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.

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