The Great Gale Saturday 27 January 1883
Ships wrecked at Port Eynon, Mumbles and Porthcawl
Next time you visit Port Eynon on the Gower peninsula stop off at the church. I am sure that you will notice the statue of a lifeboatman which stands there. Well now enter the churchyard and a few yards from the lifeboat memorial you will find a dark slate gravestone which marks the last resting place of some of the crew of the S.S. Agnes Jack which was wrecked off Port Eynon Point during a fierce gale in January 1883. The loss of this steamer and her crew led to the formation of the Port Eynon lifeboat station, and the statue which stands on the churchyard wall marks the capsize of the lifeboat in 1916 and the deaths of three of its crew. So within yards of eachother are stones which mark the beginning and end of a tragic but gallant episode in Port Eynon history.
When you look out towards the point you should notice the Youth Hostel. Take a stroll along the beach and have a look at this building. Notice the terra cotta plaques one on each side of the front. Of course the heavy red doors which once opened between those plaques are gone and the front wall is bricked up and a picture window installed, but the experienced eye will soon recognise it as a typical Victorian lifeboat house.
'Twas a dark and stormy morn,
Long ere the break of day,
When cries of deep distress were heard
Across Port Eynon Bay
The wind had been at near gale force for the best part of two days when, soon after 4 o'clock on the morning of Saturday 27 January 1883, it began to blow with tremendous squalls accompanied by rain and hail. The 737 ton gross Liverpool steamship Agnes Jack had sailed from Mumbles roads about an hour before. She was bound from Cagliari, Sardinia, for Llanelli with a cargo of 600 tons of lead ore and had sheltered at Mumbles to await the tide before entering the Burry estuary. When farm workers left their homes at about 5 o'clock they heard shouts and could just make out a vessel lying sunk off the point. First light showed a number of men clinging to the ship's mast. Messengers were sent to Rhosili and Oxwich coastguards for the Life-Saving Apparatus. Both companies arrived and fired rockets but the range was too great. As the tide ebbed the apparatus was moved out over the shore but, before further rockets could be fired, the mast came down throwing the men into the sea. Conditions were so bad that no one made it ashore alive. The vessel was identified only by her articles which were washed up more or less intact.
Oh! had there been a Lifeboat there
To breast the stormy main,
These men might not have perished thus,
Imploring help in vain.
The official log-book which was recovered contained the names of the crew who had signed on. They were:
John Jones, of Neath, aged 38, the master; W.C. Watkins, 25, Maidstone, mate; William Morrison, 32, Alloa, chief engineer; James Dowse, 29, Taibach (Port Talbot), 2nd engineer; David Williams, 26, Pembrey, donkeyman; George Cook, Belfast, fireman; James Jones, 26, Cardigan, fireman; William Whaben, 30, bosun; John Williams, 40, Liverpool, cook; James Owen, 40, Newport (Pembs) steward; and A.B.s (able seamen) Augustus Hill, 43, Boston; William Johnson, 25, Liverpool; John Yeo, 35, Plymouth; Richard Roberts, 35, Nefyn, Caernarfonshire; William Smith, 46, Finland; Giovanni George, 30, Trieste; and John Finn, Sligo, Ireland.
Also aboard was the Llanelli pilot, Philip Beynon aged 63, a native of Gower, who had boarded the vessel at Mumbles. His three sons went to Port Eynon and identified his body with great difficulty as his features were so badly injured by the rocks. His body was taken back to Llanelli for burial at the Box Cemetery. Many years later Philip Beynon's great grandson, Edward Beynon, would become the Honorary Secretary of the Mumbles Lifeboat station and Agent for the Shipwrecked Mariners Society there.
The loss of the Agnes Jack was the start of a bleak day on the South Wales coast for two more ships were to be wrecked and more lives lost.
The verses quoted above are from a poem by Charles Bevan, sub agent for Lloyd's at Port Eynon, who witnessed the tragedy. When the Port Eynon lifeboat station was formed the following year he became the Honorary Secretary. The second verse appears on the gravestone.
The stone marking the grave of some of the crew of the Agnes Jack.
The memorial at Port Eynon to the three men drowned when the lifeboat capsized on service in 1916.
This photograph shows the Agnes Jack grave in relation to the memorial set into the wall.
* * * * *
Soon after dawn that day, just a few hours after the stranding of the Agnes Jack, the 885 ton barque Admiral Prinz Adalbert, registered in Danzig, became unmanageable due to the loss of sails and spars. She was bound from Rochefort for Swansea with 900 tons of pit-props. Tugs failed to tow her into Swansea Bay and she drifted onto the outer island of Mumbles Head where she was wrecked right below the lighthouse. The coastguard rocket apparatus and crew left their station in Church Park, Mumbles but were unable to fire any lines as the two sounds and the middle head lay between the mainland and the wreck. Mumbles lifeboat, Wolverhampton, under the command of coxswain Jenkins had been launched promptly and rowed the short distance to the scene. The lifeboat was anchored and veered down towards the wreck which was now working on the rocks. A line was floated from the wreck and grappled by the lifeboat allowing a breeches buoy to be floated to the wreck. The ship's crew were reluctant to leave until the masts came down. Two of her crew were taken aboard the lifeboat in this way. As the third man, the barque's carpenter Peter August Rahberg, was being hauled out a large sea struck the lifeboat and parted her anchor cable. The Wolverhampton was driven towards the wreck and repeatedly capsized in the confused seas.
The whole of the crew were thrown from the boat leaving the two Germans clinging under the thwarts (cross seats). Of her crew of thirteen (two coxswains, a bowman and ten oarsmen) four lost their lives. They were John and William Jenkins, sons of the coxswain, William Macnamara his son-in-law, and William Rogers. Peter Rahberg was also drowned.
The Wolverhampton now drifted past the wreck and into the outer sound. Some of the surviving lifeboatmen clung to the lifelines while others swam into Bob's Cave or onto the Middle Head.
Bob's Cave where two of the lifeboatmen found shelter.
The Outer Head, where the lighthouse stood, held a small community - the lighthouse keeper Abraham Ace and his son and daughters and a sergeant and gunners of the Royal Artillery who manned the battery. Jessie Ace and her married sister Margaret Wright now went down into the sound and assisted to save two of the lifeboatmen who clung exhausted to the lifelines. Their efforts are recalled in the poem The Women of Mumbles Head written by the theatre critic Clement Scott.
The crew of Mumbles lifeboat on that occasion were:
Jenkin Jenkins - coxswain
John Jenkins - second coxswain - drowned
John Williams - bowman - a nephew of the coxswain
William Jenkins - drowned
Jenkin Jenkins junior
William Macnamara - son in law of coxswain - drowned
William Rogers - drowned
David John Morgan
The bodies of Rahberg and of brothers John and William Jenkins were recovered later that day. The remains of William Macnamara were found on the mussel bed in Swansea Bay on 11 February, but William Rogers' body was never found.
John Jenkins left a wife and six children; William Jenkins a wife and two children; William Rogers a wife and seven children; and William Macnamara a wife Sarah Jane, daughter of Cox'n Jenkins, and two children. A fund was set up for the support of the widows and children.
The Memorial Window at All Saints' Church, Oystermouth, to the four men who died in the 1883 disaster.
The stone which once marked the grave of John Jenkins 2nd Coxswain of the Lifeboat and some of his children.
The stone was moved from its original position and stood outside the porch of All Saints Church. In 1983 it was pushed over and broke in three.
* * * * *
At about 1.30 in the afternoon watchers at Porthcawl noticed a steamship outside the Nash sands but seemingly heading towards the shore. Robert Jago, chief boatman of the coastguard and James Pearce, coxswain of the lifeboat, considered that she was in danger. The lifeboat was called out and launched at about 2.30 and the coastguard took the rocket apparatus by road to Ogmore expecting the ship to go ashore there. As soon as the lifeboat left the shelter of the breakwater she was caught by the gale and found it impossible to make headway towards the ship. She was driven eastward and anchored off Newton to await a better chance. When the ship got inside the Nash she anchored but then began to drag - it was now clear that she had lost all power. She flew a two pennant hoist which could not be read but was believed to be a signal of distress.
As it was then low water the tug Thames, which was in Porthcawl harbour, was unable to go to the ship's aid. But she did sail at about 8 p.m. by which time the ship had dragged towards the Tusker - a rocky reef about 2 miles south-east of the harbour and been lost in the darkness. The tug approached the rock but saw nothing of the ship and her skipper was unable to take her in close due to the heavy seas breaking over the reef. The Thames went to Newton and towed the lifeboat back to the harbour by about 9.30.
The next day wreckage was seen on the Tusker and wreckage and bodies washed up along the coast from Ogmore past Dunraven to Nash Point. Amongst the wreckage was a burgee with the name James Gray. The James Gray, of Whitby, 1,059 tons register, McLeod master, was bound with 1,500 tons of coal from Cardiff to the Cape Verde Islands and carried a crew of 23. Captain McLeod also had his wife and child aboard as passengers. The ship was lost with all hands.
So Saturday 27 January 1883 was indeed a very dark day on the Glamorgan coast claiming the lives of 44 men, one woman, and a young child.
* * * * *
PORT EYNON AGAIN
Just eleven days later on the morning of Wednesday 7 February a bedraggled black dog (some say a labrador others a Newfoundland) was found wandering through the hamlet of Overton near Port Eynon. It was the sole survivor of the schooner Surprise, of Paimpol, le Tacon master, bound to Swansea with a cargo of about 100 tons of pit props. The vessel was found wrecked at the foot of the cliffs on the west side of Overton Mere a short distance to the west of the wreck of the Agnes Jack. The schooner was a total wreck and trailing its cables which led mariners to believe that she had probably struck the Helwick sands before losing her anchors. The masters body was not recovered but those of his crew were taken to Swansea and buried by Father W.S. Wade with the rights of the Catholic church at Danygraig cemetery.
The crew of the Surprise were:
Jean Francois le Tacon - the master whose body was not found but is mentioned on the gravestone
Francois Marie Padel - aged about 15
Guillaume le Guen - about 40
Yves Marie Seguillon - about 24
Francois Marie Loguivy
Newspaper reports also mention Guillaume Marie Noel but this name does not appear on the gravestone nor in the burial register at Danygraig so perhaps this was a mistake.
The stone marking the grave of the crew of the Surprise wrecked at Overton in 1883.