On the 19th December 1981, the crew of the Solomon Browne went to the rescue of the crew and passengers aboard the Union Star. On that fateful night, all lives from both vessels were lost. For the next forty years, it would be referred to as the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster.
On a stormy December evening, the Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne battled heavy seas and hurricane force winds to reach the Union Star, a stricken coaster being swept towards the coast of Cornwall.
After several attempts to get alongside the coaster, the lifeboat crew rescued four of the eight people onboard. But rather than turn back to shore, they made a final heroic rescue attempt – and all radio contact was lost.
Powerful winds and a treacherous coastline
The Union Star was on her maiden voyage, sailing from Holland to Ireland with a cargo of agricultural fertiliser.
As well as Captain Henry Morton and his crew of four, she carried the captain’s wife and two teenage stepdaughters, who had joined the ship so that they could be together for the holidays.
At 6pm on 19 December 1981, disaster struck. The Falmouth Coastguard received a call from the Union Star: her engines had failed and would not restart. There was a fierce storm underway and the rough seas and powerful winds were blowing the coaster towards the treacherous Cornish coastline.
In Mousehole, word spread that the lifeboat may be needed and Penlee’s Solomon Browne was put on standby. A dozen men answered the call for crew, but only eight were needed.
A rescue under such severe conditions would be difficult and Coxswain William Trevelyan Richards chose the best crew for the task:
- Second Coxswain and Mechanic James Madron
- Assistant Mechanic Nigel Brockman
- Emergency Mechanic John Blewett
- Crew Member Charles Greenhaugh
- Crew Member Kevin Smith
- Crew Member Barrie Torrie
- Crew Member Gary Wallis.
A Sea King helicopter
The Union Star’s fuel system had become contaminated with water, making an engine restart impossible. The coaster was drifting dangerously close to the shore, so the Coastguard called in an RNAS Sea King helicopter to rescue the crew.
The coaster was rolling and pitching on the wild seas, so violently that her mast threatened to collide with the helicopter overhead.
The aircrew decided it had become too dangerous to continue the rescue mission – the Union Star’s mast was too close and their line wasn’t long enough to reach the deck from further away.
The coaster had drifted to just 2 miles from the perilous coastline, so the Solomon Browne was finally launched, 2 hours after the first alert.
The greatest act of courage
The helicopter stood by as Penlee’s lifeboat, a wooden 47ft (14.3m) Watson class, launched in the hurricane force 12 wind, fighting against 90-knot winds and 18m waves.
The powerless Union Star had already lost one anchor, but was desperately trying to hold her position as the lifeboat fought the harsh breaking seas to come alongside it.
The Solomon Browne struck against the side of the coaster and the lifeboat crew stood against the railings, throwing lines across to the coaster.
The lifeboat valiantly battled to come alongside the coaster for half an hour.
From the helicopter, Lieutenant Commander Russell Smith saw dark shadows of people in fluorescent orange lifejackets run across the deck from the wheelhouse to the lifeboat, where the crew were waiting to catch them as they jumped.
The Solomon Browne radioed back to the Coastguard: ‘we’ve got four off’ and the helicopter turned back to base, assuming the lifeboat would head to shore.
But the lifeboat decided to make a final rescue attempt – and after that point, all radio contact was lost.
The Coastguard radioed back to the lifeboat, but there was no response. Ten minutes later, the lights of the Solomon Browne disappeared.
At daybreak, the Union Star was found capsized on the rocks by Tater Du Lighthouse and wreck debris from the lifeboat began to wash ashore.
(Information drawn from article on RNLI website. )
The famed Christmas lights at Mousehole are dimmed on the evening of the 19th December every year in memory of those lost both on the Solomon Browne and the Union Star. On the 40th anniversary, the lights were extinguished for the whole evening and candles were lit throughout the village.
Moved by this event, bass player Simon Wrench wrote a song about the disaster 40 years ago and with minimal assistance from other band members, The Lights of Mousehole was released as a download single to raise money and more importantly to raise awareness of a fundraiser by families of those lost on both vessels, to commission the sculpting of a granite memorial to be sited on the cliffs near Lamorna where the Union Star came ashore.
Our very first performance was at a concert in the Acorn Theatre in Penzance. Whilst we were sound-checking, we discovered that some of the families were coming to see us. No pressure! Since then, we have become good friends with Martin Brockman, Jo Payne and others.
Click here for the full story on the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster Memorial
The fundraising was completed in the summer of 2022 and the memorial was installed shortly after. The families greatly appreciated both our efforts and the song itself. So much so that The Lights of Mousehole was played at the memorial dedication ceremony and we were all invited down to the event which was a huge honour. Simon represented the band and was made most welcome.
The disaster will henceforth be referred to as The Solomon Browne & Union Star Disaster to remember all who were lost.