Saturday, 6 February 2016

35 The Women of Mumbles Head

35. The Women of Mumbles Head (photos: lighthouse, s/glass window, picture) - 6 February 2016

After the centenary of the 1916 New Year’s Day tragedy, when the Port Eynon lifeboat Janet capsized with the loss of three of her crew, later this month a blue plaque at Mumbles pier will recall an earlier lifeboat tragedy.  It will salute the courage of the two Ace sisters, after the Mumbles lifeboat Wolverhampton had capsized.  The action of the sisters has been immortalised in the famous, though inaccurate, poem “The Women of Mumbles Head”. 

Dreadful storms battered the coast on Saturday 27 January 1883, causing the shipwreck of the Agnes Jack at Port Eynon – which led to the lifeboat station being established there the following year.  On Mumbles Head the barque Admiral Prinz Adalbert of Danzig was dragged ashore by the gales, causing the Mumbles lifeboat Wolverhampton to be launched.  But her anchor cable parted and she capsized, before righting herself and capsizing again, throwing all the crew overboard.  Two of the crew, John Thomas and William Rosser, clung to the lifeboat’s lifelines. 

Miss Jessie Ace and Mrs Margaret Wright were the daughters of Mumbles lighthouse keeper Abraham Ace, the third generation so named.  At that time the lighthouse keeper, along with his deputy and their families, lived on the lighthouse island, so being close at hand when needed.  Seeing the plight of the lifeboatmen, the young women went into the raging sea and dragged out William Rosser, assisted by Gunner Hutchings from the lighthouse battery.  That fortified position for heavy guns – one of ‘Palmerston’s follies’ - had been erected in 1860 to combat a French invasion, and was usually maintained by a sergeant and two Royal Artillery gunners. 

But four crewmen perished, of whom three were related to coxswain Jenkin Jenkins – sons John and William, and a son-in-law William McNamara: their gravestones stand by the west wall of All Saints Church, Oystermouth.  The body of the fourth crewman William Rogers was never recovered.  Inside the church a stained glass window and a memorial tablet commemorate the disaster.  One surviving crewman, David John Morgan, was later to perish in the 1903 James Stevens disaster. 

Clement Scott was a clerk in the War office and a prolific writer of verses, many on the theme of lifeboats.  After reading accounts of the 1883 disaster he wrote the poem “The Women of Mumbles Head”, which became a popular item to be memorised by schoolchildren for recitation.  Unfortunately it suggests that by contrast with the heroism of the sisters, soldiers at the battery on the lighthouse island were less than brave in assisting men to safety. 

Clement Scott’s information came from newspaper accounts following an interview with Coxswain Jenkins the day after the disaster, where he was reported as saying that the soldiers seemed stupefied and afraid.  The front page of the illustrated weekly newspaper ‘The Graphic’ on 24 February contained a sensational imagined depiction of the event.  This snowballed into the belief that the sisters acted heroically while the soldiers were slow to assist.

But when Coxswain Jenkins was interviewed it was soon after his own ordeal in surviving a tragedy that ended the lives of three members of his family: whatever he may have said was uttered before he had time to come to terms with what had occurred.  After two bodies were recovered, lighthouse keeper Abraham Ace told the inquest at the Mermaid Hotel that there was no foundation for the report that suggested the soldiers behaved other than bravely.   
Though the action of the two women was not recognised by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, both received gold brooches from the Empress of Germany for looking after the crew of the Admiral Prinz Adalbert, all of whom had been able to clamber to safety onto the island.  Jessie’s brooch is now the treasured possession of her great-great-granddaughter in Australia. 

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