The story and poem of The women of Mumbles Head

More: Lifeboat

The two women involved, Jessie Ace and Margaret Wright, were the daughters of the lighthouse keeper, Abraham Ace. They, with the help of Gunner Hutchings from the lighthouse fort, rescued John Thomas and Williams Rosser, two of the lifeboat crew who had successfully rescued the crew of the German barque, Admiral Prinz Adalbert of Danzig. Unfortunately the lifeboat crew then got into trouble themselves. The disaster took the lives of two of the coxswain's sons, his son-in-law and another man. The coxswain received a silver medal from the RNLI and £50; Gunner Hutchings received its thanks on vellum. The action of the two women was not recognised by the RNLI but both received gold brooches from the Empress of Germany for looking after the barques’ crew. (Subsequently I have learnt that Jessie’s broach is now the treasured possession of her great-great granddaughter in Australia.)

Jessie Ace and her sister Margaret Wright

These happenings took place on 27 January 1883, the lifeboat involved being the Wolverhampton (see photo taken at the 1866 naming ceremony). In those days, the lighthouse keeper, his deputy and their families lived on the lighthouse island, so were close at hand when the ship ran aground.

Following this disaster, another lifeboat named Wolverhampton II was built and remained in service until 1898.

It was said of these men and their ilk that 'they were iron men in wooden boats'.

The Naming of the Wolverhampton, 27 January 1866

Following the disaster, Clement Scott penned this tribute to the brave women-

The Women of Mumbles Head

by Clement Scott

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!'

Jessy Ace and Margaret Wright nee Ace, 1883

A Chapman photo from Peter Bryan

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