Disaster at Mumbles

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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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