19. Nov, 2016

The Women of Mumbles Head

Time and tide indeed, waits for no man, that is true! And if did, then many a ship would have been saved, not floundered off the rocky coast of Wales. Many of these ships have come to grief off Mumbles head, on the South Gower Coast, not far from our home for waifs and strays.

      Beneath the waves that swirl around the two islands off Mumbles head in Gower, lies the mixon shoal sandbank and the underwater reef, known as the cherrystone rock. Between them, they have claimed the lives of many a man and his ship. You see, it is true what they say, that time and tide waits for no man!

      ‘You must always have respect for the sea,’ my father used to tell me, ‘and never underestimate its strenth or dramatize your own!’ And he made sure that I could swim from a very young age.

       And so it was, a lighthouse was built on the outerhead island in 1794 and a lighthouse keeper was paid 18 shillings a week for stocking up the two open coal fires and making his home on the island. But in 1798 the fires were replaced by oil powered lamps and in 1936, the lighthouse keeper himself, was replaced by electricity.

         I once lived in the village of Mumbles and heard many seamans tales. One that sticks in my memory is about two sisters, daughters of the lighthouse keeper, Jennie and Margaret, who saved the lives of two lifeboatmen, many moons ago. The men were on a rescue mission when they were thrown from the lifeboat into the sea so the girls tied their shawls together and risked their lives by wading into the trecherous water to rescue them. I’ve included a poem, by Clement Scott, called The Women of Mumbles Head

Bring novelists your notebook. Bring Dramatists your Pen:
And I'll tell you a simple story of what women do for men.
It's only the tale of a lifeboat, of the dying and the dead,
Of a terrible storm and shipwreck that happened off Mumbles Head.
Maybe you have travelled in Wales, sir, and know it north and south:
Maybe you have friends with the 'natives' that dwell at Oystermouth.
It happens, no doubt, that from Bristol you've crossed in a casual way.
And have sailed your yacht in summer, in the blue of Swansea Bay.

Well, it isn't like that in winter when the lighthouse stands alone,
In the teeth of Atlantic breakers that foam on its face of stone:
It wasn't like that when the hurricane blew and the story-bell tolled, or when
There was news of a wreck, and lifeboat launch'd, and a desperate cry for men.
When in the world did the coxswain shirk? A brave old Salt was he!
Proud to the bone of as four strong lads, as ever had tasted the sea.
Welshmen all to the lungs and loins, who, about the coast twas said,
Had saved some hundred lives apiece - at a shilling or so a head!

So the father launched the lifeboat in the teeth of the tempest's roar,
And he stood like a man at the rudder, with any eye on his boys at the oar.
Out to the wreck went the father! Out to the wreck went the sons!
Leaving the weeping of women, and booming of signal guns;
Leaving the mother who loved them, and the girls that the sailors loved,
Going to death for duty, and trusting to God above!
Do you murmur a prayer, my brother, when cosy and safe in bed,
For men like these, who are ready to die for a wreck off Mumbles Head?

It didn't go well with the lifeboat.  'Twas a terrible storm that blew!
And it snapped a rope in a second that was flung to the drowning crew;
And then the anchor parted - 'twas a tussle to keep afloat!
But the father stuck to the rudder, and the boys to the brave old boat.
Then at last on the poor doom'd lifeboat a wave broke mountains high!
'God help us now! ' said the father. 'It's over my lads, good-bye!'
Half of the crew swam shoreward, half to the sheltered caves,
But father and sons were fighting death in the foam of the angry waves.

Up at the lighthouse window two women beheld the storm,
And saw in the boiling breakers a figure - a fighting form,
It might be a grey-haired father, then the women held their breath,
It might be a fair-haired brother who was having a round with death;
It might be a lover, a husband, whose kisses were on the lips
Of the women whose love is life of the men going down to the sea in ships.
They had seen the launch of the lifeboat, they had heard the worst and more,
Then, kissing each other these women went down from the lighthouse, straight to the shore.

There by the rocks on the breakers these sisters, hand in hand,
Beheld once more that desperate man who struggled to reach the land.
'Twas only aid he wanted to help him across the wave,
But what are a couple of women with only a man to save?
What are a couple of women?  Well, more than three craven men
Who stood by the shore with chattering teeth, refusing to stir - and then
Off went the women's shawls, sir: in a second they're torn and rent,
Then knotting them into a rope of love, straight into the sea they went!

'Come back!' cried the lighthouse keeper, 'For God's sake, girls, come back!'
As they caught the waves on their foreheads, resisting the fierce attack.
'Come back!' moaned the grey-haired mother as she stood by the angry sea,
'If the waves take you, my darlings, there's nobody left to me.'
'Come back!' said the three strong soldiers, who still stood faint and pale,
'You will drown if you face the breakers!  You will fall if you brave the gale!'
'Come back' said the girls, 'we will not!  Go tell it to all the town,
We'll lose our lives, God willing, before that man shall drown!'

'Give one more knot to the shawls, Bess!  Give one strong clutch of your hand!
Just follow me, brave, to the shingle, and we'll drag him safe to land!
Wait for the next wave, darling!  Only a minute more,
And I'll have him safe in my arms, dear, and we'll drag him safe to shore.'
Up to their arms in the water, fighting it breast to breast,
They caught and saved a brother alive! God bless us! you know the rest—
Well, many a heart beat stronger, and many a tear was shed,
And many a glass was toss'd right off to the' Women of Mumbles Head!'