Disaster at Port Talbot 1903


During a sou'west gale on the evening of Saturday 31 January 1903 the Waterford steamship Christina went aground when attempting to enter Port Talbot harbour. The following day Mumbles coastguard was informed of the stranding. Some confusion then occured as they understood that the harbour authorities at Port Talbot wanted the lifeboat to attend as an attempt was made to refloat the vessel. Lives were not in danger and the lifeboat should not have been launched. A lack of immediate communication led to many such mistakes.



The lifeboat James Stevens No.12 was launched from Mumbles at 3.45 on Sunday afternoon and sailed across the bay under lugsail and jib the wind blowing WNW force 5 to 7. Arriving at Port Talbot before the tide was high enough to float the ship  Coxswain Rogers decided to enter the river at Aberavon. Daniel Claypitt was at the helm with the coxswain supervising the streaming of the drogue. On crossing the bar under sail a following sea caught the boat so that she broached to. The next sea struck her on the starboard quarter so that she capsized onto her port side. Most of the crew were thrown into the water but, as the lifeboat righted, four were scooped aboard. The boat then drifted against the stone blocks of the breakwater enabling the four to scramble ashore.

Sam Gammon, the bowman and a strong swimmer, assisted three of the crew including Hedley Davies to the shore. A group of French seamen and others led by the harbourmaster Capt Humphrey Jones attempted to rescue two of the men in the water. Capt Jones was lowered over the breakwater and got hold of one man but a sea caught them and he lost his grip.

Six of the crew lost their lives. They were coxswain Tom Rogers, second coxswain Daniel Claypitt, George Michael, James Gammon, Robert Smith and David John Morgan. The survivors were: bowman Sam Gammon, William Jenkins, Tom Michael, Hedley Davies, David J. Howell, Richard Gammon, Charles Davies and David John Gammon.

The six who died lie buried in section K of Oystermouth Cemetery. Coxswain Rogers was buried in an existing family grave near the path which leads to West Cross and is easily found. The other five are in graves which lie head to foot close to the central avenue of yew trees. Daniel Claypitt's grave has a modern kerb but the other four (including that of my great uncle Robert) are unmarked.

A good many years ago I read that a coastguard stationed at Mumbles at the time, and who had attended the funeral, recalled that the ceremony had been filmed. I was able to discover nothing further until I purchased the book William Haggar - Fairground Film Maker by Peter Yorke great grandson of Haggar (Accent Press, Bedlinog, 2007). William Haggar ran a theatre company which performed at fairgrounds. He then began to produce movie films and was at Port Talbot when the accident occured. He did indeed film the funeral of the lifeboatmen at Mumbles but naturally enough no copy has survived to this day. He showed the film at his marquee at the fairgrounds and it was also shown in the Empire theatre at Cardiff, Swansea and other towns. In 1911 Haggar began work on a film telling the story of the 1883 disaster at Mumbles. He used sections of his film of the 1903 funeral, a short film he shot of a schooner breaking up on the Cefn Sidan in Carmarthen Bay and the main sequences shot at Fishguard using his own touring company with local people as extras. The film was released in 1913 and called The Women of Mumbles Head. I think it unlikely that this has survived the years.




The men who died when the lifeboat capsized at Port Talbot in 1903.

Top row left to right - James Gammon, Daniel Claypitt, Cox'n Tom Rogers

Bottom row: Robert Smith, George Michael, David John Morgan

These small photos were mounted in a single frame and hung in Southend Post Office, Mumbles, the home of my grandparents William and Rosina Smith. 



The lifeboat James Stevens No 12   after capsizing at Port Talbot.

The steamer Christina to which she launched is in the background.

The original of this photograph was presented to Capt Humphrey Jones, Port Talbot harbourmaster, for his gallant attempt to rescue members of the crew.