Gallantry  Medals

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution provides brief histories of each of its lifeboat stations. That for Mumbles says that nineteen medals have been awarded for acts of gallantry. This is a most misleading statement. The truth is that the first ten medals were awarded to private individuals totally unconnected with the lifeboat station and at a time when the station existed in name only.

The RNLI makes awards not just to members of lifeboat crews but also to private individuals who display outstanding gallantry in saving life at sea. The latter are termed "shore-boat rescues" though on occasion no boat was used - the rescuer wading or riding a horse into the sea to make the rescue.

These awards are listed in An Illustrated Guide to our Lifeboat Stations Part 5 (Isles of Scilly to Aberdovey) by Jeff Morris, honorary archivist of the Lifeboat Enthusiasts Society, published in 1990, and in Lifeboat Gallantry by Barry Cox published by Spink in 1998. The former provides the name and date the award was made whereas the latter also provides details of the rescue and the date on which it occured. Unfortunately the recipients names are sometimes incorrect and Welsh place names pose the usual problems.

The first award credited to the Mumbles station was made on 7 November 1833 a couple of years before the Swansea Harbour Trust station had opened. On 14 October 1833 the brig Andrew and Margaret, of Maryport (Cumberland), James Quay master, was on passage from Bideford to Cardiff in ballast when she was caught in a storm and driven ashore at Margam, on the east shore of Swansea Bay, where she was pounded by the surf. John Bevan, master of the schooner Gower, which was berthed in Aberavon harbour, organised his crew in a rescue attempt. They carried the schooner's jolly boat to the beach. Seeing a man in the water Capt Bevan tied a lead-line around his waist, dived in, and brought him ashore. The jolly boat was then launched and rowed out and Bevan and his crew were able to save James Quay and three others. The facts were reported to the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (as the RNLI was then called) and after due consideration the awards made on 7 November. Captain Bevan received the Institution's Silver medal and £5 and his crew £1 each.

On 26 October 1835 the sloop John, of Chepstow, was making up channel from Swansea bound to Gloucester with a cargo of anthracite, copper ingots and oysters when she was caught in a gale and driven onto the bar of the river Neath where she  sank drowning one of the crew. The two survivors took to the rigging. William Evans, master of the Neath pilot boat William, put out with four assistants (E. Vaughan, D. Morgan, W. Phillips and William Williams) and saved the two. The Rev. Edward Thomas of Briton Ferry reported the facts to the "Shipwreck Institution" and at a meeting held on 23 December Evans was awarded the Silver Medal and £2 with £1 to each of his crew.

On 24 July 1838 the schooner Feronia, bound from Ulverston to Aberavon with a cargo of iron ore, stranded on the Mixon sandbank just to the west of Mumbles Head. She refloated on the flood tide but sank as she was being run for Mumbles. Her master, James Anthony, and two crew were plucked from the water by the combined effort of the Swansea pilot boats Victoria and Sarah Jane. As the pilots were bound down channel to meet incoming vessels, the rescued were put aboard the schooner Wave, of Swansea, John Rees master, which was inward bound. The details of the rescue were considered by the Institution on 19 September and Capt Rees awarded the Silver Medal "in consideration of his kind and humane conduct to the rescued by taking them on board his vessel and administering such comforts and assistance as they required". The medals were normally awarded for skill and gallantry in saving life so this seems to be a rather unusual award. Evan Davies, master of the Victoria received £2, T. Matthews and H. Stephens his assistants £1 each and the crew of the Sarah Jane, Owen, Phillips and Robinson 10 shillings each.

A severe gale which blew at hurricane force in some areas struck the western coasts of Britain on 6-7 January 1839. It made such an impression that it was remembered for many years as the Big Wind.  The brig Thomas Piele, of Workington, Robert McCartney master, had sailed from Swansea with 300 tons of coal for Dublin but was anchored in Mumbles roads when the storm broke. At 5 o'clock on the morning of the 7th she was run into by a sloop and parted her cables. She was then blown out of the anchorage and driven across the bay to ground on Port Talbot bar where she struck at about 7.30. Half an hour later, swept by tremendous seas, she capsized drowning the mate and a seaman. William McCallister, one of the crew, dived overboard and, after swimming for a long time, reached the shore where he told onlookers that the brig was beginning to break up. A number of ship masters and pilots then went to the habour and carried a boat to the beach determined to go to the immediate aid of those still onboard. Other professionals thought it would be foolish to attempt a rescue.

Thomas Jones, master of the schooner Two Sisters, John Howell master of the Caroline, Charles Sutton master of the Margam Packet, and Lewis Jenkins, a Port Talbot pilot, put off but were capsized in the surf and driven ashore. An hour later Captain Jones and Lewis Jenkins tried again, this time joined by Arthur Rees, mate of the yacht Galatea, and Thomas Lewis, mate of the Trial. But once again the boat was capsized and driven back onto the beach with two of the men near exhaustion. A further attempt was considered to be fruitless.

Later in the morning, when the tide had begun to ebb, another group of men decided to try once more. This time the boat was manned by Joseph Foley, master of the Richard, Capt Phillips of the Adelphi, John Richards of the Trial, and David Jenkins a Briton Ferry pilot. They found the conditions a little easier and were able to get alongside the wreck at about one o'clock. They were a few minutes too late to save one man who had lost his hold in the rigging through cold and exhaustion and fallen into the sea, but were able to save Robert McCartney the master, the boy William Johnstone and seamen James Barry, John Brown and John Wallace. The rescued were all in a collapsed state and shown every kindness by Captain Pentreath, the harbour master, and by the people of Port Talbot. [Just a few months later, in April 1839, Capt Pentreath, Port Talbot harbourmaster was drowned when his boat was capsized by a sudden ground sea as he took soundings at the harbour entrance.]

For this outstanding rescue Silver Medals were awarded to Captains Foley, Howell, Jones, and Sutton and to Lewis Jenkins and Arthur Rees.

A year later Joseph Foley was again in action. The sloop Mary, Quinn master, was bound from Cork and Youghall to Portsmouth with a cargo of butter when caught in a gale and driven up channel. She grounded south of the new harbour at Port Talbot late on the evening of 20 January 1840, and was soon a wreck. Foley waded out through the surf with a line around his waist. He took one man from the wreck and tied the line around him so that men on the beach could pull him ashore. He then saved the master in the same way. The owner of the vessel had drowned. For this gallant action Captain Foley was awarded a second service clasp to the Silver Medal.

So we can see that though these awards have, for many years, been credited to the Mumbles Station they really had nothing to do with either Mumbles or the Lifeboat Station.     Give credit where it is due !!

I shall detail the medals awarded to members of the crew of Mumbles lifeboat between 1883 and 1971 in later articles.