I have been interested in shipwreck and rescue on the Welsh coast for about fifty years. Perhaps it all began when I was very young. I was born and brought up at Mumbles near Swansea in South Wales.I recall my father's stories: the first being of the Women of Mumbles Head when grandmother was one of the crowd of villagers who saw the wreck of the barque Admiral Prinz Adalbert at the lighthouse and the capsize of the lifeboat in 1883. In February 1903, when father was little more than a year old, his uncle Bob called at Southend Post Office, Mumbles, one Sunday to see how his young nephew was doing (father had one of the childhood illnesses at the time). Later that day, Bob Smith lost his life at Port Talbot along with five other members of the crew of Mumbles lifeboat. Father's other story concerned the stranding of the steamship Tours in Hunts Bay in 1918 - as a 17 year old he spent many Sunday afternoons walking to High Pennard to watch the progress of the long drawn out salvage operation.
Perhaps one of my earliest memories has also had an influence - I was not yet three years old and recall my father coming home one day in the company of the curate of All Saints Church, David Wilkinson. Father was a member of the church choir, and both were in cassock and surplice and soaked to the skin. It was such an odd occurence that it stuck in my mind. It was perhaps another dozen years before I asked the significance, and was told that they had returned from the funeral, held in pouring rain, of the crew of Mumbles lifeboat who had lost their lives at the wreck of the steamship Samtampa at Sker Point, Porthcawl.
My interest grew when I joined the crew of Mumbles Lifeboat in 1967. This was the year in which Grahame Farr's Wreck and Rescue in the Bristol Channel - Volume 2 The Welsh Lifeboats was published. Farr was the archivist of the Lifeboat Enthusiasts' Society and spent much of his free time conducting original research into the origins of Britain's lifeboat stations. His books greatly influenced me and I corresponded with him for many years.
This photograph was taken from an RAF search and rescue helicopter and shows me being winched out of the sea on an exercise with Mumbles Lifeboat. I'm the one with fair hair. I was a shore helper at the station for two years and a member of the crew for eighteen. For part of that time I was one of the station's two operational swimmers; as a result I often performed the role of a casualty for the regular exercises.
My first book, The Men of the Mumbles Head, was published by Gomer Press of Llandysul in 1977. It told the story of shipwreck in Swansea Bay in the early part of the 19th century, the difficulties in setting up the lifeboat station at Mumbles, its numerous rescues and the three disasters in which lifeboats were capsized drowning some or all of the crew. Much of the research was carried out at Swansea Museum (the home of the Royal Institution of South Wales) - The Cambrian, the first newspaper published in Wales, being a major source. I also spent time at the headquarters of the RNLI (firstly at its Grosvenor Gardens offices, London, and then at Poole, Dorset) where I consulted the series of précis books, the Lifeboat journal and other records. The boathouse at Mumbles houses the boards on which the services (rescues) performed by the lifeboats are recorded. This information was supplemented by the entries in the Returns of Service, which begin in 1932 (the earlier returns seem not to have survived), and the Minute books of the station committee.
Some years after this book had gone out of print, I produced a new title Mumbles Lifeboat. This tells the story of the station from the 1830s to 1989 and remains in print.
When researching the story of the Mumbles lifeboat I began to find material relating to wrecks which had occured too far to the west of Mumbles for the rowing and sailing lifeboats to reach. In 1993 this resulted in the publication of Gower Coast Shipwrecks which also remains in print
Though an active interest in the subject did not begin until I was in my early twenties, earlier generations of both my and my wife's families had a close connection with the sea - at least six family members were merchant seamen in the mid to late 19th century, some were also involved in the Mumbles oyster fishery and others were lifeboatmen. My wife, Christine, is the grand-daughter of Sarah Jane Schröpfer whose father, William Macnamara, was drowned in the 1883 disaster when the lifeboat capsized near the lighthouse. Willy Mack was the son-in-law of Jenkin Jenkins the coxswain from 1866 to the 1890s. Robert and Henry Smith, brothers of my grandfather, were lifeboatmen from 1892 and Robert was drowned in the capsize at Port Talbot in 1903. Richard Smith, another relative, survived the war in the navy but lost his life when the Edward, Prince of Wales capsized on service at Sker Point in April 1947. So perhaps there is some brine in my veins - certainly the salt tang was in my nostrils for fifty years - even here in Surrey, sixty miles from the sea, I swear I smell it occasionally.
The move to Surrey has allowed me to spend time at the National Archives at Kew (better known to old hands as the Public Record Office), the Caird library of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, and the Guildhall Library which houses Lloyd's archive. The move from Wales has, if anything, increased my interest and, when time allows, I make visits back home and to the National Library at Aberystwyth.
Though my interest was originally confined to wreck and rescue in Swansea Bay and on the Gower Coast, it has expanded to cover the whole of the coast of Wales from the Severn to the Dee. Time and energy will, I hope, allow me to expand this site to provide material for the whole area.
The material on this site has been obtained from primary sources (Lloyd's List, Admiralty and Board of Trade wreck returns, contemporary newspapers, customs letter books, court , and manorial records) rather than from recently published books. Those of you who are familiar with the Shipwreck Index of the British Isles - Volume 5 - West Coast and Wales (Lloyd's Register of Shipping 2000) will find my material differs in many respects. It is up to you to decide which is the more accurate. Remember that when making a coastal passage local knowledge is essential.
It is often said that fact is stranger than fiction, but in my view fact is far more interesting than fiction. And let us be honest there is a great deal of fiction concerning shipwrecks washing about in books and on the internet - the fact being that far too many people who write on the subject know nothing whatsoever about it. There are a few very good and accurate sites online and I shall provide links to them. The reader will not find a mention of ships being lured ashore by false lights or survivors being deliberately drowned to steal their valuables, for in my view such things did not happen. Those are fictions created by writers who had but the outlines of a story, and had to pad it out with sensation in order to sell it. One will, however, find fuller and more interesting accounts than can be found elsewhere.
In general I am most interested in the human story. How did the vessel find itself in difficulties, were crew and passengers drowned or did they survive - by their own efforts or by the gallantry and initiative of those on the shore. The debris now on the beaches or sea-bed does not particularly interest me though a great deal of important work has been done by divers and marine archaeologists. Cargoes, be they simply of coal or foodstuffs, attracted those looking for free pickings. Wines and spirits often drew large crowds hell bent on trouble, leading to the arrival of the militia and the reading of the riot act. Those of a law-abiding nature perhaps had a few days of honest toil in salvaging the cargo under the careful gaze of Lloyd's agent and the customs.
The site is searchable - just click on the SEARCH button at top right.
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I shall attempt to answer all questions relating to shipwreck and rescue on the Welsh coast
Robert Carl Smith Molesey, Surrey.