With its old granite cottages and winding streets which surround its picturesque harbour, Mousehole is considered by many as the most beautiful fishing village in Cornwall. It is a village steeped in history, and an event firmly cemented in to the history of its small tight-knit community is The Penlee Lifeboat Disaster.
On the fateful stormy day of 19th December 1981, a cargo ship the Union Star was on its maiden voyage from Holland to Ireland. Its crew of five included Captain Henry Morton. In addition to the five crewman the Captain’s wife and two teenage stepdaughters were also onboard. Near Wolf Rock Lighthouse, a few miles off Land’s End, The Union Star’s engines failed. The crew rallied to restart the engines whilst the Coastguard was informed of their situation. A tugboat by the name of ‘The Noord Holland’ offered assistance and headed towards the Union Star. Due to the financial implications of being salvaged at sea Captain Henry Morton refused the assistance, opting instead to see if his Engineer and crew could restart the engines themselves.
The storm worsened dramatically, with a hundred mile an hour winds combined with waves of over sixty foot The Union Star was washed closer and closer towards the treacherous rocks of Boscawen Point near Lamorna Cove. It was at this time that Captain Henry Morton made a distress call to the Falmouth Coastguard who were quick to dispatch a Sea King helicopter from Culdrose. Unfortunately, the weather conditions were so severe that the helicopter was unable to get a line to the stricken vessel. The tug was now in the vicinity, but its Captain felt that it would be impossible to establish a link in such conditions and was unwilling to endanger the lives of his eleven crew members. Stationed at Penlee Point near Mousehole was the Penlee Lifeboat; a forty-seven-foot wooden watson class motorboat named ‘The Solomon Browne’. With the Sea King unable to perform a rescue it was at 8.21pm that the Penlee Lifeboat was launched, charging down its slipway in to hurricane conditions.
The Solomon Browne carried eight Mousehole men; a crew of volunteers under the command of Coxswain Trevelyan Richards. The Coxswain had selected his crewwisely, choosing only the most able and skilled seamen. Knowing the extreme danger they were about to encounter he allowed only one crew member per family. The lifeboat steamed towards the Union Star, and upon reaching the vessel valiantly fought to get alongside it. Ferocious waves battered the lifeboat which at times was even thrown on to the deck of the Union Star. Despite the extreme and treacherous conditions, the valiant Solomon Browne crew managed to rescue four people and get them on board the lifeboat. Selflessly persevering, the crew went back again and again, attempting to rescue the remaining four people. Then, tragedy struck and it was at this moment that radio contact with the Solomon Browne was lost. Later, the wreckages of both the Union Star and the Solomon Browne. Of the sixteen people there were no survivors. The loss of the eight crew members was a huge blow for the tight-knit village of Mousehole, leaving an entire community devastated.
Pilot of the Sea King helicopter; Lieutenant Commander Russell Smith was quoted at the time; “The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see, was the penultimate courage and dedication shown by the Penlee crew when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over sixty foot breakers and rescued four people shortly after Penlee had been bashed on top of the casualties hatch covers!” He continued; “They were truly the bravest eight men I have ever seen, who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.”
Coxswain William Trevelyan Richards was posthumously awarded the institution’s Gold Medal for his bravery and skill in managing to take four people off the stricken coaster. The rest of the crew, who were posthumously awarded Bronze Medals were; James Stephen Madron (aged 35), Nigel Brockman (aged 43), John Blewett (aged 43), Kevin Smith (aged 23), Barrie Torrie (aged 33), Charles Greenhaugh (aged 46) and Gary Wallis (aged 23). These eight brave men were volunteers, volunteering their lives to save others. Rushing in to the sea that night without a second thought for themselves was an incredible feat and unthinkable to most. Managing to rescue four people and get them on board the lifeboat is a true example of both amazing seamanship and sheer determination.
Every year the Mousehole Christmas Lights shine brightly across the water, illuminating the village in the run up to Christmas. Each year on the anniversary of the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster the lights are switched off for an hour (between eight and nine pm) to honour and remember those lives lost at sea that night.
The Penlee Lifeboat Disaster is a night in history that local people will never forget. When the Christmas Lights are switched off in remembrance it is with the exception of the angels and cross lights, these shine out over Mousehole, across the harbour and out to the sea beyond in memory of those incredible men. As they shine brightly year after year, new generations learn about the disaster, ensuring that these brave Cornishmen are forever our heroes; always appreciated and never forgotten…
exactly as it should be.