During the 19th Century, Swansea became an ever increasingly busy port, frequented by trading ships from all over the world. However, vessels entering Swansea Bay's harbour needed to navigate the dangerous sandbanks - the Mixon Sands, south-west of Mumbles Head and Scarweather Sands to the south of the bay. A lighthouse had been established at Mumbles Head since 1794, to help mariners find a safe path into the bay, however, many ships would succumb to the torrents of the sea and wind, especially during stormy conditions. Often in these situations, the pilots, coastguards and tugs of Swansea Harbour would attempt to rescue the crews of stricken vessels, sometimes quite successfully. However, dedicated lifeboat operations were springing up along the Welsh coast and following a number of dramatic lifeboat rescues by the crews of both Holyhead and Caernarvon, the local newspaper, The Cambrian reported in October 1834:
There cannot be afforded a stronger proof of the vast utility of lifeboats than in the preservation of the crews of the above vessels and we take the opportunity of again urging on the consideration of the influential gentlemen connected with our harbour, the necessity of procuring one, for the protection of the poor mariner when threatened by the danger of shipwreck and loss of life.
The very next month bore witness to the Maltese barque, 'Margaret' and nine days later, the schooner 'Mary Ann', becoming stranded upon Mixon Sands. Although there was no loss to life on these occasions, it was enough to ignite a petition for a lifeboat amongst local citizens. With the added support of The Cambrian, the petition succeeded in establishing a lifeboat service for Swansea Bay. Costing £120, the lifeboat was finally supplied in 1835, but did not entirely live up to everybody's expectations being very poorly utilised. In 1851 the lifeboat was admonished in the Northumberland report saying, "It has not been used. Unserviceable."
Dissatisfaction with the first lifeboat led the cautious authorities to seek a replacement and altogether better lifeboat in August 1855. The new lifeboat, stored within a shed adjoining Swansea's Harbour Offices, was built by Forrestt & Co. of Limehouse and could carry a crew of thirteen pulling ten oars. However, it was pertinently noted many times that most rescues in the bay, in common with the past, were at the hands of the steam tugs and pilots, rather than the lifeboat itself!
Royal National Lifeboat Institution
Clearly some direction and expertise was needed in order to develop a successful and reliable lifeboat service. Therefore, the Harbour Trust consulted with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), who recommended placing a lifeboat station near Mumbles Head. With the promise of an immediate grant of £100 and an annual grant of £30, the RNLI agreed to form a new establishment and run the lifeboat service.
A new lifeboat, 'Martha and Anne' was purchased in 1863, but stayed in Swansea until a boathouse and slipway was built at Mumbles. Work started at Mumbles to construct a boathouse under the cliffs and this was duly completed in 1865, however it was not until September 1866 and the introduction of yet another new lifeboat, presented to the RNLI by the people of Wolverhampton and thusly named the 'Wolverhampton', that the Mumbles lifeboat station was finally established, complete with its own slipway.
Lifeboat House Developments
The foundation stone for a larger boathouse was laid on 17th October 1883, and completed in 1884 at the cost of £361. The boathouse still stands and is known as the Old Lifeboat Cottage. It was, at one time, the home of the coxswain, but recent years has seen it used by Mumbles Pier's management, Amusement Equipment Co. Ltd. (AMECO).
By 1898, the Mumbles Railway was extended to the head, with the newly built Mumbles Pier to act as the rail terminus. With steam trains passing immediately in front of the doors, the boathouse and slipway situation was far from ideal. Subsequent lifeboats were kept on moorings in front of the boathouse using a smaller vessel as a boarding boat, but the crew found this method of getting afloat time-consuming and substandard, initiating plans in 1905 to build a new boathouse alongside the pier.
A new slipway was built, joined to the pier at right-angles, by the summer of 1916 after construction was delayed due to the war. However, the lifeboat was stored with a simple covering of tarpaulin for six years, until the boathouse was finally erected in 1922.
2012-2013 Restoration and Construction
Mumbles' Pier has reached the end of its maintainable life and now requires a total rebuild.
The RNLI have a larger Tamar class lifeboat which also requires a larger modern lifeboathouse. Work commenced in 2012 to rebuild the 113 year old pier and construct the new boathouse.
The Tamar is the most technologically advanced lifeboat ever produced by the RNLI, we owe it to our volunteer crews to provide them with the very best lifeboats. Being able to provide this fantastic new lifeboat is thanks to the continued generosity of the public for which we are continuously grateful.
- Colin Williams, RNLI
Mumbles Lifeboat Disasters
One of the great challenges to the lifeboat crew came Saturday 27th January 1883, when gales dramatically turned to storm force winds. The 'Wolverhampton' was launched at 10am to attempt a rescue of the four-masted German barque 'Admiral Prinz Adalbert of Danzig', which had stranded off Mumbles Head rocks. The lifeboat crew managed to pull aboard two of the German crew from the barque, but during the rescue of the third man, the sea flipped the lifeboat over and over again throwing the men overboard. Only the two Germans managed to remain clinging aboard, whilst the lifeboat men battled against the sea to save their own lives. Ten of the lifeboat crew managed to grab the lifelines of the 'Wolverhampton' and at least one of these men was dragged ashore by the lighthouse keeper's daughter, as immortalised in Clement Scott's 'The Women of Mumbles Head!'. Others managed to save themselves by dragging themselves onto Mumbles' middle head, whilst one man, Bob Jenkins, was found alive two days later sheltering in Mumbles Head's cave, now known locally as Bob's Cave. Sadly, four of the lifeboat crew were drowned. A stained glass window in Oystermouth Parish Church commemorates the tragedy.
The lifeboat was understandably damaged beyond repair and was replaced with a new, slightly larger boat, also named 'Wolverhampton'. This replacement was too large for the old boathouse, so this was demolished and a larger boathouse was built in its place.
On 1 February 1903, the service of the lifeboat, 'James Stevens No. 12' was prematurely cut short when it was capsized during the rescue of a coaster, 'Christina', that had run ashore off Port Talbot in strong westerly gales. Out of fourteen lifeboat crew members, six lost their lives, including the coxswain. The eight survivors were washed into Port Talbot pier.
The single most significant disaster in the history of Mumbles Lifeboat came, however, on the 23 April 1947, when all eight lifeboat men of 'Edward, Prince of Wales' were lost to the sea attempting to rescue the thirty-nine crew of the Newport-bound 'Samtampa'. 'Edward, Prince of Wales' was Mumbles' first motorised lifeboat and had been in service since May 1924 and was also the first of its type to be capsized. The lifeboat crew left Mumbles at 7.10pm to aid the stricken 'Samtampa' which had blown onto Scarweather Sands, and this was the last time they were seen alive. A total of forty-seven men from both boats lost their lives that fateful night, their bodies found the next morning upon the sands, smothered in the thick fuel oil of the 'Samtampa'.
Since the Mumbles station was established, eighteen lifeboatmen have lost their lives to their commitment to others, many of whom are buried at Oystermouth Cemetery.
The Women of Mumbles Head! - 1883
Bring, novelists, your note-book! Bring, dramatists, your pen!
And I'll tell you a simple story of what women do for men.
It's only a tale of a lifeboat, of the dying and the dead,
Of a terrible storm and shipwreck that happened off Mumbles Head,
Maybe you have travelled in Wales, sir, and know it north to south;
Maybe you are friends with the "natives" that dwell at Oystermouth;
It happens, no doubt, that from Bristol you've crossed in a casual way,
And have sailed your yacht in the summer in the blue of Swansea Bay.
Well! It isn't like that in the winter, when the lighthouse stands alone,
In the teeth of Atlantic breakers that foam on its face of stone;
It wasn't like that when the hurricane blew, and the storm-bell tolled, or when
There was news of a wreck, and the lifeboat launch'd, and a desperate cry for men.
When in the world did the coxswain shirk? A brave old salt was he!
Proud to the bone of as four strong lads as ever had tasted sea,
Welshmen all to the lungs and loins, who, about the coast, 'twas said,
Had saved some hundred lives a piece - at a shilling or so a head!
It didn't go well for the lifeboat! 'Twas a terrible storm that blew!
And it snapped the rope in a second that was flung to the drowning crew;
And then the anchor parted - 'twas a tussle to keep afloat!
But the father stuck to the rudder, and the boys to the brave old boat.
Then at last on the poor doom'd lifeboat a wave broke, mountains high!
"God help us now!" said the father. "It's over, my lads. Good-bye."
Half of the crew swam shoreward, half to the sheltered caves,
But father and sons were fighting death in the foam of the angry waves.
Up at a lighthouse window two women beheld the storm,
And saw in the boiling breakers a figure - a fighting form,
It might be a grey-haired father, then the women held their breath,
It might be a fair-haired brother, who was having a round with death;
It might be a lover, a husband, whose kisses were on the lips
Of the women whose love is the life of men going down to the sea in ships.
They had seen the launch of the lifeboat, they had seen the worst and more,
Then, kissing each other, these women went down from the lighthouse, straight to shore.
There by the rocks on the breakers these sisters, hand in hand,
Beheld once more that desperate man who struggle to reach the land.
'Twas only aid he wanted to help him across the wave,
But what are a couple of women with only a man to save?
What are a couple of women? Well more then three craven men
Who stood by the shore with chattering teeth refusing to stir - and then
Off went the women's shawls, sir: in a second they're torn and rent,
Then knotting them into a rope of love, straight into the sea they went!
"Come back!" cried the lighthouse-keeper, "for God's sake, girls, come back!"
As they caught the waves on their foreheads, resisting the fierce attack.
"Come back!" said the three strong soldiers, who still stood faint and pale,
"You will drown if you face the breakers! You will fall if you brave the gale!"
"Come back!" said the girls, "we will not, go tell it to all the town,
We'll lose our lives, God willing, before that man shall drown!"
"Give one more knot to the shawls, Bess! Give one strong clutch of your hand!
Just follow me, brave, to the shingle, and we'll bring him safe to land!
Wait for the next wave, darling! Only a minute more,
And we'll have him safe in my arms, dear, and we'll drag him safe to shore."
Up to the arms in water, fighting it breast to breast,
They caught and saved a brother alive! God bless us, you know the rest -
Well, many a heart beat stronger, and many a tear was shed,
And many a glass was toss'd right off to "The Women of Mumbles Head!"
- Clement Scott, a poem based on the tragic events of January 1883.