Friday 1 May 2015

New Year's Day Tragedy, 1916 - Gower vol 66 2015

New Year's Day Tragedy, 1916                          published in the Gower Journal vol 66, 2015

The white marble statue of lifeboat coxswain Billy Gibbs outside St Cattwg’s church is a memorial to the Port Eynon lifeboat disaster, whose centenary falls on New Year’s Day 2016.  Though the statue commemorates the three crew members who drowned, the pulpit inside the church was given in gratitude to God that the lives of ten crewmen were spared.   
Thirty-three years earlier, the need for a lifeboat station at Port Eynon became acute. On Saturday 27th January 1883 among tremendous storms the 737-ton Liverpool steamer Agnes Jack, bound from Cagliari, Sicily, to Llanelli with lead ore, was wrecked off Port Eynon Point.  Eye-witness Charles Bevan, Lloyd’s agent for the district, described the conditions: ‘The wind blew with terrific force, and the sea was frightful to look at.  Huge waves rolled in one after another, breaking on the rocks, the foam and spray rising in the air like clouds’.  The rocket apparatus summoned from Oxwich and from Rhossili was fired several times from the shore, but the doomed vessel was out of reach.  Eight seamen clinging to the rigging drowned as the mast came down.  A few days later another seven seamen perished when the Surprise was wrecked at Overton.
On the same day of the Agnes Jack disaster, four members of the Mumbles lifeboat Wolverhampton were drowned when seeking to aid the Prussian ship Admiral Prinz Adalbert.  One seaman was rescued by Miss Jessie Ace and Mrs Margaret Wright, daughters of Mumbles lighthouse keeper Abraham Ace, which inspired the popular though inaccurate poem The Women of Mumbles Head by Clement Scott.  A survivor of that disaster, David Morgan, was among the six crew members of the lifeboat James Stevens drowned in 1903 while seeking to aid the Waterford steamer Christina.  
In Port Eynon churchyard, the graves of four Agnes Jack seamen who drowned in 1883 have a stone inscribed:
Oh, had there been a lifeboat there, to breast the stormy main,
These souls would not have perished thus, imploring help in vain.
Following the 1883 disasters, the RNLI agreed to a lifeboat station being established at Port Eynon.  The legacy of Miss Maria Jones of Lancaster enabled the building of a boathouse and the provision of a lifeboat.  The donor chose the name A Daughter’s Offering for the 34ft ten-oared lifeboat which was launched on 10th May 1884.  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 many people would assemble on the beach to watch lifeboat practice.  Whenever the maroon distress signal was sounded, the horses would run down to the beach without further prompting, or if ploughing would strain at the harness until cut free. 
A Daughter’s Offering was used for 22 years, until replaced in 1906 with the Janet, a 35ft self-righting lifeboat, named by Lady Lyons of Kilvrough.  The boathouse was extended to accommodate the larger boat.
On 27th December 1915 the Wexford steamer Elizabeth Jane was wrecked off Mumbles, and five days later, on New Year’s Day 1916, the SS Dunvegan of Glasgow was in difficulties off Oxwich with engine failure.  Amid severe westerly gales the Janet was launched around midday.  Two local men home on leave from serving in the First World War, trooper William Grove of the Glamorgan Yeomanry and Jack Morris, volunteered to make up the crew numbers. 
When the Janet reached the Dunvegan amid extremely rough seas, they found that the steamer’s crew were being rescued by land with a breeches buoy.[i]  The lifeboat stood off the Point until certain that assistance was not needed, but the gale prevented any thought of returning direct to Port Eynon.  In making for Mumbles under sail, the Janet capsized with the loss of second coxswain William Eynon and lifeboatman George Harry, though once the mast broke the vessel righted herself.  Had the men been strapped in, as was customary, all thirteen would have drowned, for the lifeboat would have taken longer to right herself in rough seas with such weight hanging underneath.
Yet within an hour she capsized again, with the loss of coxswain Billy Gibbs - and the oars.  Fifty-five-year-old Capt. George Eynon, whose brother had already been washed overboard, took command, but in near darkness the survivors were at the mercy of the wind and tides, and drifted in the open boat.  Having anchored off Caswell for what must have been a desperately miserable night, they came ashore the following morning - after 22 hours at sea.  At the Mumbles Yacht Café, where men of the 4th Welsh Regiment were stationed, the ten crewmen received help and were equipped with dry khaki uniforms.  After a meal and being seen by a doctor they were driven back to a sombre Port Eynon by motor bus. 
On 5th January the body of George Harry, who left a wife and four children, was recovered at Jersey Marine, and buried in Port Eynon churchyard two days later.  On the 16th January that of William Eynon, who left a wife and two grown-up daughters, was recovered at Porthcawl, and he was also buried two days later.  The body of Billy Gibbs was not recovered: though a body was washed up on Oxwich beach on the 29th January, in an advanced state of decomposition it could not be identified. 
The Porteynon (sic) section of the Gower Church Magazine for February 1916 commented:
This noble act of self-sacrifice is quite as unselfish, and we might say as glorious, as it is for those who died fighting for us in the field of battle.
In October it reported:
The decision as to whether the lifeboat station will be continued at Port Eynon has been left until after the conclusion of the War.
In January 1917 the Gower Church Magazine stated:
A brass tablet has been placed near the chancel arch with the following inscription: The super altar[ii] was given to the glory of God, who brought the ten survivors of the lifeboat crew safely through the perils of the night. January 1st 1916.  It has been decided that the form of the memorial shall be that of the figure of a lifeboatman standing on rugged granite.  Messrs Brown & Sons, Sculptors, Swansea, have the work in hand.
The life-size statue outside St Cattwg’s church was modelled on coxswain Billy Gibbs, whom Wynford Vaughan-Thomas recalled as a genial, friendly bachelor who would play the concertina for the youngsters.[iii]  In October 1918 the Gower Church Magazine reported:
The unveiling ceremony which took place on Thursday 15th August was performed by Rev. P. Weston, Chaplain to the Seamen at Swansea.  Previous to the ceremony there was a very impressive service at the Parish Church, at which there was a crowded congregation.
Mumbles and Tenby lifeboat stations took over the area that Port Eynon had covered, and Port Eynon’s lifeboat station was formally closed in September 1919.  Within a few years motorised craft replaced the lifeboats at Mumbles and Tenby.
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.’[iv]
That stretch of South Gower coastline is now served by a D-class lifeboat from an inshore lifeboat station at Horton, which was opened in 1968. 
On the 99th anniversary of the Janet tragedy, about 60 people walked from Horton to Port Eynon Point in memory of the lifeboatmen: even more will aim to do so for the forthcoming centenary.                                                                                                       
George Edmunds – The Gower Coast, 1979, 1986
Olive Phillips - Gower, 1956
Carl Smith – The Men of the Mumbles Head, 1977
Carl Smith - Gower Coast Shipwrecks, 1979
Michael Roberts – The last voyage of the Janet in Gower XVII, 1966
Gower Church Magazine, 1916
South Wales Daily Post – January 1916 (Carl Smith website)

[i] A rope-based rescue device with a leg harness for single-person evacuations from wrecked vessels, usually deployed from shore to ship.
[ii] Shelf or ledge let into the east wall above and behind the altar
[iii] Wynford Vaughan-Thomas - A Portrait of Gower, 1976, p. 122
[iv] Trevor Fishlock – Fishlock’s Wild Tracks, 1998, p. 18

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