WE WILL REMEMBER THEM ALL - 40 years after Penlee lifeboat disaster, families of the 16 who perished unite to create a permanent memorial

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Penlee’s heroes – pictured top, left to right: Trevelyan Richards, Nigel Brockman, Charlie Greenhaugh and John Blewett. Pictured bottom, left to right: Kevin Smith, Gary Wallis, James Madron and Barrie Torrie

14th June 2021

By Gareth Davies

“We are one family; we lost all our relations together in the same tragedy and this needs to be brought to people’s attention.”

These are the emotive and powerful words of Martin Brockman, who is spearheading a fundraising campaign for a new granite carving that will sit on cliffs just 150 yards above rocks at Boscawen Cove, where the Penlee Lifeboat disaster unfolded.

On December 19, 1981, the mini-bulk carrier Union Star lost power in her engines east of Wolf Rock and in hurricane winds, was blown towards the treacherous Cornish coast. After a helicopter evacuation of Union Star’s crew which included captain Henry Morton’s wife and two stepdaughters was deemed impossible, the Penlee Lifeboat, Solomon Browne, was launched under the command of coxswain Trevelyan Richards.

After rescuing four of the eight onboard Union Star, radio contact to the lifeboat and the stricken ship was lost and both vessels were wrecked.

There were no survivors from either Solomon Browne or the Union Star with Martin Brockman’s father Nigel one of the 16 people lost at sea that fateful evening.

In this, the 40th anniversary year of the disaster, families from both the lifeboat crew and Union Star are coming together in an attempt to raise £26,000 to have a granite seat carved and then placed as a new and permanent memorial to those who died.

Martin told the Voice: “There isn’t a memorial down here that mentions the names of the crew and passengers of the Union Star. At the time of the disaster, the big thing was the loss of the lifeboat, which is sad, because the other eight people that were lost were almost overlooked to a certain degree.”

“This project we are embarking on is to bring all 16 families together to have a memorial that reflects the loss of all 16 people. “

The memorial itself will be a carved granite seat with waves around the outside, with a lot of motion and waves carved into it too. There will also be 16 albatrosses to reflect the 16 souls that were lost to sea, ascending to heaven.

“We are one family; we lost all our relations together in the same tragedy and this needs to be brought to people’s attention. We came up with the idea of putting the seat on the cliff above where the final moments of both boats played out because it is a very poignant place. “

“Thousands of people walk past that spot every year and 150 yards below them at sea is where it all happened so people will be able to stop, have a ponder, read a little bit about it. It will be lovely because it will be surrounded by heather and gorse on the piece of land that the National Trust have allocated to us. “

“There are people down here that are potentially unaware of what happened with the disaster. I would like to think that the new local generation are taught about it in schools but people who have moved to the area won’t know the events of that night. “

“The memorial out on the clifftop will be a lovely focal point to go out to on a summer’s day and think about what happened.”

Martin’s elder brother Neil was 17 at the time of the tragedy and part of the Penlee crew. However, coxswain Richards decided against taking two members of the same family and Neil stayed on the shore. With a new crew formed in the days after the disaster, Neil re-joined and a decade later, became coxswain of the new Penlee Lifeboat.

By now, the station had been moved to Newlyn Harbour from Penlee Point and it received an Arunclass all-weather lifeboat called Mabel Alice.

A decade later, Neil became coxswain when he was just 28 the youngest in the RNLI’s entire fleet at the time.

In 2003, Ivan Ellen, a modern Severn-class boat, replaced Mabel Alice, with Neil as its coxswain before he retired after 16 years in command.

Martin was just 10 when his father was lost at sea and although he wanted to join the crew, he decided against it, but has remained involved, giving talks as an education volunteer.

“(Solomon Browne’s crew) would all be very pleased with the fact that us as families have said we need something that involves all of the 16 people together,” Martin remarked when asked what his father would think of the memorial plans.

“To be fair, the crew of the lifeboat were just ordinary blokes doing an extraordinary job on the night because there was nothing special about them. “

“They liked to have a good time, liked to have fun and liked to have a few beers. I expect they will be more interested in the party after the dedication ceremony than the memorial itself.”

Union Star was launched in Denmark just days before the disaster and it stopped in Holland to pick up a cargo of fertiliser, en-route to Arklow, Ireland on her maiden voyage.

Under the command of captain Henry Morton, Union Star’s crew comprised of James Whittaker (mate), George Sedgwick (engineer) along with Anghostino Verressimo and Manuel Lopes.

Before stopping in Holland, Union Star picked up Morton’s wife Dawn and his two teenage stepdaughters Sharon and Deanne. In worsening sea conditions around eight miles east of Wolf Rock, Morton contacted Falmouth Coastguard and advised that Union Star’s engines had failed. The ship’s crew tried to restart the engines but at this stage did not make a mayday call.

Union Star was offered a tug, the Noord Holland, under Lloyd’s Open Forum Salvage contract but Morton initially refused the offer but did accept after consulting the ship’s owners.

By this point, winds were gusting close to 90 knots which equates to hurricane force on the Beaufort scale. The ship, still without power due to a sea water contamination in its fuel supply, was now drifting across Mount’s Bay towards rocks near Boscawen Cove.

With the situation deteriorating for Union Star, Falmouth Coastguard scrambled a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter from RNAS Culdrose, with Penlee coxswain Trevelyan Richards putting Solomon Browne, a 47ft Watson class lifeboat on stand-by in case the air rescue mission failed. When the helicopter reached the scene and couldn’t rescue any of Union Star’s crew or Morton’s family, the request was made to launch the Penlee Lifeboat.

Alongside Richards, the experienced coxswain picked Stephen Madron, Charlie Greenhaugh, Kevin Smith, Barrie Torrie, John Blewett and Gary Wallis. Given the dangerous seas the Penlee crew were set to face, Richards decided not to pick two members of the same family, with Nigel Brockman, and not his son Neil, going to sea despite the latter being at the station when the alarm was raised.

At 8.12pm, Solomon Browne launched, and Richards navigated the lifeboat through 15m seas to Union Star in around 30 minutes.

With the sea so rough, both the Royal Navy helicopter and the tug had to stand off the stricken coaster with Richards attempting to get alongside.

In arguably one of the greatest acts of seamanship, courage and bravery, Richards battled to save the Union Star’s crew and remarkably, four members had managed to jump onto the lifeboat. Solomon Browne then appeared to head out to sea according to the helicopter crew, but Richards went about one final rescue attempt.

The lifeboat told Falmouth Coastguard they had got four persons off before radio contact was lost. With lifeboats from Sennen Cove, The Lizard and St Mary’s launched to aid their fellow vessel, coastguard rescue crews arrived at the cliffs with no sign of the lifeboat.

The Union Star lay capsized, while only wreckage was ever found from Solomon Browne – with just eight bodies of the missing men, women and children were recovered. Posthumously, Richards was awarded the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s gold medal, while the remaining crew bronze medals and the Penlee station itself was handed a gold medal service plaque.

Despite the devastating effects of the tragedy on Mousehole and the surrounding local communities, a new crew was formed in the days after, with a new station opened at Newlyn in 1983.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the rules of Lloyds Open Forum were changed, meaning that the Coastguard can initiate a mayday on behalf of a ship’s master; they also have the power to require a ship’s master to take a tow, if that is deemed the appropriate course of action.

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