THE STORY OF PORT EYNON LIFEBOAT
At five o’clock on the morning of Saturday 27 January 1883 Will Hopkins, a farm labourer at Port Eynon, was on his way to work when he heard cries from the direction of the sea. He called others and when they arrived at the beach saw lights off the point.
Let Charles Bevan, Lloyd’s Agent for the district, who was also an eye-witness, take up the story: As soon as day broke two masts of a steamer were visible above water, and on one the spectators were horrified to see ten or twelve men huddled together on the yard crying pitifully for help. Messengers had been sent for the Coastguards at Oxwich and Rhossili. Mr Downing of Oxwich arrived on the scene shortly after eight o’clock with the rocket brigade and, getting onto the nearest point of land, the red flag was shown. Downing looked at the wreck, paused for a moment, and then said “Too far”. They fixed their gear and fired a rocket which fell short by 150 yards. By this time scores of men had arrived but nothing could be done to rescue the men from their perilous position. The wind blew with terrific force, and the sea was frightful to look at. Huge waves rolled in one after another, breaking on the rocks, the foam and spray rising in the air like clouds. Every eye was fixed on the frail mast to which the doomed sailors clung, and every moment was expected to be the last. At about nine o’clock one of the men was seen to fall into the sea and disappear. The other poor fellows appeared to be stripping themselves of their clothes, one thing after another, boots &co were seen dropping into the sea, as if the men were preparing to swim. Then a man was seen going down hand over hand. He paused a moment and then plunged into the water, and struck out for the shore, but was soon lost sight of.
About ten o’clock the Rhossili brigade arrived, and more rockets were fired, but to no effect. Shortly after ten, a tremendous wave struck the mast , and it fell carrying with it about ten precious souls. From five to seven heads were visible above water for a few minutes, swimming hard for shore. They succeeded in getting about thirty yards from the wreck when they were all lost sight of except for one, who was very near the rocks, but the rebound of the sea took him off again. It was a heart-rending sight to behold - a sight that will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.
On Saturday night and Sunday morning ten of the bodies were found. A pair of pants was also picked up, supposed to be the captain’s, containing £3-6-9d. One of the bodies was identified as that of Philip Beynon, a Llanelli pilot, by his three sons who came here on Sunday. He was a native of Llanmadoc and was buried there. The steamer is entirely broken up, nothing visible but a small section of the bow and two or three floating spars at low water. It will be impossible to save any of the cargo, as it is outside low water.
The ship was the Liverpool steamer Agnes Jack, John Jones aged 38 of Neath master. She was bound from Cagliari to Llanelli with lead ore. Having picked up Philip Beynon at Mumbles, she had sailed on the evening of Friday 26 January and was overwhelmed by the storm and driven ashore in the early hours of Saturday.
After the inquest William Melland, Rector of Port Eynon, read the burial service as four of the victims were interred in the lower corner of the churchyard just a few hundred yards from the beach where their bodies had been found. The stone which marks their grave still stands to remind us of that dreadful day.
Just ten days after the wreck of the Agnes Jack, the schooner Surprise, of Paimpol, was lost with all hands under Overton cliffs a little to the west of Port Eynon.
Prompted by the loss of the steamer William Bevan, a retired master mariner, and D.A. Hay, the Wesleyan minister at the neighbouring village of Horton, wrote to the Swansea newspaper The Cambrian calling for a coastguard rocket brigade to be formed at Port Eynon. They also asked for a lifeboat for the village, and a lighthouse to mark Gower’s most southerly headland.
The rocket brigades at Oxwich and Rhossili were deemed to be sufficient and Trinity House declined to erect a lighthouse, but Commander La Primaudaye, district inspector of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, visited the area and recommended the formation of a lifeboat station.
Landowner C.R.M.Talbot granted a lease on a plot near the beach and a boathouse was built by local men Tucker and Gibbs to the design of the Institution’s architect. A legacy from Miss Maria Jones of Liverpool paid for the house, lifeboat and launching carriage. The lifeboat named A Daughter’s Offering was a standard 34 ft self-righter pulling ten oars and built by Forrestt and Company of Limehouse, London. She was delivered to Swansea by the Great Western Railway and sailed to her station by the Mumbles coxswain Jenkin Jenkins on Friday 9 May 1884.
The next day was Talbot’s 81st birthday, and the RNLI flag flew at the gable end of the boathouse as the lifeboat was brought out on her carriage, and towed to the water by a team of six horses. Coxswain Sam Gibbs took the helm as the crew strained at the oars on their first practice launch under the critical gaze of Inspector La Primaudaye, and of Islay Young, the Honorary Secretary of the Mumbles station, who had overall responsibility for the new establishment. On the boat’s return she was rehoused and the crew, launchers and officials including Charles Bevan, who had been appointed resident secretary of the station, did justice to dinner at the Ship Inn.
The lifeboat A Daughter's Offering with her crew and helpers.
Photographed by the Swansea stationer A.R. Way
Sam Gibbs’ crew were: Tom Ace, of Overton, second coxswain, Billy Gibbs bowman. The oarsmen were John Taylor, John Ace and Frank Phillips of Port Eynon; Charles Grove, Sam Ace and John Howell of Overton; John Bevan, John Grove and Charles Phillips of Horton; and Davy Nicholas who was from Hoar Well. Sam Gibbs had been to sea for many years and the rest of his crew were experienced in the village’s oyster fishery though by the 1880s this had all but ended.
The next eighteen months saw no shipping casualties in the area but the coxswain led the crew in gaining experience as they took the boat to sea four times each year for the compulsory exercise.
Five men struggled ashore from the barque René , of Nantes, wrecked at the foot of Overton cliffs at two o’clock on the morning of Friday 8 January 1886. They made their way to John Bevan’s farm but it was too late to save the master and three others drowned while trying to swim ashore.
A month later Tom Jenkins, who lived near the lifeboat house, called Sam Gibbs when he saw a schooner ashore. The lifeboat crew quickly assembled but the boat was not launched as they could see that the schooner’s crew had abandoned and were coming ashore in their boat. They were Capt Horan and the two hands of the Hope, of Newport, with a cargo of 150 tons of coal for New Ross, Co. Wexford. The vessel’s masts, sails and other gear were brought ashore and the crew put up in the village. A week later, with her leaks plugged with clay, the Hope was floated to the quay for further repairs though she left her keel where she stranded.
At the quarterly exercise in December 1885 the district inspector had been concerned that the boat had not had a rough weather exercise, and instructed Charles Bevan to order the boat to be launched “when there was plenty of wind and sea”. The opportunity came on the morning of Tuesday 16 March 1886. The lifeboat was drawn to the water’s edge by the horses and the crew donned their cork jackets and took their places on the thwarts as the rain poured down. When the boat was launched off the carriage Sam Gibbs steered her out towards the point. It took half an hour of hard work by the oarsmen, repeatedly soaked as the seas broke over the boat, to get round the point. They then pulled to the East Helwick buoy and, having rounded it, were able to set the sails and return quickly to shore using the drogue to prevent the boat from broaching to in the following seas. They had all had a thorough soaking but were more than pleased with the boat’s performance. The comment was made at the time that “some of the crew are never in a boat from one exercise to another”. Most of the crew were now essentially landsmen as the oyster industry was now finished.
Just four days after this exercise there was a shipwreck. The brig Xantippe, of Aberystwyth, bound from Jamaica for Port Talbot with a cargo of phosphate rock was sailing cautiously up channel through thick fog. The master was unsure of his position and made frequent use of the lead when he found a depth of seventeen fathoms fall quickly to thirteen. Soon after, at about 4 a.m., the brig ran ashore on the west side of Oxwich Point. With a heavy ground sea running, the crew abandoned and lay alongside in the boats. At dawn they tried to row into Oxwich Bay against the ebb. Finding this impossible they returned to the vessel and landed on the shore. As the tide fell the vessel heeled over onto her beam ends, her yards struck the rocks and she became a wreck.
A year later the brig Prophète Elie, of Nantes, also stranded on Oxwich Point. She was seen from Port Eynon and the lifeboat launched on her first mission. When the Port Eynon men arrived they found that the French crew had abandoned ship and landed safely.
The steamship Ashdale, of Glasgow, had a lucky escape when she grounded on Port Eynon Point on 8 May 1887. Leaking badly she was towed up to Mumbles by the tug Challenger.
Success at last came to the station on 13 January 1888. At six that evening a ship’s siren was heard through dense fog and a report was received that a steamer was ashore at Slade’s Foot to the west of Overton. The maroons were fired to summon the lifeboat crew and a messenger sent to Rhossili for the rocket apparatus. Having launched the lifeboat at seven o’clock some of the helpers walked over land to the scene and shouted through the fog to tell the ship’s crew that help was on the way. The lifeboat signalled her arrival with a flare and went alongside to take off eleven of the crew. The men were landed and put up at the Ship Inn. The life-saving apparatus had now arrived and the Rhossili men got a line over the ship. The breeches buoy was rigged and the remaining ten members of the crew got ashore and found lodgings with Charles Bevan.
The ship proved to be the 1,386 ton Milan, of Hull, with a cargo of cotton seed bound from Alexandria for Bristol. By next morning she had nine feet of water in her holds and salvage began. Five hundred tons of cargo were discharged by a gang from the Swansea Dry Dock Company, the leaks plugged and rocks blasted away. The Milan was floated off on 30 January and towed to Bristol for repair. Charles Bevan later called his house after the ship and it bears the name to this day.
The Board of Trade held an inquiry into the stranding at Hull. The Milan’s master Capt Lowery, and first officer Hanson (he was son in law of the proprietors of the Caswell Bay Hotel) gave evidence. At 2.30 a.m. on 13 January they were abreast the Longships off Lands End in clear weather. Thereafter there was thick fog. At 1.50 p.m. land was seen one mile off the starboard bow and a lighthouse could be seen on a headland. They agreed it was Hartland Point. At 4.15 they hove to and found bottom in a little over twenty fathoms. Thinking they were in mid-channel they proceeded cautiously through the fog. At 5.35 land was seen and the vessel put astern but ran onto the rocks. The nautical assessors found the stranding was due to the master having mistaken the north end of Lundy for Hartland Point. He was to blame in not having taken further measures to make a positive identification of the headland but, as his conduct fell short of a default, he was allowed to keep his certificate.
Just eight days after the service to the Milan the lifeboat was launched to the aid of a steamer seen signalling for assistance when dangerously close to the Helwick sandbank. The vessel got clear without help and the lifeboat returned to her station. Later that year the slipway in front of the boathouse was extended further down the beach at a cost of £100.
On the morning of Tuesday 1 May 1888 the steam trawler Jane, of Falmouth, was driven onto Port Eynon beach by a south-west gale. Brothers Peter and Thomas Carlyle jumped overboard and scrambled ashore. They were met by Sam and Billy Gibbs who gave them a meal and dry clothes. They had left Falmouth nine days earlier with the intention of fishing the Bristol Channel, had been given provisions by a passing ship and, running out of coal, had broken up their boat to raise steam. The Jane was refloated and got to Swansea on the 15th.
The annual dinner was to become a highlight of the year for the crew, helpers and supporters of the station. The tradition began on the evening of 30 January 1889 with a spread at the Oddfellows Hall. William Bevan, a native of Overton but then living at Llandudno, sent two guineas toward the cost. The crew and launchers were joined by representatives of the Oxwich and Rhossili rocket brigades. With the cloth removed, Charles Bevan took the chair to conduct the toasts, songs and recitations which included a humorous ditty on the crew written by Silvanus Bevan. Each year too Charles Bevan himself was called upon to recite the lines that he had penned on the anniversary of the loss of the Agnes Jack which had led to the formation of the station.
Two days before Christmas 1889 the lifeboat was launched for a night exercise. The resident secretary had arranged with the coastguard at Oxwich and Lloyd’s sub-agent at Oxwich Green for sham distress signals to be shown. During the evening a tar barrel was seen burning on the rocks of Oxwich Point, and a few minutes later a red flare was fired. This was answered by a rocket from the lifeboat station. The boat got away within ten minutes and arrived at the “casualty” in half an hour. Having taken “survivors” aboard the lifeboat returned to her station with Charles Bevan well pleased with the exercise.
A Daughter’s Offering was launched to a brig seen ashore on Oxwich Point on 23 December 1891. When they arrived they found that the crew of the Felicité, of Vannes, were safely ashore so their services were not required. The 200 ton vessel had a cargo of pit wood and was bound from Nantes for Swansea.
During a moderate W.N.W. gale on the afternoon of 17 November 1893, a small boat was seen drifting up the coast. The single occupant was doing his best to row ashore. The maroons were fired and the lifeboat crew assembled but they were three men short so the “Hon. Sec.“ Charles Bevan and two others volunteered. A Daughter’s Offering was launched and brought James Sergeant, mate of the Milford ketch Favourite, ashore. As the lifeboat was coming in it was struck by a particularly heavy sea which broke some of the oars and snatched others from the hands of the crew. After a struggle they regained control and got ashore.
Sergeant had quite a story to tell: the Favourite had been disabled by the gale on the previous day. Her signals of distress had been seen by the steamer Boileau which had left Cardiff that day. The ship made a lee and lowered her boat manned by the mate and three hands. In the severe conditions they were unable to get near the ketch and, after considerable effort, abandoned the attempt and tried to pull back to their ship. The boat capsized and all four clung to the bottom.
By next morning the Favourite had drifted to a point three miles south-west of Worms Head. Sergeant decided to leave in the boat and was pulling towards Port Eynon when rescued. The skipper and other hand remained aboard the ketch and were taken off by the schooner Jeune Charles. Though the press reported that the ketch had foundered she was found derelict in Carmarthen Bay and got to Llanelli in a sinking condition. She was put up for auction on Saturday 2 December by the Receiver of Wreck.
The Boileau’s men clung to the capsized boat as it was driven north through the night. Three of them climbed onto the upturned hull while the fourth remained in the water. When he was seized with cramp his mates pulled him out and the boat rolled over and righted. They were able to bale her out and, using the painter and a couple of oars, rigged a sea anchor which kept the boat’s head to the sea. They were found at dawn by the French schooner Hortense and landed at Swansea. The Boileau put into Mumbles roads where her mate rejoined, but the others decided they had had enough for that trip and returned to Cardiff by train.
When Sergeant returned home to Ilfracombe he wrote to Charles Bevan thanking him and the crew for saving him.
The barque Althea, of Grimstad, Swansea to Christiania with coal, had been weather-bound in Mumbles roads for some days when her master, Jacobsen, went ashore during a lull in the weather on Wednesday 13 December 1893. Soon after he had left the gale rose again and the vessel dragged out into the channel. Becoming unmanageable she drifted down the coast on the ebb tide and went ashore at Nicholaston Pill late in the evening. Oxwich coastguard telephoned Port Eynon for the lifeboat. The helpers experienced considerable difficulty in launching the boat due to the darkness and heavy ground sea. She was launched off the carriage just a few minutes after mid-night but was driven back broadside on. The launchers now had to enter the water shoulder high to get her bows around. Eventually the oarsmen were able to get her away from the beach. A Daughter’s Offering reached Oxwich Bay at 1.30 a.m. where they found the barque a complete wreck with her crew in the boat which lay alongside rolling wildly. Guided by a light shown by the Norwegians, Sam Gibbs took the lifeboat alongside and took the ten men aboard. The lifeboat got back to Port Eynon at 4 a.m. and beached on the sand allowing all to walk ashore. The launchers then had the exhausting task of refloating the boat in order to get her back onto the carriage and rehoused. The RNLI forwarded a cheque for £31 to cover the expenses of the service which included the payment to the crew, launchers and hire of the team of horses.
Late on the morning of 22 March 1894 a schooner was seen to miss stays and come ashore at Longhole Gut to the west of Overton Mere. The crew were seen trying to launch their boat from the wildly pitching deck, and the lifeboat was called for a quick launch. As the lifeboat approached she was hailed by the schooner Jane Shearer, of Greenock, which had picked up the crew of three after they had pulled out to sea away from the heavy seas at the cliff face. The men were transferred to the lifeboat and landed at Port Eynon with their belongings shortly after 3 o’clock. The stranded vessel, which broke up on the flood tide, was the Glenravil Miner, of Barrow, bound to Swansea with a cargo of pitch which stained the rocks for many years.
During a N.W. gale on 22 December the same year the Plymouth smack United Friends, bound from Newport for Padstow with coal, sought shelter in Oxwich Bay. Even with three anchors down she still dragged towards the shore. Oxwich coastguard telephoned the news and the lifeboat was launched at 1.30 p.m. and sailed to the scene. There they found the vessel with her mainsail split and the crew anxious to leave as they feared she would part her cables. The master, mate, boy and their dog were taken off and landed at Port Eynon at five o’clock. The RNLI forwarded a draft for £21 8s 6d to cover the expense of the service.
The Daughter’s Offering was launched to the assistance of an unknown vessel on 9 March 1896, but she extricated herself from danger so no service was made.
A steamer’s whistle was heard through the fog on 2 February 1897. The lifeboat was launched a little after mid-day and groped her way towards the ship which was aground on the Helwick. She found the Imbros, of Hull, hard and fast, taking in water, and with her engines disabled, near the east Helwick buoy. The lifeboat returned ashore to allow the coxswain to telephone Lloyd’s agent at Swansea to arrange tugs. The lifeboat returned to the ship and stood by until she refloated and anchored outside the bank. The steamship Solway, which had just sailed from Swansea, was hailed and went alongside. The Port Eynon crew passed a hawser and the Solway towed the Imbros up the coast with the lifeboat standing by. The ship, which was bound from the Black Sea port of Kustendji (now Constanza) to Hull, was beached at Mumbles with eight feet of water in her holds. Her cargo of three thousand tons of wheat was discharged into lighters and taken to Weaver’s Mills at the North Dock, Swansea.
On the evening of Wednesday 28 December 1898 the lifeboat was launched in response to distress signals thrown up by the Helwick lightship. The Burry Port lifeboat was also launched. Neither boat was able to make progress against the storm that was blowing and returned to station. A Trinity steamer went to the lightship on the Friday and was told that a vessel had gone on the sandbank on Wednesday evening. Wreckage was found but there were no survivors and the vessel was not identified.
The lifeboat was launched into the teeth of a sou'west gale on 21 January 1899 when a ship was seen flying distress signals. She was the Spanish steamer Baracaldo, Newport to France with coal, disabled with a broken shaft and drifting towards the Helwick bank. The ship was taken in tow by the steamer Lavinia, of Hull (though owned in Dublin), which towed her to Penarth roads. She was then taken into Cardiff for repair. The lifeboat returned to Port Eynon without being needed.
The Norwegian barque Duisberg was sixty days out of Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, with timber bound to Mumbles for orders when she stranded on Oxwich Point on the morning of Saturday 11 November 1899. The 960 ton vessel had been leaking for weeks and the crew weakened by their exertions at the pumps and the dwindling provisions on the prolonged crossing. With a heavy sea running the barque began to break up as soon as she struck. The lifeboat arrived to find that the crew had abandoned just before the fore and main masts had come down and were safely ashore. So once again the Port Eynon men returned to station without their services being needed. By four in the afternoon the tide had ebbed sufficiently for the Duisberg’s crew to return to recover their belongings. The timber cargo was salvaged but the vessel became a total loss.
A telegraph message was received in Swansea on the morning of Saturday 23 February 1900 stating that a large steamer had gone ashore on Oxwich Point in fog. Signals of distress had been sent up and the lifeboat despatched from Port Eynon. A member of the lifeboat crew who was on lookout in the watch room, built the previous year next to the boathouse, had first reported the casualty to the coxswain. The maroons were fired and the lifeboat reached the ship, which had stranded just fifty yards from the remains of the Duisberg, at about nine o’clock and found her to be the Ethiopia, of London, in ballast from Hamburg to Port Talbot. Built at Middlesbrough in 1891 the 1,600 ton vessel belonged to the African Steamship Company and carried a total of thirty-six hands. Tugs and the pilot cutter Beaufort, of Swansea, failed to tow the ship clear during the day and on the evening ebb she was found to be badly strained with water pouring from her plates.
Two days later on the Monday evening the alarm was raised when flares were reported in the direction of the Helwick. A crowd walked up onto the cliffs and saw a powerful searchlight beam apparently from a vessel on the bank. An answering flare was shown from the cliff as the lifeboat was launched. She found the Liverpool salvage vessel Ranger anchored outside the bank. She was on her way to refloat the Ethiopia and her master, believing he had reached Oxwich, was using the searchlight to locate the ship. Sam Gibbs gave the course and distance to Oxwich Point but the Ranger did not move in until dawn. The lifeboat returned ashore at 3 a.m. on Tuesday. After a days work the Ranger, with the aid of tugs, refloated the Ethiopia which was beached at Oxwich for temporary repairs before entering dry dock at Port Talbot.
The Ranger (Liverpool and Glasgow Salvage Association) which refloated the Ethiopia.
At about this time the RNLI supplied the Port Eynon station with sealed tins of Cadbury’s chocolate. These were kept in the locker in the stern of the boat and proved welcome on long services.
On 17 May 1900 the lifeboat was called to sail to the Dangers reef at Rhossili. There she found the Cardiff collier St Vincent aground. The skipper reported that his vessel was sound and on the flood tide she refloated and proceeded undamaged.
Just a month later the tiny 67 ton steamship Tivyside on its regular Carmarthen - Bristol passage ran onto the rocks at Overton where she became a total loss after crew and passengers got ashore.
During a S.E. gale on the morning of 12 December 1902 a schooner was seen being driven ashore to the east of Horton. Charles Bevan sent the boat off and rode along the beach. Getting near the vessel he hailed the master to tell him that help was on the way. Receiving a telegraph from Port Eynon, the Swansea tugs Challenger and Contest were despatched. When they arrived the schooner was beating heavily in the shallows. The lifeboat went in and took a line out to the tugs. The schooner, the Ehrglis, of Riga, Latvia, was refloated leaving her keel on the beach. As the lifeboat returned across the bay to her station her mizzen mast carried away in the strong wind. After repairs at Swansea the schooner delivered her cargo of lathwood to Bridgwater.
The next call came on the morning of Wednesday 25 February 1903, just a few weeks after the Mumbles lifeboat had capsized at Port Talbot drowning six of her crew. A Daughter’s Offering was launched at 10.30 when a disabled vessel was seen drifting up channel battered by the heavy seas generated by a full S.W. gale. The crew found the barque Allegro, of Skudesnaes (Norway) damaged and unmanageable. She had left Barry for Algoa Bay under the command of Capt Sorensen the previous week, but had lost her mizzen topmast when four hundred miles out. Putting back for Barry under a jury-rig the sou’west gale had driven her north and over the Helwick. At the last moment the wind had veered west and she clawed off the land. The master at first declined assistance making it clear that he was determined to save his ship by his own efforts. The lifeboat therefore stood by as she drifted up the coast. As they passed Mumbles Head the reserve lifeboat there was launched under the command of Sam Gammon who had survived the capsize three weeks earlier. The two lifeboats and the pilot cutter stood by until the barque came to an anchor off Kenfig between Port Talbot and Porthcawl. Tugs were summoned and the Port Eynon lifeboat stood by until the Allegro was safely berthed in Swansea Docks. As it was now late in the day and the gale still blowing, Sam Gibbs and his crew decided to stay at Swansea overnight. They lodged at the Victoria Coffee Tavern near the London & North Western Railway Station (Swansea Victoria) and took the opportunity of attending the evening performance at Swansea Empire. The next morning they left Swansea in a torrential hail storm to be towed back to the station by the pilot cutter Beaufort. The crew on this occasion were Sam Gibbs coxswain, Tom Ace second coxswain, Billy Gibbs bowman, brothers William, George and Philip Harris, Frank Taylor, George Eynon, George Jenkins, John Jenkins, William Howell, William Grove and Frank Phillips.
At the end of June 1904 Sam Gibbs retired as coxswain on account of his age. He had served just over twenty years and had led the crew in saving twentyfive lives. His brother Billy took over on the first of July. Surprisingly Billy Gibbs, the village shoemaker, was often referred to as “poor crippled Billy”. This was because he walked in a very laboured manner. He had broken a leg as a young man and it had not been set correctly. Of course once aboard the lifeboat his disability was not apparent. As Tom Ace had also retired, Philip Harris was appointed second coxswain and William Eynon bowman.
A blizzard accompanied a sou'west gale on the morning of 10 Feb 1906 and shortly after eleven o'clock the coastguard reported that a vessel was in distress off Oxwich. A steamship was standing by but was unable to get alongside to assist the crew. The Mumbles lifeboat Charlie Medland was towed down the coast by the tug Reynard, and found the ketch Notre Dame de France close inshore and swept by heavy seas. Her canvas had been torn to ribbons and a great deal of water had found its way below deck. Though exhausted, the crew of five did not wish to abandon. It took over an hour to put four of the lifeboatmen aboard. It proved impossible to weigh the anchors so they were slipped, the Reynard secured a hawser, and the ketch towed to Swansea with the Charlie Medland standing by. The Port Eynon lifeboat was also launched to this vessel but for some reason did not take part in this service.
At the beginning of July 1906 the crew sailed A Daughter’s Offering up to Swansea to be returned to London. The next day they returned home with a new and slightly larger lifeboat specially built with a draught of only 2ft 2ins for launching on the shallow beach. A new carriage was also provided fitted with Tipping’s plates which prevented the large wheels sinking in the sand. The new boat had her bows covered by canvas to keep her name a secret until the naming ceremony.
Port Eynon lifeboat Janet
Lady Lyons, wife of Admiral Sir Algernon Lyons of Kilvrough, named the lifeboat Janet at the ceremony held in glorious weather on Thursday 23 August 1906. The boat was one of five provided from the legacy of Colonel John Hay of Cheltenham. After Lady Lyons had christened her with a bottle of wine, a service of dedication was led by the Rector Rev D. Price. The hymn Eternal Father, strong to save, which has become so familiar on such occasions, was sung by the church choir conducted by Donald Lott. After the formalities, every one tucked in to tea laid in the boathouse which had been extended at a cost of £200 to accommodate the new boat.
The Janet’s first call came on 1 September 1908 during one of the worst storms experienced in the Bristol Channel. Soon after dawn the four-masted barque Amazon, of Greenock, parted her cables while seeking shelter in Mumbles roads. Driven before the storm she drifted across Swansea Bay and grounded at Margam where she broke up drowning twenty of her crew of twenty-eight. Later in the morning the Janet was launched to the aid of the crew of the Helwick light vessel. The Port Eynon crew were set the impossible task of beating directly into the storm a distance of eight miles. When it became clear they were making no progress they were recalled and the coastguard informed the Tenby lifeboat station. The William and Mary Devey, a large sailing lifeboat of the Watson class, was in a far better position to effect rescue. Coming up with the gale she found the lightship a shambles. Her decks had been swept by green seas which had smashed her bulwarks, carried away her boats and brought down the masts. The deck was breaking up and she had a heavy list. The crew was snatched to safety and the lifeboat ran up the coast to land them at Swansea before returning to station next day.
The lifeboat Janet returning from a practice launch.
The Janet’s first service was performed on the morning of 22 December 1909. When the Dublin steamer Rhona arrived at the North Dock, Swansea, that morning, her master reported seeing a vessel ashore in one of the Gower bays. As the mist was so thick, however, he was unable to say which bay. The Janet had already been launched and when she arrived below Pennard Cliffs found that the casualty, the 1,200 ton Lutèce, of Rouen, had been refloated by the tugs Cruiser and Foxhound. Once afloat she was found to be leaking badly and her engine room quickly flooded. With the Cruiser towing, the Foxhound astern, and the Janet escorting, the vessel was towed to Swansea’s South Dock.
The Gloucester schooner Gem was bound from Port Talbot to Guernsey when she went ashore at Three Cliffs late on the evening of 27 February 1911. The Janet was launched but the schooner refloated without assistance. There was another fruitless launch on 7 May that year when she went off to an unknown vessel which also got out of danger unaided.
During a furious gale on the afternoon of Monday 30 October 1911 signals were sent up by the Helwick lightship. The Tenby and Port Eynon stations were informed and both boats launched. The Janet had a hard beat to windward under reefed lugsail, but the Tenby boat had an easier passage. They reached the lightship at around 6 p.m. and were told that shortly before three o’clock a vessel had been seen to founder two miles to the south. Both boats searched and found a good deal of floating wreckage but no sign of life so returned to station. Some days later two bodies and a seaman’s chest were recovered, which helped to identify the lost vessel as the 100 ton brigantine Sicie which had sailed from Swansea with coal for Lorient on the 28th.
Soon after dawn on 13 February 1913 a ship’s boat pulled ashore to land four men on the beach near the lifeboat house. They were the chief mate, engineer and two hands of the Austrian steamship Epidauro, of Lussin-Piccolo (now in Croatia). Their ship, bound from Livorno to Swansea in ballast, had run aground in fog at Washslade to the west of Overton Mere. After the Janet had launched, Charles Bevan and the bowman, Frank Taylor, arrived at the station and walked to the scene with the four Austrians. There they boarded another of the ship’s boats which took them out to the stranded steamer. Three of the men had climbed aboard when a swell capsized the boat. Bevan clung to the ladder but Taylor and two of the Austrians were thrown into the sea. The Janet arrived just in time to save them. The lifeboat stood by the Epidauro until her crew were able to walk ashore on the ebb tide. It proved impossible to refloat the ship and she was broken up for scrap in an operation taking many months.
Just two days after the stranding of the Epidauro, Charles Bevan, who lived at Overton, was roused from sleep at 4.30 a.m. by distress rockets. Investigating, he found another steamer ashore near Culver Hole on the east side of Overton Mere. The Janet was launched in thick fog and saved all twelve crew of the Bluebell, of Manchester, which was bound from Garston to Swansea with 600 tons of coal for the Swansea Gas Company. Later that day the local agent of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society sent the twelve to Swansea by motor bus. The Bluebell too became a total loss.
The Janet launched to the aid of a schooner on 11 October 1915 but the vessel got away without assistance.
The weather was particularly stormy at the end of December 1915. On the evening of the 27th the Wexford schooner Elizabeth Jane foundered at anchor in Mumbles roads. Conditions were so bad that neither the Mumbles lifeboat Charlie Medland nor the pilot cutter Beaufort was able to rescue her crew and the three went down with the vessel. The bad weather continued and blew a strong gale again on the morning of New Year's Day 1916. The Charlie Medland slipped her mooring to go to the brigantine Courlis, of Bayonne, bound to Briton Ferry with steel scrap, which was dragging her anchors in the roads. Her master declined assistance.
At about 10 a.m. that day Coxswain Gibbs was told that the steamer Dunvegan was aground at Pennard. Gathering his crew he found that he was two men short but Trooper William Grove, of the Glamorgan Yeomanry, and Jack Morris, both home on leave volunteered for service.
The surf was sweeping into the bay as the horses manoeuvered the Janet into the sea. The drogue was used as they made their way past Oxwich Point to the scene. They could see a vessel close in to Pennard Cliffs surrounded by broken water. Unable to get near they anchored off to await better conditions. After an uncomfortable couple of hours they could see that the rocket apparatus had been set up and that the steamer's crew would be taken off. The Janet had now dragged east towards Pwll Du and the crew weighed anchor to make for home. At about 1.30 p.m. a huge sea struck the lifeboat on the starboard quarter and she capsized throwing the whole crew into the sea. The lifeboat remained keel up for some time with the men clinging to the lifelines. Eventually the mast snapped off and the boat righted. When they had at last got back aboard a head count revealed that 2nd coxswain William Eynon and lifeboatman George Harry were missing. Coxswain Gibbs rallied the crew who took to the oars to search for their mates but, in less than an hour, the Janet capsized again. This time Billy Gibbs failed to regain the boat when she righted. Capt George Eynon took command and, with most of the oars lost and unable to find the three men, the anchor was cast on a short scope allowing the Janet to drag eastwards with the gale towards Mumbles.
The light was failing fast as the Janet drifted up past Caswell to anchor off Mumbles Head. The crew spent a miserable night huddled in the bottom of the boat trying to keep warm. During the evening the Mumbles lifeboat and the pilot cutter, which had both stood by the Dunvegan, passed the Janet but the Port Eynon men had no dry matches to signal and their shouts were carried away by the gale.
At dawn on Sunday 2 January the Janet landed her survivors at Mumbles. The men were taken to the Yacht Cafe and the damaged boat put on a mooring near the Charlie Medland. After Dr Cyril Curtis had tended their injuries, the men were kitted out in khaki uniforms by Major Harrison, commanding officer of a battalion stationed at Mumbles. (Major Harrison was billeted with my grandparents Rosina and William Smith at Southend Post Office). After a good meal they were taken home by motor bus and met family and friends at the Ship Inn to tell them of their sufferings and the loss of Billy Gibbs, George Harry and William Eynon. The disaster had hit the Eynon and Harry families particularly hard as William, the second coxswain, was a brother of George Eynon who was in turn brother-in-law of George Harry.
On the morning of 5 January three sou'westers were picked up on Swansea beach and young Maud Amos found a body on the foreshore near Baldwin's Works at Jersey Marine. Capt Eynon identified it as that of George Harry. A verdict of "found drowned" was returned at the inquest held at Jersey Marine Police Station.
On Sunday 16 January William Eynon's body was found at Newton Pool, Porthcawl, and Capt Eynon had the distressing task of identifying his brother's body.
The funerals at Port Eynon parish church were conducted by the Rector, Rev. F.A. Thomas. The survivors of the crew acted as bearers and the RNLI represented by Francis le Boulanger, Honorary Secretary of the Swansea and Port Eynon branch, and by Charles Bevan, resident secretary at Port Eynon.
On 5 February a body wearing a life-jacket was seen in the water off Sker Point, Porthcawl. The sea was too rough to recover it. It was thought that it may have been Coxswain Gibbs. Some months before the accident Billy, a bachelor, had said to a friend "Well perhaps the time is coming when I ought to be giving up the boat. I am getting too old for the job, but they won't hear of my giving up. I expect the sea will have me in the end; and I don't know that I would like to go any other way".
The RNLI made an immediate grant of £400 to the dependants of George Harry and William Eynon. Within a few days of the accident people were thinking of erecting a memorial. It was first suggested that a drinking fountain could be erected near the beach, but the Rural District Council were unwilling to supply the water so the idea was dropped. Eventually the beautiful statue of a lifeboatman, about to throw a heaving line, was commissioned and has stood in the churchyard wall ever since.
The memorial at Port Eynon to Coxswain Billy Gibbs, William Eynon 2nd coxswain and George Harry who died when the Janet capsized on service in 1916.
The Janet was returned to the RNLI yard in London on 11 May 1916 and later sent to the station at Stornoway in the Hebrides. The Port Eynon station was formally closed on 10 September 1919 and the lease of the boathouse surrendered the following year. The RNLI had decided to close the station as the number of shipping incidents had fallen as steam replaced sail. Furthermore the flank stations of Tenby and Mumbles were well able to cover the area with their larger Watson class sailing lifeboats. Within a few years these stations would receive motor lifeboats.
Wrecks, strandings and other incidents continued to occur in the Port Eynon area after the closure of the lifeboat station. Details can be found in the Gower Shipwrecks section but I shall list some here:
October 1916 barque Tridonia wrecked Oxwich Point.
February 1931 tug Mumbles total loss Oxwich Point.
December 1933 steamship Ben Blanche wrecked west of Port Eynon.
January 1937 trawler Roche Castle wrecked Paviland Cliffs.
February 1940 steamship Eldon Park sank in Port Eynon Bay after stranding on the Helwick.
November 1940 Salvage tug Wittezee wrecked Overton Mere.
The 1950s and 60s saw Gower once more discovered as a holiday area, and more people spending their leisure time in, near, or on the sea. To attend an increasing number of incidents to bathers, canoeists and small vessels men at Port Eynon organised an unofficial rescue service. At the forefront was Walter Grove of Horton, son and grandson of men who sailed on the Janet's last call. Realising the need for a better service Walter Grove contacted the RNLI which provided an inshore lifeboat in 1968. It has performed sterling service ever since.
The material in this article was researched from a number of contemporary sources over many years. This involved many visits to The Cambrian newspaper held at the Royal Institution of South Wales (Swansea Museum), and to the Headquarters of the RNLI firstly at Grosvenor Gardens, London and later at Poole, Dorset.
© Robert Carl Smith 2010 -2013.
This article is copyright and no part of it may be reproduced or used in any way without the prior written permisson of R. C. Smith.
The centenary of the capsize of the JANET falls on 1 January 2016. That day the crew of Horton and Port Eynon inshore lifeboat and their supporters will gather at the old boathouse Port Eynon (it has been a Youth Hostel for many years). At the time that the Janet was launched they will set off to walk to Oxwich Point from where they can look out over Oxwich Bay towards Pwll Du Head where the Janet capsized.
Why not join them on the walk to blow away the Christmas and New Year cobwebs and celebrate 2016 in a meaningful way.
A new book has been published to mark one hundred years since the capsize of the Janet and the loss of three of her crew.
See JUST PUBLISHED at top right of page.