The Penlee lifeboat was called to assist the crew of the Union Star, a cargo ship on her maiden voyage as she was heading towards the rocks off the Cornish coast on 19th December 1981.
The Solomon Browne and its 8 crew from Mousehole were called at around 8.15pm. Trevelyan Richards the Coxswain of the lifeboat got the Solomon Browne alongside the Union Star from where it was thrown several times onto the deck of the cargo ship before sliding off. A Sea King helicopter above the incident was watching but unable to help due to the adverse weather conditions. As the pilot of the helicopter looked on he later commented at the inquiry that ‘they were truly the greatest 8 men I have ever seen’. Eventually Trevelyan Richards got the boat alongside the Union Star and got 4 of the 8 crew off the ship and onto the lifeboat. Not content with rescuing the 4, he went back in to save the other 4 lives. At this moment as the Falmouth lifeguards were listening to the radios between the Union Star and the Solomon Browne it all went silent and something terrible had happened. Both boats were so close to the shoreline rocks and they had succumbed to the power of the sea. All 16 people were lost, 8 crew of the Union Star and the brave selfless men of the Solomon Browne.
Those men who gave their lives that night were
William ‘Trevelyan’ Richards – Coxswain
James Madron – Second Coxswain and Mechanic
Nigel Brockman – Assistant Mechanic
John Blewett – Emergency Mechanic
Charlie Greenhaugh – crew member
Kevin Smith crew member
Barrie Torrie – crew member
Gary Wallis – crew member
The following day boys and men from Mousehole were stepping forward to replace the crew of the Solomon Browne, one young man who stepped forward was the son of one of the crew who had died the night before. He later became Coxswain of the Penlee Lifeboat.
These men are still remembered annually as the lights at Mousehole are dimmed between 8pm and 9pm in memory of their sacrifices.
Many a tribute has been paid to these men on the internet and much can be found on the net. However our favourite is a song by Seth Lakeman called Solomon Browne all about that stormy night.
…and aptly Seth also played this at the Minack theatre not far from where the lives were lost.
Russell Holland has also produced this together with the Cornish Wurzels I believe. The backing singers are the crew of the current Penlee lifeboat.
Tonight at 10pm on BBC FOUR is the Cruel Sea: The Penlee Lifeboat Disaster – first screened in 2006, is an account of what happened that night with real radio footage, eye witness reports and memories of the families who lost their loved ones.