Most people know about the famous Mumbles lifeboat disaster of 1947 when the complete crew of the Edward, Prince of Wales lifeboat, along with 39 sailors on board the Liberty Ship Samtampa, were lost during the course of one of the worst gales ever to hit the Bristol Channel.

Without wishing to disparage the courage and integrity of coxswain William Gammon and the seven members of his crew who lost their lives trying to help the Samtampa, the enormity of that 1947 disaster often leads to two earlier lifeboat tragedies at Swansea, and Mumbles, being rather overlooked or even forgotten by the general public.

The first lifeboat for the Swansea area – a busy and crowded part of the south Wales coast in the 19th century – came about in 1835. The boat was provided by the Swansea Harbour Trust and the vessel berthed in Swansea docks.

The RNLI took over the management and running of the Swansea boat in 1863 and to begin with the vessel continued operating out of Swansea. Then, three years later, it was decided that Mumbles might be a better location for the lifeboat.

The Mumbles area was considerably less crowded with shipping than the docks which were naturally quite congested at almost every time of day and, of course, the village of Mumbles was situated further down the estuary to the west – the direction from which most ships would approach Swansea and nearby Cardiff.

On 27 January 1883, just 20 years after the RNLI took over the running of the rescue service, the Mumbles lifeboat was involved in a tragedy when the vessel was dashed against the side of the Agnes Jack - a ship she had been called out to help - at nearby Port Eynon. Eighteen people from the Agnes Jack were drowned along with four members of the lifeboat crew.

The same gale also accounted for the James Grey which was wrecked on Tusker Rock outside Porthcawl. Twenty-five crewmembers and passengers were lost in that disaster. The lifeboat, of course, was not able to help.

In 1903 disaster struck again for the Mumbles lifeboat when it over-turned near the entrance to the docks at Port Talbot. Six men died, Coxswain Thomas Rogers along with Daniel Claypit, DJ Morgan, George Michael, James Gammon and Robert Smith.

There was only one survivor, Tom Micheal. By a bizarre stroke of good fortune - for him, at least - Michael had also survived the earlier disaster at Port Eynon.

There have been many other tragedies in the sea around the Welsh coast. But it remains particularly poignant when the men who crew the lifeboats – on a totally voluntary basis, without pay or recompense – are killed in the course of duty. Theirs is a selfless task, one that is often forgotten and rarely acknowledged until disaster strikes.

The men of the Mumbles lifeboat met disaster on three separate occasions – in 1883, 1903 and 1947. Their sacrifice should never be forgotten.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by raymondo

    on 7 Jan 2014 22:00

    A great tribute to the oft forgotten lifeboat men of old. From my window I can see Mumbles Head in the distance and over the last few days the power of the waves crashing over it has been overwhelming. As a lifelong landlubber, I wouldn't be too happy going to sea in such seas in the state of the art Tamars,, let alone the oversized rowing boats used in the early days. You can only wonder at the raw courage of their crews.

    That 27th day of January, 1883 must have been truly horrific, for three ships were lost in a very short length of coast. The 'James Gray' and the 'Agnes Jack' have already been mentioned. The third was the German barque, 'Admiral Prinz Adalbert' from Danzig, and it was this ship, in trouble off Mumbles Head, against which the Mumbles lifeboat 'Wolverhampton' foundered. This tragic event was also famous for the heroic rescue of two mariners by Miss Jessie Ace and her sister Margaret, daughters of the Mumbles lighthouse keeper, reputedly by using their knotted together shawls as a rope.

    An attempted rescue of the crew of the 'Agnes Jack' off Skysea, Port Eynon was made by rocket crews called from Oxwich and Rhossili but the distance from shore was too great and the wind too strong. However, the RNLI were prompted to set up a lifeboat station at Port Eynon in 1884 and many rescues were subsequently carried out by the crews of the first boat, 'A Daughter's Offering' and its successor the 'Janet'. The station was closed after three crew from the Janet were lost at sea returning from an attempted rescue of the crew of the SS 'Dunvegan' in 1916.
    A memorial to this tragedy, with the figure of an old time lifeboat man, stands next to the road by Port Eynon Church. I wonder how many of the thousands of visitors rushing past on their way to the beach ponder its significance.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Claudia Anne James

    on 7 Jan 2014 20:56

    Roll on the imminent grand opening day of the new well deserved flagship Mumbles Lifeboat house, on the pier. On that day there will be a wider audience to respect these sad tragedies you tell so beautifully.

    Respect to the modern RNLI who are out there in these storms and floods rescuing.

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