Saturday, 10 October 2015

19 The Port Eynon lifeboat disaster, 1916

19. Port Eynon Lifeboat Disaster (photos: statue, lifeboat) – 10 October 2015

1st January 2016 will be the centenary of the Port Eynon lifeboat disaster, when three of the crew of the lifeboat ‘Janet’ were drowned.  In their memory the white marble statue of coxswain Billy Gibbs was placed in St Cattwg’s churchyard, while inside the church the pulpit was given in gratitude to God that the lives of ten crewmen were spared.

A shipwreck during the severe westerly gales of Saturday 27 January 1883 led to the Port Eynon lifeboat station being established the following year.  The ‘Agnes Jack’, a 737-ton Liverpool steamer bound from Cagliari, Sardinia, with a cargo of lead ore for Llanelli, was wrecked off Port Eynon Point.  Even though the rocket apparatus summoned from Oxwich and from Rhossili was fired several times from the shore, the vessel was out of reach, and to the horror of those watching from the cliffs eight seamen clinging to the rigging drowned as the mast came down. 

The same day in Mumbles the barque ‘Admiral Prinz Adalbert’ from Gdansk, Poland, with a cargo of 900 tons of pitwood struck the lighthouse rocks.  In going to her aid the Mumbles lifeboat ‘Wolverhampton’ capsized three times, and four lifeboat men lost their lives.  Inside All Saints Church, Oystermouth, a memorial plaque and stained-glass window commemorate this 1883 tragedy, while outside by the west wall are the gravestones of two of the men.  This event inspired the somewhat inaccurate poem ‘The Women of the Mumbles Head’, about the Ace sisters from the lighthouse who helped one of the lifeboat crew to safety amid the storm.

Port Eynon’s lifeboat station was opened in May 1884 with the launch of the 34ft ten-oared lifeboat ‘A Daughter’s Offering’, provided through the legacy of Miss Maria Jones of Lancaster.  A team of six horses would pull the lifeboat from the station (now the Youth Hostel) down the slipway to be launched into the sea, while local people would gather on the beach to watch lifeboat practice.  Whenever the maroon distress signal sounded, those horses needed no further prompting to race down to the beach, or if ploughing they would strain at the harness until cut free. 

In 1906 the lifeboat was replaced with the ‘Janet’, named by Lady Lyons of Kilvrough.

On 1st January 1916 the SS ‘Dunvegan’ of Glasgow ran aground in a howling gale off Pennard cliffs, and the ‘Janet’ was launched around midday.  To make up crew numbers at the time of the First World War, two local men home on leave from serving in the trenches volunteered.  When it transpired that the crew of the ‘Dunvegan’ were being rescued by land with a breeches buoy, the lifeboat turned back.  Severe south-westerly gales caused the ‘Janet’ to capsize, though once the mast broke the lifeboat righted herself.  Yet within an hour she capsized again, this time with the loss of three members of the crew, and the oars.  Through the night the survivors drifted round to Mumbles, where the following morning they came ashore after 23 hours at sea, and were looked after at the Yacht Café.  The bodies of William Eynon and George Harry were later recovered and buried in Port Eynon churchyard, though not that of coxswain Billy Gibbs, on whom the life-size statue outside the church was modelled. 

Subsequently the lifeboat station closed permanently in 1919, with Mumbles and Tenby taking over the area it covered, until an inshore lifeboat station was opened at Horton in 1968 with a D-class lifeboat. 

Speaking of the 1916 disaster, Courtney Grove, son and grandson of Port Eynon lifeboatmen, said ‘My grandfather was home on leave from the trenches, but he didn’t hesitate to man the lifeboat that day, exchanging one hell for another.  That storm in 1916 was the worst in living memory.  They were men of steel in those days.’     

1 comment:

  1. The memorial to Billy Gibbs, William Eynon and George Harry in Port Eynon was designed by my great grandfather, Charles Edward Schenk C.E
    of Swansea. He was a civil engineer at Swansea Harbour Trust and well known local watercolour artist. I have known the memorial since childhood, though I was born and brought up and live in Essex.
    Very proud of my family's link to that memorial. Such brave souls.

    Georgina Taylor