Saturday 27 February 2016

38 Whiteford lighthouse

38. Whiteford Lighthouse - 27 February 2016 (photo: walkers approach lighthouse)       

Mumbles lighthouse, designed by William Jernegan ‘the architect of Regency Swansea’, has been operating since 1793, and still fulfills an important role.  But peninsular Gower has another lighthouse at its north-west corner, which though disused is the only cast-iron wave-swept lighthouse in the British Isles.  Surprisingly it is the second one to be built at Whiteford Point.

During the 19th century the Loughor estuary was busy with ships serving the coal and metal industries around Llanelli and Penclawdd.  Initially a light ship was considered to aid navigation, until in 1849 permission was sought from Trinity House to erect a lighthouse on the sker or reef at Whiteford.  This was fraught with problems - the limited time that the site was accessible between tides, and the frequent adverse weather conditions.

Nonetheless the first Whiteford lighthouse was erected in 1854 on timber piles - it was 55ft high and visible from nine miles.  Its roof, upper balcony and lantern (excluding the glass panes) were all painted white.  However it was liable to damage from drifting wreckage and collisions from boats.  Finally on 30th December 1864 a single–masted sailing boat, the ‘Mary’ of Ipswich, failed to anchor properly, struck the lighthouse, and carried away two of the uprights: this marked the end for the lighthouse. 

It was replaced by the present structure, sited 317 yards further south, and constructed of cast-iron.  The first cast-iron lighthouse stood not far away – on Swansea’s west pier, designed by William Jernegan, architect of the stone-built Mumbles lighthouse.  Built in 1803 with plates cast at Neath Abbey ironworks, it had a vertical octagonal tower, and stood 20ft high on a stone plinth. 

Work at Whiteford commenced in August 1865, with materials being delivered by boat, though as the base was only exposed for between one and two hours at low tide, construction was extremely difficult.  The longest period when the site was dry was before and after the spring tides, the best time to establish the foundations and fix the first ring of cast-iron plates.  The lighthouse was built of eight cast-iron rings cast in Llanelli ironworks and bolted together externally.  The present Whiteford lighthouse is 44ft high, and at high tide stands in 20ft of water.   

Access was by an external ladder (now removed) on the eastern side, which led to the balcony.  A short ladder led to a small upper balcony which enabled the glass of the dome to be cleaned.  From the main balcony was a door into the lantern room, with an interior ladder to the store/living room.  Although there was provision for two keepers, only one would have been in residence, alternating two weeks at Whiteford with two weeks at the Llanelli harbour lighthouse.

After 55 years service Whiteford was de-commissioned in 1921, and replaced by a 12ft high light on Burry Holms, a photograph of which hangs inside the King’s Head in Llangennith.  This was dismantled in 1966, leaving what the late Nigel Jenkins described as “the cartwheel-sized base” of the navigational beacon remaining on the island.

After sixty years Whiteford lighthouse shone again from October 1982 for five years, when Llanelli Harbour Trust, aided financially by Burry Port Yacht Club, installed an automatic Agar light to assist local sailors. 
Subsequently Carmarthenshire County Council, the present owners, offered the lighthouse for sale for just £1, though prospective buyers were deterred by the £100,000 cost of restoration.  The Gower Society initiated two surveys in 1997, and the following year carried out some consolidation of the base, but the future for this Scheduled Ancient Monument remains uncertain.  Whiteford lighthouse can be reached at low tide with caution, for the tide comes in quickly, while oystercatchers and kittiwakes perch on the disused structure.

Saturday 20 February 2016

37 The Wesley Chapel

37. The Wesley Chapel – 20 Feb 2016 (photos: Wesley Chapel in 1848 & 1941 ruin)

On the south side of College Street it is easy to miss a head-high plaque between two shops which states: ‘To the glory of God this tablet indicates the site on which the Wesley Chapel, College Street, was situated.  Opened February 1847, destroyed by enemy action February 1941’.

The building stood at the corner with Goat Street (roughly the top part of present-day Princess Way), opposite the old Synagogue and Sidney Heath’s original draper’s shop, believed to be the site of the birthplace of ‘Beau’ Nash. 

In the eighteenth century Church of England minister John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, made nine visits to Swansea, preaching on occasions in the courtyard of The Plas (as illustrated by a Dunvant Junior School pupil on Castle Square plaque  number 4).  The Plas, then owned by the first Calvert Richard Jones, was Swansea’s finest mediaeval house, and stood on the site later occupied by the Ben Evans Store, then by Castle Gardens and now Castle Square. 

A Methodist Society was established in Castle Street in 1769, and subsequently a chapel was built on the corner site of College Street and Goat Street.  Wesleyan Methodist chapels were also being erected in anglicised parts of Gower, in villages like Oxwich, Horton, Reynoldston and Port Eynon.  Following Wesley’s death in 1791, Methodists separated from the Church of England to become a distinct Christian denomination. 

Swansea’s Methodist chapel was rebuilt in 1824-25, and as the congregation grew so work commenced on a much larger chapel on that site - its foundation stone was laid in June 1845.  But the builder went bankrupt, and the building was left roofless for over a year before eventual completion and opening in February 1847.  The 1851 Guide to Swansea stated that ‘the style is Italian, and the building is graced with a handsome porch and a fine lofty steeple, having a circular aperture in the tower for the purposes of a clock’. 

It could accommodate 1,000 people, and was filled in June 1925 for the visit of the evangelist and singer Gipsy Smith, then aged in his seventies.

But in the Second World War the building, like much of central Swansea, was destroyed by aerial bombardment during the ‘Three Nights Blitz’ of February 1941.  Its large schoolroom was being used as an air-raid shelter, and the rumour persists to this day that when incendiary bombs fell on 21st February over a hundred people inside were killed: in fact this did not happen.  In times of stress and danger events can get exaggerated and distorted, and of course such disasters occurred, though not at Swansea’s Wesley Chapel.  As the bombardment increased, all those sheltering in the schoolroom were evacuated and guided initially to the Welcome Lane shelter, and from there to the arches under the Strand, as borne out in the wartime memoirs of Elaine Kidwell.  She was then Britain’s youngest air raid warden, having lied about her age to join up, hoping as a Girl Guide that her first aid skills would be of use.  Elaine joined in February 1941, during Swansea’s most intense time of bombing with those three solid nights of bombardment on the 19th, 20th and 21st. 

For a while the Wesleyan congregation met in the Ragged School in Pleasant Street, but members gradually dispersed to chapels in the suburbs.  The Wesley Chapel was not rebuilt, so Brunswick Chapel in St Helen’s Road became Swansea’s main Wesleyan place of worship.  The £54,000 of war damage compensation was used to build Wesley Memorial Chapel on the Townhill estate in 1953, though it was later sold to the Council to become a gymnastic centre. 
With post-war rebuilding of the town centre both Goat Street and Waterloo Street (which was roughly parallel to it) were replaced by a new dual carriageway, named by the then Princess Elizabeth as Princess Way.

Saturday 13 February 2016

36 'Beau' Nash

36. Beau Nash - 13 Feb 2016 (photos: Beau Nash, Caer Street premises)

Some may recall the original Beau Nash House in Swansea’s town centre before the war.  It stood in Goat Street, at the top of what is now Princess Way, and like the large Wesley Chapel opposite was destroyed during the aerial bombardment of February 1941.  It had been the premises of Sidney Heath’s draper’s shop, and was believed to have been the birthplace of the Regency dandy ‘Beau’ Nash.  When Sidney Heath re-located after the war to Caer Street (now Yates’s Wine Bar), he named the larger premises with the mock Tudor fa├žade Beau Nash House. 

But who was Beau Nash? 

By contrast with Thomas Bowdler, the ‘censor of Shakespeare’ who was from Bath but moved to Swansea, Nash was born in Swansea but lived much of his life in Bath.  Born Richard Nash in 1674 in Swansea, his father ran a bottle-making business.  With the growth of the wine trade and demand for medicinal waters his father could afford to send Richard (he also had two daughters) to Carmarthen Grammar School.  Richard Nash boarded in Carmarthen until he was 17, and went on to Jesus College, Oxford.  He was never forthcoming about his past, and as his fame increased he ignored rumours and let admirers embellish anecdotes about him. 

Bath was a spa town known for its mineral springs, which became popular after Queen Anne’s visit in 1702.  But fashionable visitors found that Bath was ill-prepared to receive, house and entertain guests.  From 1710 Nash is first mentioned in documents as living in Bath.  He briefly assisted Captain Webster, Bath’s Master of Ceremonies, who was a compulsive gambler, and succeeded him when Webster was killed in a duel over gambling.  Thereupon Nash instigated changes to encourage gentry and nobility to visit Bath. 

He had the streets patrolled by night watchmen, ordered residents to hang lanterns outside their houses to deter crimes in the hours of darkness, and excluded vagrants and professional beggars who would prey on wealthy visitors.  He regulated the conduct of the sedan chair porters and, instead of the variable quality of local musicians, he booked London musicians to play at the Pump House during the daytime, and at the evening dances in the Assembly Rooms.  With his charm, assurance and confidence, Nash was a superb Master of Ceremonies, enforcing standards of civility and politeness.  As he raised standards people took pride in their appearance - households began to have more than just one mirror!  Nash gentrified behaviour, holding court at the Pump Room and acquiring the nickname ‘Beau’.  He laid down rules of mutual respect, including “that all whisperers of lies and scandals be taken as their authors.”

Visitors would walk, ride, bathe in the Baths, dance, play card games like whist, piquet or quadrille (an early form of bridge).  A keen gambler himself, Nash would restrain compulsive gamblers and warn players against risky games or suspected cardsharps.

As Master of Ceremonies he observed distinctions of rank at minuets - initially just one couple would begin the dance, before Nash would bring forth a different partner, and so on.  With his be-jewelled snuff-box he became a distinctive figure. 

It was a great coup for him when Bath was visited in 1738 by Frederick, Prince of Wales, with his consort Princess Augusta.  Nash transformed the spa city into the most fashionable place in England, organising magnificent public balls and raising nearly £20,000 to improve the state of the roads. 

It was said that he ‘was the life and soul of all their diversions’ - in some ways he was the prototype of the modern celebrity: famous for being famous.  Today he would be an impresario, or in PR.
Among Bath Abbey’s memorial tablets is one to this Swansea man who promulgated rules that had a beneficial and lasting effect on society.  ‘Beau’ Nash sounds just the person to make a party go with a swing!

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.