John Fish B.Sc. Publishers of Tenby in Wales (UK)


Tenby Lifeboat (Circa 1860) by Fanny Price Gwynne

[from "The Tenby Souvenir" published 1863 by R.Mason, High Street, Tenby]

Have any of my readers ever seen a Wreck Chart of the British Isles-the Chart for 1859, for instance, published for the National Life-boat Institution? A neat little map it looks: but what are all those odd little dots, crosses, half crescents, &c., so thickly strewn along the line of the coast? Alas! they are the mementos of death, the only record which will ever mark the spots where the unburied dead once lay. Of those dots each has its own sad tale of woe, differing only as to the amount of misery it represents. The black dot tells of a ship's total loss; and each ship had its sailor crew!

And look once again: how many such marks are there?-thick as falling hail they seem to cluster around some points of our coast. One would imagine there must be a dearth of ships, after all those disastrous wrecks; yet the oceans seem as studded as thickly as ever; the white sails are spread to the winds, and the ceaseless traffic on the mighty ocean goes on as before. In the words of the Psalmist: "They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters; these men see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep. For at His word the stormy wind ariseth, which lifteth up the waves thereof; they are carried up to heaven, and down again to the deep; their soul melteth away because of their trouble."

"It is not uncommon to see 500 ships at one time coming down the east coast." In one year (1859) there were 1,416 wrecks on our British shore alone; of their crews 1,645 poor souls perished.

The crescent-shaped mark occurs frequently on the chart: wherever it is seen, there a life-boat is stationed, and there you may be sure brave men are ready, and have risked their own lives in order to save shipwrecked crews. The National Life-Boat Institution was founded about thirty-seven years ago ; it has now more than a hundred life-boats under its care. The number of lives thus saved, from its commencement to 1859, amounted to eleven thousand four hundred and one.

The tenby life-boat recently stationed here is built on the self-righting plan, 28 feet long by 7 feet 6 inches wide, has already given assistance to eight wrecked vessels, and saved the crews of four-the Agenora, of Bideford; Alexandre, of Nantes; Nuevo Torcuvato, of Valencia; and Breeze, of Milford. Mr. Parrot, Coast-Guard Officer, who lives in the Watch House on the Castle Hill, receives donations for the society, and is always ready, with a crew of sturdy men, to put off in the wildest weather in the life-boat, and to assist equally with his crew on shore, when rockets are required to convey ropes from cliffs to the crews of vessels stranded among the rocks. By this means the crews are enabled to draw an apparatus across the rope from the cliff, in which, one by one, they are drawn safely from the mast to the land.

When the brig Policy, of Sunderland, was wrecked beneath the almost perpendicular cliff at Trevane, on the North Sands, the crew had despaired of ever having any aid. The life-boat had been out to their assistance, and could not get near the wreck; in fact, the sea broke the oars; and, finding it impossible to get in among the rocks, the willing but exhausted crew returned to the harbour-thence set off with rocket apparatus, and, through roads and fields, reached the edge of the cliff. To the delirious joy of the helpless crew, they saw lights and heard voices in that wild place. All night did Parrot and the men labour amid the storm, and before day broke the party returned to Tenby, giving loud cheers, as they brought the captain and crew in safety hither. The captain's arm was broken, as he had been washed off the wreck and again regained it, before their deliverers appeared. How he was drawn up the cliff in that disabled state is a thing to wonder at. Brave men were ever ready to assist the unfortunate, before lifeboats had been seen here. The Tenby sailors never saw a ship in distress without trying to reach it-always eager and ready to brave the storm.

I have heard it said that our harbour sailors impose on captains of strange vessels, and overcharge them for services of pilotage, &c. Such may be the case; every one has faults, and this may be one of their weak points of character: but as regards braving danger at a time of shipwreck-in this respect the Tenby men may well challenge comparison with any men in the world- cannot be surpassed by any. From childhood I have witnessed many dreadful tempests, and frequent wrecks. I never knew those men refuse to launch their frail "gigs," even when certain death seemed to threaten such attempts. If I were to relate some of the incidents I have myself seen, they would appear improbable to my readers. Many of the old crews are now no more; some few yet live. Among the daring ones was Benny Nash. This man had a resolute, bold, fierce cast of countenance (far removed from boastful braggadocio). A stout-built, powerful man was Nash; addicted, I am afraid, to using very strong and improperly expressive words when excited by passion; and I have seen him fight, in a way to rejoice the admirers of Tom Sayers ! But we do not expect to find angels rowing in harbour boats; and Nash never pretended to assume a saintly character-though, as an angel of life he has appeared to many a half-drowned seaman, snatched by his efforts from a terrible death.

On one terrific storm, when the sea was a wild seething mass of foaming breakers, and the surf flying over St. Catherine's, Giltar, and Caldy Points, attempts had been, made to put out to the assistance of two ships in distress -one gig was upset. The men returned thoroughly exhausted, beaten by waves and storm. The crew reluctantly sought the Castle Hill, to watch the event. One vessel was then on shore, her masts crowded by hopeless forms, shrieking for help amid the storm ! Nash turned doggedly round, and said (I fear with an emphatic word)- "I aint going to stay here and see them men drown." In a few minutes a crowd was once more on the pier head. Nash tied a neckerchief round his forehead, braced a tight band round his waist, and leaped into the long gig; a few words sufficed, only, "I'm going, who's coming along wi' me?" Every man was instantly in his place, though from the previous failure, death seemed but too probable; and wives, daughters and sisters, uttered shrieks as they saw the brave men set out. Two gigs (thus watched, breathlessly, from the hill) were seen at intervals, tossed up like toys on the breakers, and often lost to view between foaming hills of water: by the mercy of the Almighty they succeeded in saving all the crew. Such scenes were not uncommon; and of course, the boats were not so safe as modern invention has now made the life-boat.

Thomas Hall, George Watkins, William John, and John Ray, were of the number of those venturesome gig crews, I believe.

John Ray, a native of New Providence, Bahama Islands, was a clever diver and swimmer, who seemed almost as much at ease in the stormy water as if on shore: this man saved many lives. On one occasion the sloop William, of Fishguard, was driven on the cliffs near Waterwynch. The boats got as close to the wreck as safety would permit, and floated ropes to the vessel, signing to the crew to fasten them round their waists, then leaping clear of the wreck, to be quickly drawn to the boat, whose crew held the end of the ropes. Thus many lives had often been saved: but the men on board were stupefied by exposure and terror. An intelligent little boy on the wreck alone seemed to understand how to act; he tied a rope round his waist. At this time the apparatus of Captain Manby had succeeded in firing ropes from the cliff over the vessel, this being an easier way of escaping. The little boy first tied ropes round the two men; and after they had been each drawn ashore in safety, his own turn came. Forgetting first to undo the rope he had fastened round himself from the boat, the poor boy adjusted the other shore-line, leaped off-but, horrible to relate, the loose rope was twined by the breakers round the wreck, and thus pulled him down to the deck. Here every billow broke high over his head, again rushing back, leaving the struggling boy some minutes in sight, until the next roaring mass came rushing over him.

The persons on shore tried in vain to release him, by pulling at their line. The gig and crew still kept near; and John Ray at once saw what must be the cause. In an instant the brave man leaped into the breakers, and soon he stood on the wreck, in vain-Ray had not his knife. The rope was twined firmly around and among wreck and boy! The strong man cried and wrung his hands in agony; and thus they continued, vainly struggling to undo the knotted rope. Strength and life were fast ebbing, when the young hero said, " It's no use trying to save me; if you don't go away, you will be drowned too-never mind me, do save yourself:" but Ray would not give up his attempt, and never left him until the boy was a corpse in his arms-then, half dead himself, he reached his boat, whose excited crew had kept it afloat among breakers, and were in as much danger as Ray.

One fine day Benny Nash, his two sons, and Louis Bowen, who were good swimmers, and used to stormy seas, went in their boat to draw their lobster-pots, near Old Castle Head. Lobsters are generally caught thus :- A large cage made of willow wands, in the form of a rat-trap, having raw eligug flesh, or various other sorts of bait inside it, with stones to keep it firm at the bottom is lowered beneath the sea by a line, until it rests on the sand. A float is attached to the end of the line to mark the spot, and there the lobster-pots remain, until the boat again visits the traps. Lobsters force their way inwards to get at the bait, but cannot return; thus numbers are caught along our coast. It is supposed, when engaged in drawing up some heavily-laden pot, the four men must have gone on one side of the boat; and as sometimes, in very fine weather, there is a tremendous swell rolling in shore there, their boat must have capsized- when being heavily booted and clothed, thus encumbered all the crew were drowned.

The body of Nash was never found: of his sons, one was picked up, and brought home to be buried; the other was washed on shore at Ferryside, and rests there. Bowen was found among the caverns near Lydstep.

Tenby Observer: May 15th 2001 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of local artist and writer Fanny Price Gwynne. Born Fanny Price Gwyther in 1819 she was the daughter of a Tenby-born master in the Royal Navy and in 1845 she married John Gwynne, a local solicitor, town clerk and justices' clerk for Tenby.

Fanny Price Gwynne was no stereotypical Victorian lady of leisure. She donated her time to charity work and to the arts, proving herself to be an accomplished artist and writer. Interested in the history of Tenby and the surrounding area, she recorded many local churches, castles, landscapes and social events which took place in the town, and her pictures captured scenes with an accuracy not sacrificed to effect.

Some of her art works were published as etchings and sold in the town. Her writing of a number of guidebooks also helped to advertise Tenby as a fashionable seaside resort and she contributed to the social life of the town through active involvement in a number of charitable causes, namely the Shipwrecked Mariners Society and the Tenby Branch of the Lifeboat Institution.

Sadly, her later years were marred by ill-treatment and neglect at the hands of her maid, resulting in an official report which illustrated her state of destitution.

The life of Fanny Price Gwynne is further explored in Tenby Lifeboat in Victorian Times by Avis Nixon. An author and amateur artist, Avis' previous publication A Tenby Lifeboat Family, was a personalised memoir of the Tenby of yesteryear which, in part, chronicled the history of the Tenby Lifeboat - including her father's career as the Mechanic of the Tenby Lifeboat.

On her latest venture, Avis, who feels a close affinity with her subject, stated: "I aim to portray Fanny Price Gwynne as a person and to try and show her heartfelt love of the town and its people and to show the full purpose of her work. As a fellow devotee of Tenby, and with our shared associations with the arts and the Lifeboat cause, I cannot help but feel that, in some way, fate has brought us together."

Tenby Museum holds in its collection many pictures and guidebooks by Fanny Price Gwynne and research may be undertaken at the museum by appointment.


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