Penlee Lifeboat Disaster
Every December 19 at 8pm the Christmas lights of Mousehole in Cornwall are turned off, staying dark for an hour in memory of the eight lifeboat crew who perished on that date in 1981 trying to effect an incredibly courageous rescue in hurricane conditions.
Their boat, the Solomon Browne, was attempting to rescue the crew and passengers aboard the coaster Union Star, headed for Ireland round the Cornish coast. Massive seas are thought to have thrown water into an inlet to the fuel system, causing her engines to stop.
Conditions when the alarm was raised in Mousehole were so obviously dangerous that the lifeboat coxswain, Trevelyan Richards, only allowed a single member from any one family to sail on that ‘shout’. Thus of the 12 who arrived at Penlee lifeboat station only eight went to sea.
Tragically it turned out that the captain of the Union Star, Henry Morton, had earlier turned down the offer of salvage from a tug, seemingly for commercial reasons, perhaps particularly because this was his ship’s maiden voyage. After the inquiry into the disaster the law was changed to make forcible salvage orders applicable where deemed necessary.
What happened to sink the lifeboat is not clear, likewise Union Star, but the seas were reaching 60 feet high, and it is thought the little lifeboat may have been thrown over, or against, the bigger freighter on several occasions, turning back to rescue the rest of those on the Union Star after taking four off during one attempt. Both ships were seen very close to the rocky shores before their demise, and they may simply have been dashed on the rocks in the area.
For a small settlement like Mousehole the loss of the lifeboat crew was a massive blow and horrific shock, a shock shared that Christmas by the entire country which responded with a fund set up to help the relatives of the lifeboat crew which rapidly raised £3 million.
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