As we remember the crew of the Penlee lifeboat and the Union Star this week I am including a guest piece written by Nikki Twyning who was at school in Mousehole at the time :-
Hey everyone, I was a pupil at Mousehole school in 1981 – that’ll mean something to you guys I’m sure. It was a night that changed a whole community and is why I am passionate about the RNLI. I would like to share it with you all. These folks are heroes – everyday.
Penlee Lifeboat Solomon Browne
A thousand coloured lights shine and twinkle merrily, reflected perfectly in the calm seawater of the closed harbour. All around, tantalizing festive colours sing through the cold December air. Every festive season the small village of Mousehole welcomes the world to view their exuberant celebration of Christmas lights. At 8pm on December 19th the celebrations pause. The colours of the night draw back in to the darkness leaving only a cross, flanked by two kneeling angels glinting brilliant star white high up on the hill. For one hour, this will be the only illumination this Cornish harbour will have. This is a moment of reflection and remembrance as all hearts and minds are taken back to 1981 and the extraordinary bravery and courage of eight men: the crew of the Penlee Lifeboat Solomon Browne.
It was a night where nature unleashed her worst. A ferocious sea of 60ft waves whipped up by hurricane force winds. The coaster Union Star found herself in trouble off the Cornish coast. She was on her maiden voyage but suffered engine failure eight miles to the East of Wolf Rock Lighthouse. The violent wind pushed her effortlessly towards the granite cliff face. A distress call to the Coastguard went out. Raging sea and wind gusting to 90 knots made a helicopter rescue impossible. Falmouth Coastguard called for Penlee Lifeboat and she responded.
The Solomon Browne had been the Penlee Lifeboat for 21 years. The volunteer crew had decades of experience between them; many earned their livelihood as Mousehole fishermen. Some of the men were relaxing in the British Legion Club when the alarm was raised. Christmas was less than a week away and the festive spirit was warm in the heart of such a close community. The alarm raised and men all around the village made their way in to the grim night. Solomon Browne needed eight crew but more men than that responded. It was Coxswain Trevelyan Richards who choose his warriors for the battle ahead. His experience told him to only take one man per family. A father took his place on board as his son watched from the shore. The lifeboat launched with hell swirling around them.
Union Star was stricken close to the cliff. Her eight passengers, including the Captains wife and two children, saw the lifeboat as she approached to rescue them. Stern granite rocks loomed large through the tormented sea. Three or four times the lifeboat tried to get along side. Miraculously, four from on board the Union Star were pulled on to the Solomon Browne. The strong voice of the Coxswain came over the hissing radio to Falmouth Coastguard “we’ve got four on board”. But that wasn’t all: four remained. The lifeboat and her crew made another attempt. Falmouth Coastguard tried to make contact. “Penlee Lifeboat. Falmouth Coastguard. Over.” Low quiet static was the only response. Again, “Penlee Lifeboat. Falmouth Coastguard. Over”. Winter roared around the heavens and ocean but never has a silence been more loudly heard. Communication was lost. Ten minutes later, the lights visible from the Solomon Browne went out. All hands were lost.
Dawn brought an eerie calm and a search for survivors. Local men, fishermen and neighbouring Lifeboat stations joined the efforts of a Search and Rescue helicopter. Both boats had been wrecked. There were no survivors.
Mousehole had lost eight men but within two days a whole new crew of volunteers had come forward. Some would go on to serve under Coxswain Neil Brockman whose father had been chosen instead of him that fateful night. The crew of the Solomon Browne all received posthumous awards for gallantry. Coxswain Trevelyan Richards received the RNLI’s highest honour: the Gold Medal. Each of the crew were awarded RNLI Bronze Medals.
Mousehole was wounded. Children had lost their fathers and wife’s had lost their husbands. So many of it’s brave son’s had been taken. Forever now the history of Mousehole would include this most courageous tale and every year there would be time to pause and remember as the bright Christmas lights fade away leaving only a cross and two praying angels. We honour the crew of the Penlee Lifeboat Solomon Browne.
Coxswain William Trevelyan Richards
James Stephen Madron
Gave their lives in service.
My thanks go to Nikki for allowing me to use this article.
This is a recording of the final radio exchange between the Coastguard and the Solomon Browne