Thursday 9 February 2017

96 The 1947 Mumbles lifeboat tragedy

96 The 1947 Mumbles lifeboat tragedy

23rd April is St George’s Day, the birthday of William Shakespeare, and it is believed to have been the date of his death 52 years later.  This year it is the 70th anniversary of the Mumbles lifeboat’s worst tragedy, when all eight crew members of the ‘Edward, Prince of Wales’ lifeboat were lost in going to help the liberty ship ‘Samtampa’ at Sker Point off Porthcawl.

Mumbles lifeboat had been involved in two earlier tragedies - in 1883 four men from the ‘Wolverhampton’ drowned when seeking to aid the ‘Admiral Prinz Adalbert’ near the lighthouse.  Twenty years later six crewmen from the lifeboat ‘James Stevens’ - one of whom had survived the ‘Wolverhampton’ tragedy - drowned at the entrance to Port Talbot harbour when seeking to aid the SS ‘Christina’.

Liberty ships were a class of cargo ship mass-produced in the United States during the Second World War, to meet British orders to replace those torpedoed by German U-boats.  2,710 liberty ships were built at eighteen American shipyards between 1941 and 1945.  The 7,219 ton ‘Samtampa’ had been built in Maine, and was launched in December 1943, one of 2,400 liberty ships that had survived the war.  On the night of 23rd April 1947 she was journeying from Middlesbrough to Newport when the decision was made to ride out a 70mph gale at Sker Point off Porthcawl.  But the cables could not hold the ship in those conditions, and she broke into three sections on the rocks in just over an hour: all 39 members of her crew, mostly from the Teeside area, were lost.  

The Mumbles lifeboat had been launched at 7.10pm, and nearing Sker Point coxswain William Gammon made to pull alongside the wrecked ship.  But an exceptionally high wave overturned the lifeboat, flinging the entire crew of eight men into the water, where all perished.  At the subsequent inquest the doctor giving evidence opined that the men had died of asphyxia from drowning, with head injuries as a contributory cause in three cases.  Technical staff from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution later examined the wrecked lifeboat, and concluded that she had overturned around the time of high water.  The boat was then burnt.

The bodies of the ‘Samtampa’s crew that could be identified were returned to their homes for burial, with those not identified being buried at a cemetery outside Porthcawl.

The eight Mumbles men who drowned were coxswain William Gammon, William Noel, Gilbert Davies, Ernest Griffin, William Thomas, William Howell, Ronald Thomas and Richard Smith.  Their funerals were held on 29th April at All Saints Church, Oystermouth, attended by the Admiral of the Fleet, the Mayor and members of Swansea Corporation, RNLI officials, and crews from other lifeboat stations.  Simultaneously there was a requiem mass for William Noel at the nearby Roman Catholic Church, Our Lady Star of the Sea.  In spite of torrential rain the route from the churches was lined with thousands of people as the funeral cortege made its way to the cemetery, where the eight men were buried in adjacent graves.  Notwithstanding post-war austerity, £93,000 was raised for the crew’s dependants.

The replacement lifeboat was named ‘William Gammon’ in honour of coxswain Gammon and his crew.  Six widows of the Mumbles crew attended the annual meeting of the RNLI in October 1947, where they were presented with the men's certificates of service; illness prevented the seventh widow from attending.  Inside All Saints Church a stained glass window designed by Tim Lewis and dedicated in 1977 depicts the heroic rescue attempt off Sker Point.  There is also a memorial to the victims at the site of the tragedy, and it is hoped that a central memorial in Porthcawl town, close to the sea and harbour, will mark the 70th anniversary of the tragedy.


Wednesday 8 February 2017

95 Sir William Grove physicist

95 Sir William Grove

The site of Swansea’s divisional police headquarters in Grove Place used to be occupied by the Fire Station, and previously had been the site of a fine townhouse called The Laurels.  There in June 1811 on the slopes of Mount Pleasant, which was then a rural setting with a number of large newly-built houses for wealthy citizens, was born the eminent physicist Sir William Grove.  Their near neighbours at The Willows included Lewis Weston Dillwyn, owner of the Cambrian Pottery.  Grove’s father was a local merchant involved in civic affairs, and a substantial property owner.  Formerly members of the family had lived on a farm in Reynoldston. 

William Grove was privately educated by the headmaster of Swansea Grammar School, and subsequently in Bath by Rev. J. Kilvert.  In the autumn of 1820 Grove went up to Oxford to study at Brasenose College, and subsequently on to Lincoln’s Inn, being called to the Bar in 1835.  He had an interest in science from the age of twelve, and being in London afforded him opportunities to benefit from the various scientific institutions, notably the Royal Institution, established in 1799, of which both L.W. Dillwyn and copper master John Henry Vivian were Fellows.  An interest in science was a common feature of the new industrial middle class, for in Swansea Grove, along with Dillwyn, Vivian and geologist Henry de la Beche, was among the eleven founders of the town’s Philosophical and Literary Society, later the Royal Institution of South Wales, which built Swansea Museum.  On several occasions Grove lectured to the Society, demonstrating original work rather than merely what was gleaned from the research of others.

William Grove married in 1837 and continued his scientific interests during a honeymoon tour of the continent.  He developed a novel form of electric cell, the Grove cell, in 1839 - “the first to effect the actual combination of the gases oxygen and hydrogen by a feeble electric current.”  He also invented the first incandescent electric light, later perfected by Thomas Edison.   

His reputation was made when at Michael Faraday’s invitation he presented his discoveries to the Royal Institution at one of their prestigious Friday Evening Discourses in 1840.  Grove was appointed the first professor of experimental philosophy at the London Institution, where his father-in-law was one of the proprietors, and where he had his own laboratory with funds to purchase apparatus.  Crucially he developed the first fuel cell, which he called a “gas voltaic battery”, and his major book “On the Correlation of Physical Forces” (1846) went through six editions during his lifetime, even being recommended to Engels by Karl Marx.

Grove was instrumental in persuading the British Association for the Advancement of Science to hold their 1848 meeting in Swansea, notwithstanding that Brunel’s Great Western Railway had not then reached the town.  The Museum was used for many meetings, along with the Town Hall (now the Dylan Thomas Centre), the Assembly Rooms in Cambrian Place, and the now demolished Girls’ School in York Street.  Among the excursions was one to Penllergare to see John Dillwyn Llewelyn's experiments with a boat powered by an electric motor.  The whole week was a great success.

Subsequently his legal career gradually took precedence over scientific work, for he was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1853.  Knighted in 1872, Sir William Grove became a privy councillor before he died aged 85 at his home in Harley Street, London, in 1896 after a long illness.  The blue plaque on the wall of Swansea’s central police station was unveiled in January 2015, while a statue of "The Father of the Fuel Cell" stands in Woking Park, Surrey, home of Britain’s first combined heat and power unit.  
His invention is utilised by NASA, for fuel cells provide power and water for manned space flights.  Nevertheless the full potential of Grove’s fuel cell in reducing environmentally harmful emissions has yet to be implemented.

Tuesday 7 February 2017

94 Ann of Swansea

94 Ann of Swansea

On the Swansea Bay side, near the entrance to the Civic Centre, hangs a blue plaque to Ann Julia Hatton.  It is located on the west side of what was originally West Glamorgan County Hall, near where once stood the Bathing House, which Ann Hatton leased from the Corporation in 1799: this catered for gentry when sea bathing was fashionable as beneficial to health, even for those already unwell.  Before the copper smelting industry expanded in the lower Swansea Valley, the town had aspirations to be “The Brighton of Wales”.  The Bathing House was a House of Assembly on the Burrows half-a-mile from the town, providing rooms for dining and accommodation, and storing bathing machines to be wheeled onto the beach for gentry and guests to bathe shielded from public view.     

Born in Worcester in 1764, Ann Hatton was one of 12 children of the actor Roger Kemble, who had formed a company of strolling players.  Her eldest sister married a member of the company, and became famous in London as the actress Sarah Siddons.  But Ann’s life did not flow smoothly, for lameness hindered any career on the stage, and her first marriage when aged 19 turned out to be bigamous.  Amid scandal she was deserted, and left to spiral downward as an artist’s model in a notorious London house, to appeal for poor relief as the sister of Mrs Siddons in a newspaper advertisement, and even to attempt suicide in Westminster Abbey.  Yet from such a desperate situation she managed to turn her life around.

When twenty-eight she married widower William Hatton, and they sailed to New York the following year.  Ann Hatton wrote a libretto “Tammany: The Indian Chief” which was tremendously popular, being given its première on Broadway in 1794.  This was the first known libretto by a woman, and the first written in the USA on an American theme. 

Yet by 1799 the Hattons had returned to Britain, and settled at Swansea, where for a few years they leased the Bathing House from the Corporation at a rent of £34-4s-0d. 

After William Hatton died in 1806, Ann moved to Kidwelly, where notwithstanding her lameness she ran a dancing school for three years before returning to Swansea.  She wrote poems, short stories and novels under the pen name “Ann of Swansea”, living in turn in College Street, Orchard Street and Park Street, and supported by an annuity from her sister Sarah Siddons, allegedly on the condition that she lived 150 miles from London, so as not to embarrass the family after the scandals of her early life.

Ann Hatton’s fourteen novels, each of several volumes, are verbose and of dubious quality – “Cambrian Pictures” came out in three volumes, with “Chronicles of an Illustrious House” in five.  Her experience of times of poverty and having mixed precariously with various classes gave her a particular insight into social conditions.  In 1810 her play “Zaffine or the Knight of the Bloody Cross” was staged in Swansea, with Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean.

Her best-known poem contains the lines:

The restless waves that lave the shore   Joining the tide’s tumultuous roar,

In hollow murmurs seem to say –   Peace is not found at Swansea Bay.

Regarding the quality of her poetry, Dylan Thomas said she managed to keep her verses “on a nice drab level of mediocrity”: he would have felt volumes entitled “Poetic Trifles” were aptly named. 

Yet Swansea Corporation appreciated her sufficiently to commission William Watkeys to paint her portrait in 1834 when she was 71: this painting is in the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, and Swansea Museum has two other portraits of her. 

Ann Hatton died aged 74, and was buried in St John’s churchyard (now St Matthew’s) in High Street. 

The blue plaque is a reminder of not only Swansea’s aspirations to cater for genteel society in the eighteenth century, but of this adaptable, indomitable woman.      

Thomas Rothwell’s view of the Bathing House 1791


Monday 6 February 2017

93 The James Stevens tragedy 1903

Six lifeboat crew died during mission to help grounded ship
93 The James Stevens tragedy

The Sunday after Easter will be the 70th anniversary of the last Mumbles lifeboat tragedy, when the crew of the lifeboat “Edward, Prince of Wales” were drowned seeking to aid the “Samtampa” at Sker Point.  Plaques inside All Saints Church, Oystermouth, commemorate all three Mumbles lifeboat disasters: the first in 1883 is prominent through the poem “The Women of Mumbles Head”, while the second disaster in 1903 is less well-known - perhaps because no other ship was wrecked, even though six lifeboat men drowned.

On 31st January 1903 the SS “Christina” from Waterford ran aground trying to enter Port Talbot harbour, and with the crew still on board the Mumbles lifeboat was called out the following afternoon to stand by during an attempt to refloat her at high tide.  This lifeboat was one of a series of twenty lifeboats purchased by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution using a £50,000 legacy received in 1894 from the estate of Edgbaston property developer Mr James Stevens of Birmingham for this purpose.  A 35-foot self-righter, RNLI official number 436, the new lifeboat reached Mumbles in February 1900 and was named James Stevens no. 12. 

Exactly three years later the 14-strong lifeboat crew (most of them oyster fishermen) went to the aid of the SS “Christina” during a south-westerly gale.  The head launcher was the father of future Swansea mayor Harry Libby.  The weather was unsettled, with nasty squalls, as the James Stevens reached Aberavon before high tide at 8pm, with the coxswain supervising the use of the drogue.  That device attached to the stern is used to slow a boat down in a storm, to keep the hull perpendicular to the waves, and prevent a boat speeding excessively down the slope of a wave and crashing into the next one. 

But one wave carried the James Stevens a considerable distance, and it seemed that the drogue was not operating properly to check the lifeboat, for the following heavy wave struck her on her starboard quarter so she capsized, about 100 yards from the breakwater.  The James Stevens righted herself, with four of the crew managing to hang on, while ten men fought for their lives in rough icy seas.  Samuel Gammon dived back into the water and rescued a number of his comrades.  The six who died were coxswain Thomas Rogers, second coxswain Dan Claypitt, George Michael, James Gammon, Robert Smith and David John Morgan, a survivor of the “Wolverhampton” tragedy on Mumbles Head twenty years earlier, when four lifeboat men drowned.  The SS “Christina” was re-floated, with all the crew unharmed.

The subsequent wreck report was informed that the drogue was put overboard 300 yards from the end of the breakwater, but there were conflicting reports as to whether the full length of the drogue rope was out, and it was concluded that the drogue had not been properly used.

All Saints' Church Parish magazine reported: “On Wednesday February 4th, the bodies of the brave men were brought from Port Talbot by road to the Mumbles.  Crowds of people, of all classes, met the bodies as they entered the village, to show sympathy and respect.  Slowly, quietly and reverently each body was taken out of the hearse and carried on stalwart shoulders to its respective home.  The piteous grief of the widows and orphans brought tears to the eyes of the strongest.”

The funerals took place on 5th February at 3.30p.m, with music provided by the Swansea Postal and Telegraph Band.  They, along with the choir and clergy, preceded the bodies to Oystermouth Cemetery, where hundreds had gathered to witness the interments.  The survivors, clad in their life-belts, stood by the open graves in section K.  The service concluded with the hymn “Nearer my God to Thee”.   

Inside All Saints Church a brass plaque on the wall by the pulpit contains the names of the six men who died in this tragedy.

Thursday 2 February 2017

92 The Cenotaph

92 Names of fallen enhance city’s memorial to them

The word “cenotaph” derives from the Greek word “kenotaphion” meaning empty tomb, a memorial to those killed in war but buried elsewhere.  Cenotaphs were common in the ancient world, with many built in Ancient Egypt.  The massive Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, South Africa, and the memorial to the defenders of The Alamo in Texas are prominent overseas cenotaphs. 
In London the cenotaph in Whitehall is undecorated, apart from a wreath carved on each end and the words "The Glorious Dead," words chosen by Lloyd George.  Though intended originally to commemorate the victims of the First World War, it now commemorates the dead in all wars in which British servicemen and women have fought.  The dates of the First and the Second World Wars are inscribed in Roman numerals.  The Whitehall cenotaph’s design by Sir Edwin Lutyens was followed in constructing many other memorials in the country, in the British sectors of the Western Front, and in other Commonwealth countries.  The Whitehall cenotaph was originally a temporary wooden memorial to mark the signing of the final peace treaty to end the First World War on 28 June 1919 (seven months after Armistice Day).  But when a great procession had passed the cenotaph that day, mourners began to lay wreaths around its base, so it was decided to replace it with a permanent stone structure as the country's national war memorial: this was unveiled on 11 November 1920 as the 'Unknown Warrior' was carried past en route to burial in Westminster Abbey.
Swansea’s earlier cenotaph was in memory of those who died during the South African or Boer War of 1899 to 1902.  It was unveiled by Mayor Griffith Thomas in April 1904 and initially sited at the original entrance to Victoria Park, flanked by two cannons, until moved onto the promenade in 1932 when the Guildhall was being erected.  The foundation stone of Swansea’s cenotaph in memory of those killed during the twentieth century’s two World Wars was laid on the Promenade by Field Marshall Earl Haig on 1 July 1922, with a King’s Shilling laid beneath on behalf of war widows.  Designed by Swansea Borough architect Ernest Morgan, based on that of the Whitehall cenotaph, this cenotaph was unveiled a year later by the Admiral of the Fleet Sir Doveton Sturdee.  
The Imperial War Museum’s War Memorials Register describes it as being on a stepped base, with the central Portland stone cenotaph having a stylised tomb-chest, and bronze low relief wreaths to the narrow sides with the dates 1914-1918 and 1939-1945.  The broad side facing the sea has a bronze relief of an anchor in a wreath, while the land side has the Swansea arms below the Latin inscription: Pro Deo Rege et Patria (for God, King and Country).  The precinct is surrounded by an octagonal wall with four entrances, the outer faces of wall being in grey stone (with flower beds) and the inner faces having copings and entrance piers in Portland stone. The inner faces of the wall bear bronze plaques with names of the fallen, 2,274 from the First World War and a further 500 from the Second.  There are stones recording the foundation and unveiling.  
But is it a cenotaph or a war memorial?  A colour postcard of Swansea’s cenotaph, first produced by Valentine’s of Dundee in 1925, depicts the cenotaph on the Promenade, with in the distance the signal box of the LMS railway, but the scene is described as “The Promenade and the War Memorial”.  Aberdare in mid-Glamorgan claims to have Britain’s only cenotaph apart from the one in Whitehall, and would classify all others as war memorials - possibly because they list the names of those killed.   
As far as we are concerned, on Swansea’s Promenade stands the cenotaph, which is enhanced rather than diminished by the names of those who died in action.                                

Wednesday 1 February 2017

91 Mumbles Head battery

91 Mumbles Head battery

Beside the blue plaque to the Ace Sisters near the entrance to Mumbles Pier, steps lead down to the beach, for when the tide is out one can cross over to two small islets - the middle head and the outer head.  On the outer head stands Mumbles lighthouse, built in 1793/94 to a design of William Jernegan, “The Architect of Regency Swansea”, and on the west side is Bob’s Cave, which is accessible with care when the tide is out. 

Around 1791, when threat of a French invasion loomed large, a battery - a fortified position for heavy guns – was erected on Mumbles Hill rather than on a tidal islet, though quarrying curtailed its use to only a few years.  The threat of invasion was real enough - 1,400 French troops were landed near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire, only to surrender three days later.  Many readers will have seen the 30-metre long tapestry embroidered for the 1997 bicentenary.

Coastal batteries as at Mumbles were integral to Britain’s defences during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.  Britain’s strength lay in the superiority of her Navy, but the second line of defence left much to be desired.  In 1844 the Duke of Wellington first drew attention to the poor state of coastal defences.

The international situation had deteriorated in 1852 when Prime Minister Palmerston alerted parliament to the danger of a French invasion, following Louis Napoleon’s coup, when Bonaparte’s nephew became Emperor of France.  In Swansea the authorities petitioned for a battery to be sited in Mumbles, and it was considered that there was space for one on the outer islet near the Lighthouse.  After the lease had been negotiated with the Duke of Beaufort, work commenced in 1859.  A fortified position for heavy guns was erected by the lighthouse in 1860 to combat any invasion, and five 80-pounder 5-ton guns were installed, two in vaulted casements with three above.  There was accommodation for a staff-sergeant and 21 NCOs and artillerymen, though some tension between the soldiers and local people was prevalent: a magistrate cautioned the commanding officer not to permit groups of eight or ten men to be away from their quarters late at night.

To facilitate the landing of supplies and equipment, a timber platform was constructed against the cliff on the north side of the islet.  Like other batteries around the coast, the battery was dubbed one of “Palmerston’s follies” since the invasion never materialised - which might however demonstrate the success of the batteries as a deterrent!

In 1978 a diver discovered a five-ton twelve-foot long naval gun from the 1860s embedded in rock and sand beneath the battery.  Swansea Sub-Aqua club members enabled it to be recovered and towed six miles to Pockett's Wharf in the Marina.

Development in weapon technology meant that the cannon on the headland were considered obsolete by 1877.  Mumbles battery was scaled down and retained as a practice battery for volunteers, manned by just a sergeant and two Royal Artillery gunners.  This was the situation when the Prussian barque Admiral Prinz Adalbert was wrecked near the lighthouse in 1883, along with the lifeboat Wolverhampton, inspiring the poem “The Women of Mumbles Head” which cast an unwarranted slur on the efforts of the artillerymen to assist with the rescue. 

With further development of armaments and the adoption of breech-loading guns, in 1899 the 80-pounder guns were removed and sold.  Two of the redundant cannon were acquired by Swansea Corporation and now stand on the terrace of the Mansion House.

In 1901 four new guns were installed, so the battery remained in operation throughout the First World War, with soldiers guarding the fort housed in the original Bristol Channel Yacht Club, augmented by additional accommodation constructed at Limeslade.  In 1959 the Mumbles battery and subsequent installations were de-commissioned.  We trust 1797 in Fishguard will remain the date and place of the last invasion of Britain.