darling! Only a minute more,
And we’ll have him safe in my arms, dear, and we’ll drag him safe to shore.”
Up to the arms in water, fighting it breast to breast,
They caught and saved a brother alive! God bless us, you know the rest –
Well, many a heart beat stronger, and many a tear was shed,
And many a glass was toss’d right off to “The Women of Mumbles Head!”
James Stevens No. 12 (1903)
On 1st February 1903, the lifeboat ‘James Stevens No. 12’ capsized during the rescue of a trading ship named ‘Christina’, which had run ashore off Port Talbot during a storm. Six of the fourteen lifeboat crewmembers lost their lives, including the coxwain (or captain). The eight survivors were washed into Port Talbot pier, exhausted and bedraggled – but alive.
Edward, Prince of Wales (1947)
Perhaps the most tragic disaster in the history of Mumbles Lifeboat Station occurred on 23rd April 1947, when all eight crewmembers of the lifeboat ‘Edward, Prince of Wales’ lost their lives attempting to rescue the crew of the Newport-bound cargo ship, ‘Samtampa’, which had been blown onto Scarweather Sands. The Prince of Wales was Mumbles’ first motorised lifeboat and had been in service since 1924. A total of forty-seven men from both boats lost their lives that night, their bodies found the next morning upon the sands, smothered in the thick fuel oil of the ‘Samtampa’. A stained glass window in Oystermouth Parish Church commemorates the tragedy.
Modernisation of Mumbles Station
By 1898, the newly built Mumbles Pier had become a busy rail terminus. Steam trains passed by the doors of the lifeboat station day and night, so in 1905 it was decided to build a new boathouse alongside the pier, out of the way.
A new slipway was constructed in 1916, following a delay caused by outbreak of the First World War. The new boathouse was finally completed in 1922.
Today, work has now finished on restoring the pier and constructing a new, modern lifeboat station. The boathouse proudly houses a Tamar Class lifeboat, the most technologically-advanced vessel ever produced by the Royal National Lifeboat Institute.
The people of Gower continue to generously support the lifeboat service, which in turn remains dedicated to keeping the seas safe for those sail upon them – as it has done for nearly 200 years.