The Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) has long been helping to safeguard seafarers along the Gower coast. During the 19th century, Swansea became an increasingly busy port attracting many cargo ships from around the world. Entering the harbour involved navigating dangerous sandbanks upon which ships could become stranded during stormy weather. It was the job of RNLI volunteers to risk their own lives saving the crews of stricken ships – a job they have been doing for nearly 200 years.
The RNLI is estimated to have saved around 140,000 lives since it was established in 1824. It continues to operate on public donations and the dedication of its crew, most of whom are volunteers who leave their work, families or beds whenever their lifeboat is needed.
The first lifeboat service was established here in 1835, but it wasn’t until 1865 that Gower got its first proper lifeboat station, built near Mumbles Head (the building can still be found today, known as the Old Lifeboat Cottage). The bravery of the Mumbles lifeboat crews is legendary. The early lifeboats were little more than rowing boats and the crews would brave even the most severe storms, risking their lives in an attempt to save others. Local memorials, such as those found in Oystermouth Church and Cemetery, commemorate the lives of those who died during some of the more disastrous rescue attempts – such as the loss of the ‘Wolverhampton’ lifeboat in 1883; the ‘James Stevens’ in 1903 and the ‘Edward, Price of Wales’ in 1947.
Today, Mumbles lifeboat station can be found next to the famous Pier, where the boathouse proudly houses a Tamar Class lifeboat, the most technologically-advanced vessel ever produced by the Royal National Lifeboat Institute.
Mumbles Lifeboat Station
In 1794 a lighthouse was built at Mumbles Head to help ships find a safe path through Swansea Bay. In spite of this, many ships continued to be blown off course during stormy weather to collide with the submerged sandbanks of Mixon and Scarweather Sands. Often in these situations the coastguards and tugs of Swansea Harbour would attempt to rescue the crews of stricken vessels.
By 1834 there was strong demand for a dedicated lifeboat crew following a number of dramatic rescues elsewhere in Wales, as reported in The Cambrian newspaper:
There cannot be afforded a stronger proof of the vast utility of lifeboats than in the preservation of the crews of the [stricken] vessels and we take the opportunity of again urging on the consideration of the influential gentlemen connected with our harbour, the necessity of procuring one, for the protection of the poor mariner when threatened by the danger of shipwreck and loss of life.
Barely a month after this article was published, two ships ran aground and became stranded on Mixon Sands. Thankfully there was no loss of life, but the event was enough to start a petition for a lifeboat amongst local communities.
The first lifeboat service
In 1835, the first lifeboat service was established in Gower at a cost of £120 (equivalent to around £13,000 today). It wasn’t much of a success… the lifeboat itself was poorly equipped and rarely used. Dissatisfied, the local authorities replaced it with an altogether better lifeboat in August 1855. The new boat, stored within a shed next to Swansea’s Harbour Offices, carried a crew of thirteen pulling ten oars. Even then, the local steam tugs had to lend a hand during the worst conditions.
Finally, in 1863, Gower got its first proper lifeboat service. Work began on a purpose-built lifeboat station near Mumbles Head, managed by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). A new lifeboat was also purchased, named ‘Martha and Anne’, which stayed in Swansea until the lifeboat station was completed in 1865. Yet another lifeboat joined the service in 1866, named ‘Wolverhampton’ on account of it being presented to the RNLI by the city of the same name.
The station boathouse was expanded in 1884 and the building can still be found today, known as the Old Lifeboat Cottage.
Second lifeboat service in Gower
A second lifeboat station was opened at Port Eynon in 1884 and later re-located to Horton in 1968. The boathouse is home to a smaller D-class inflatable lifeboat, but the bravery of the crews serving here is anything but diminished.
Tales of tragedy include the loss of three crewmembers during an attempted rescue on New Year’s Day in 1916, whose lives are commemorated by a sculpture found in St Cattwg’s churchyard, Port Eynon. A new boathouse was opened at Horton in 1992 and the current boat, D-688 ‘Albert Wordley’, has been in service since 2008.