Remembering the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster

Forty years ago, on the evening of the 19th December 1981 sixteen people were lost in the Penlee Lifeboat disaster - including eight brave Cornish RNLI crewmen.

It was a dark, stormy Saturday night in Mousehole - a small fishing village at the far west of the county. Just a few days to Christmas, the harbour's Christmas lights were twinkling and friends were gathering in the local pub for a tradition known as Tom Bawcock’s Eve.

As the sound of laughter and chat filled the air indoors, outside the winds howled around as the weather worsened and the gales gathered strength.

Earlier that day, the 935 tonne; 70 metre "Union Star" had run into difficulties off the south coast of Cornwall. It was her maiden voyage from the Netherlands headed for Ireland and she had lost power in storm-force winds. The unrelenting ocean smashed into the hull of the ship as she lay helpless dragging her anchor and drifting towards the rugged razor sharp cliffs.

The Union Venus was the Union Star's sister ship, built to the same design in 1981. Credit: Patrick HillThe Union Venus was the Union Star's sister ship, built to the same design in 1981.
Credit: Patrick Hill


Eight souls were on board; Captain Henry Morton, his wife Dawn, his two teenage stepdaughters and a crew of four.

An earlier attempt to rescue Dawn and the two girls by a Royal Navy rescue helicopter were unsuccessful, with the crew unable to winch a man onto the undulating deck as the coaster rolled uncontrollably.

After a number of heroic attempts the helicopter crew realised they couldn't do any more, and were left with no option than to observe as the Union Star drifted perilously close to shore. The decision was made to launch the lifeboat.

The original Penlee Lifeboat Station, from which Solomon Browne was launchedThe original Penlee Lifeboat Station, from which Solomon Browne was launched


The closest station was at Penlee Point, just north of Mousehole. In the darkness the crew of local men rushed to prepare the Solomon Browne; Penlee Lifeboat Station's all weather Watson-class lifeboat.

The crew of the Solomon BrowneThe crew of the Solomon Browne


Skipper Trevelyan Richards, a highly-experienced and respected seaman knew how challenging the conditions were. 12 volunteers arrived at the station, but he chose his very best crew members to take to sea with him. They were:
  • 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 library photo of The Solomon Browne launching from the original Penlee Lifeboat StationA library photo of The Solomon Browne launching from the original Penlee Lifeboat Station

The plan was to attempt a rescue from the coaster, which was pitching and rolling heavily. In a feat of outstanding seamanship, Trevelyan managed to pull the Lifeboat to the side of the ship. The nearby Royal Navy Helicopter watched as the lifeboat was tossed around like a small toy - at one point, being lifted completely out of the water and landing on the deck of the stricken coaster.

Despite these exceptionally challenging conditions, the crew managed to transfer four people from the Union Star to the safety of the lifeboat before turning and appearing to move away. The helicopter crew assumed the lifeboat was heading ashore - so being low on fuel, decided to head back to base in Helston.

However, the pilots didn't realise the heroic intentions of the lifeboat crew - who decided to head back for one final attempt at rescuing the remaining four people.

They made one last radio transmission, stating their intentions before being cut short with a burst of static - followed by deafening silence, only interrupted by the worried calls of a lone Falmouth Coastguard operator. This was the last time anyone heard from the Solomon Browne.

What actually happened to the Solomon Browne at this point is unknown. The Royal Navy Helicopter refueled and relaunched, alongside lifeboats from Sennen Cove, The Lizard and St Mary's. However, their searches for the lifeboat were unsuccessful.
The wreck of the Union Star lays on the rocks the following dayThe wreck of the Union Star lays on the rocks the following day
As daylight broke, the sorry sight of the Union Star; capsized and resting on rocks was revealed.

Coastguard, emergency services and volunteers from the local community all set up parties to search for survivors - but as wreckage from the Solomon Browne started to wash ashore it was evident that she and her crew had all been taken by the sea - alongside all those aboard the Union Star.
The Solomon BrowneThe Solomon Browne
Each year on the 19th December, the Christmas lights at Mousehole are dimmed between 8 and 9pm in memory of the 16 people who lost their lives, leaving just the Cross and Angels shining down across the village and out to sea.

Lt Cmdr Russell Smith, the Navy Helicopter pilot who witnessed the rescue attempts later said it was "The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see. They were truly the bravest eight men I have ever seen."

The fishing communities here in Cornwall have a very deep association with the RNLI, with many members of the crews who supply our seafood also volunteering for the charity as well. They are on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and risk their lives to protect those at sea.

Today, we remember the brave crew of the Solomon Browne, and all those who were lost in one of the worst disasters in the history of the RNLI.
In memory of:
RNLI Coxswain William Richards
RNLI Second coxswain and mechanic James Madron
RNLI Assistant mechanic Nigel Brockman
RNLI Emergency mechanic John Blewett
RNLI Crewman Charles Greenhaugh
RNLI Crewman Kevin Smith
RNLI Crewman Barrie Torrie
RNLI Crewman Gary Wallis
Union Star Captain Henry Morton
Union Star mate James Whittaker
Union Star engineer George Sedgwick
Union Star crewman Anghostino Verressimo
Union Star crewman Manuel Lopes
Captain Morton's wife Dawn and two stepdaughters Sharon and Deanne
Personal memories from The Cornish Fishmonger, Rob Wing
During the winter of 1981 I was fishing aboard a small inshore trawler which worked out of the south Cornish village of St Mawes.

After an early start on the 19th of December we put to sea for a days’ fishing. The weather continued to deteriorate over the course of the morning and early afternoon.  The winds were already strong to gale force and set to increase in strength later in the day.  We headed for home and were very pleased to close the Lizard point by around 4pm, reaching the safety and quieter waters of Falmouth Bay. When we heard the Penlee Lifeboat had put to sea and were attempting to rescue the stricken crew of the Union Star, we couldn’t believe the risk the crew would be taking.

Many of the men who sailed as crew aboard the Solomon Brown that fateful night were fisherman from the ports of Mousehole and Newlyn. As chair of Newlyn Harbour Commission, I am proud to share with you that the son of one of the Solomon Brown’s crew has recently joined our board of commissioners. Neal lost his father that fateful night but still went on to serve for many years as Coxswain of the Penlee lifeboat which replaced the Solomon Brown, before training the current Coxswain ‘Patch’ and moving on to pastures new.
The sea has great power and should be treated with extreme respect. It is terribly sad to think of so many people from the small village of Mousehole who lost their families - husbands, brothers, cousins or just friends. Today we remember those souls who are still at sea and wish their families well.
It is now 40 years on, the Solomon Brown’s loss was a Cornish disaster which will always be remembered with great sadness and poignance each and every year.

Rob Wing - The Cornish Fishmonger
If you’d like to read more on the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster, please take a look at the following websites:
The 1981 Penlee Lifeboat Disaster - RNLI History

The Penlee Lifeboat Disaster - Submerged

They Made the Ultimate Sacrifice: The Penlee Lifeboat Disaster - RG Books

A BBC documentary about the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster