Remembrance: The 1981 Penlee RNLI lifeboat disaster

In a perilous winter storm, a brave RNLI crew battled to rescue the stricken coaster Union Star. It was one of the greatest losses for the RNLI but remains a remarkable display of the courage and selflessness of the institution’s crew members…

For anyone who lives alongside or travels through the waters surrounding the UK, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) are a renowned source of reliability and bravery.

As with any emergency service, there's a deep-rooted hope that no such event will occur that witnesses the RNLI scramble in our name. However, every person in Great Britain remains profoundly grateful that they exist should the worst occur.

We rest assured that no living soul is destined to perish in the lonely submerged world of Britain's dangerous coastline. Bravery is required for any member of the emergency services, yet the RNLI literally push the boat out.

From humble fishing boats to massive cargo ships, to people walking by the coastline and even those onboard a cruise, all can find themselves in need of assistance while in or near UK waters. When that happens, the RNLI – a charity established almost two hundred years ago – step in to help when no-one else can, saving countless lives in doing so.

Dotted all around the mainland UK coastline, Ireland and the majority of the British Isles, exists the reassuring sight of modest, shed-like buildings known as lifeboat stations. For all of their humility, these stations and their slipways and their brave crews are a lifeline to those who find themselves in difficulty at or by the sea.

Staffed almost entirely by volunteers and funded by the public, the RNLI are a remarkable entity who remain steadfast and primed for action throughout evolving and challenging times.

Life on the coast - demonstrated by this 1930s picture of Mousehole in the winter - can be incredibly challenging, courtesy of the weather. Credit: Twitter/X.com/@MouseholeWalks

Coastal communities are particularly integrated with their nominated lifeboat station. It is not uncommon for many families within a coastal village to have a member of their family willing to go out on a rescue if the call comes. Elsewhere, others work hard to raise the funds that keep this diligent service going while also ensuring the RNLI remains a visible presence.

The vast majority of RNLI callouts are a success with thousands of lives saved from the water every year. It is a commendable effort that continues everyday as the institution prepares for its upcoming bicentenary in 2024.

However, back in 1981, a callout during a particularly strong storm did not see survivors brought back to shore nor the return of the RNLI lifeboat crew. It is occasions such as these which remind us of the notable risk that the RNLI takes and the sheer courage that is embodied by their crew.

The RNLI's Penlee Lifeboat Station now rests as a memorial to those lost during the disaster of 1981. Credit: Shutterstock

Mousehole and the RNLI Penlee lifeboat station

Upon the Cornish coast, the small village of Mousehole looks to be one of the last places that would be affected by a weather-torn disaster. With its winding narrow streets and timeworn but homely cottages, Mousehole is a charming location with a close-knit community at its heart.

Many of its residents earn their living from the sea, and village life is intertwined with the ebb and flow of the tide.

Nearby, stands what remains of the RNLI Penlee lifeboat station – a modest concrete building sitting atop rugged black boulders. Above the brightly-coloured red double doors, a single window looks out to sea.

The finished construction date bearing '1911' remains inscribed into the façade above. There is history in this building. You can feel the narrative ooze from each foundation cornerstone. There's a distinct aroma of travel from the oilskins.

Designed by innovative RNLI engineer and architect William Tregarthen Douglass, Penlee lifeboat station received an urgent callout from the Coastguard in December 1981 – 71 years after first opening – that would both devastate the village of Mousehole and alter the station’s fate.

The aftershock lingers on in the community – and, indeed, across the nation – to this day. They, and we, will never forget.

The RNLI vessel Solomon Brown launches into the sea from the Penlee Lifeboat Station. Credit: RNLI Archive/Andrew Besley

Callout to Penlee for the Union Star – a coaster in distress

On December 19, 1981, the locals in Mousehole had observed the weather steadily deteriorate as the day unfolded. The wind gathered strength, rapidly progressing from strong to gale force and continuing to build. A severe and haunting whistle echoed through the streets.

It was a particularly bad day to put to sea but, as is common with RNLI callouts – referred to as 'services' by their crews – this is usually exactly when a lifeboat needs to head out.

In the early evening, as the storm grew ever more ferocious, the Falmouth Coastguard received a distress call from a nearby coaster known as Union Star. The bulk carrier heralded from Denmark, having only recently set off on its maiden voyage a few days earlier.

Union Star had been sailing to Arklow in Ireland, but had run into trouble eight miles east of Wolf Rock on the Cornish coast. Sea water had gotten into the coaster’s engines and she now was at the mercy of the sea drifting rapidly towards the jagged shore.

An RNAS Sea King helicopter was dispatched from Culdrose but, because Union Star was pitching so violently, the air-sea rescue team could not get close enough due to the coaster’s flailing mast.

Soon, only two miles separated the distressed vessel from the coastline. This was when Penlee’s RNLI lifeboat – the Solomon Browne – was asked to assist.

Budding heroes: the RNLI’s Solomon Browne and her crew

In hurricane-force winds and against 18m waves, the wooden Solomon Browne sped down her steep, concrete roller slipway with the heroic mission of rescuing those trapped aboard the Union Star. Measuring in at 47ft and making up part of the Watson lifeboat class, Solomon Browne had been stationed at Penlee since 1960.

Conditions were so atrocious that Coxswain Trevelyan Richards had opted for his most able seamen and, more importantly, only one member from each family in case something went wrong.

In addition to the 56-year-old Coxswain, also aboard as part of the Solomon Browne's crew were mechanic Stephen Madron, 35; assistant mechanic Nigel Brockman, 43 and crewmen John Blewett, 43; Charlie Greenhaugh, 46; Barrie Torrie, 33; Kevin Smith, 23; and Gary Wallis, 22. All men were volunteers from Mousehole.

Solomon Browne battled her way towards the distressed Union Star while those left behind in the village nervously awaited news. The risks were unbelievably high. Local fishermen couldn’t believe the lifeboat could even go out.

The brave and determined crew of Penlee's RNLI Lifeboat - the Solomon Browne. Credit: Western Daily Press, as printed on December 21, 1981.

Disaster – the Union Star and an entire RNLI crew lost in action

At sea, above the stricken Union Star, the Sea King stood by as Penlee's Solomon Browne approached. The pilot's view was heavily impaired by the darkened seasonal environment, with weather conditions stripping the ability to lift persons from the Union Star.

Below, the lifeboat made numerous attempts to get alongside the large bulk carrier, yet efforts were consistently thwarted by the vicious conditions. It was an incredibly difficult task in such heavy seas, even for the most experienced crew.

The waves became so powerful that, after half an hour, the Solomon Browne was thrown up against the hull of the Union Star with an impact reserved for torpedo strikes. The collision would have instantly destroyed lesser craft, yet the lifeboat held her structure with aplomb.

Against all the odds, Penlee's RNLI crew remained out on deck, desperately clinging to the railings as they attempted to throw lines across.

The humble lifeboat was continuously thrown around with increasingly violent force, accepting the punishment as though some form of challenge. At one point, the Solomon Browne was slapped upwards by a crest of swell and landed on the deck of Union Star with a thunderous crash, before being immediately swept away again by the swirling waves.

Through impressive grit, determination and seamanship, the Solomon Browne was finally able to take on board four of the Union Star’s eight passengers. Hovering above, the Sea King was running low on fuel and, assuming that the lifeboat would now turn for shore, had to reluctantly return to base.

Meanwhile, the lifeboat crew radioed their intentions to the Coastguard, opting to remain. They weren't leaving until everyone had been retrieved from the Union Star. This was to be the last transmission from the Solomon Browne. In the middle of a communication relay, all radio contact was suddenly lost. The skipper didn't even have time to finish his sentence.

The coastguard repeatedly tried to reestablish contact with the lifeboat. Eerie and sickening silences existed between his attempts. There was no response. Even listening to this transmission now, you will find yourself willing the crew to reply, listening and hoping for something, anything, from them. There is nothing. Fate had cut the flickering conversation down.

Out at sea, as these anxious radio messages continued, the most awful lifeboat tragedy had just occurred. Sixteen lives had been lost, including all eight Union Star passengers and the full crew of the Solomon Browne.

The wreckage of the Union Star as it was discovered upon first light the following day. Credit: Facebook

Daybreak – no survivors

When communication was no longer received from the Solomon Browne lifeboat, a search for survivors commenced involving the Coastguard, the emergency services and local volunteers. The search would yield answers but not a good outcome.

As the sun rose, the large Union Star was found capsized down on the rocks by Tater Du Lighthouse, as well as wreck debris from the Solomon Browne. It was soon clear that neither vessel nor anyone aboard had survived.

The loss was tragic for the residents of Mousehole, for the incident had claimed a significant proportion of their men. Wives and children lost husbands, fathers and sons when only days before the village had been happily preparing for Christmas.

On the crew, the Sea King’s pilot - Lieutenant Commander Russell Smith - said it had been:

“The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see … was the penultimate courage and dedication shown by the Penlee [crew] … They were truly the bravest eight men I've ever seen, who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.”
The memorial wall in its' current form, as found by the old lifeboat station. Credit: Wikicommons

Aftermath: National mourning and posthumous awards for gallantry

Word of the disaster and messages of sympathy relayed around Britain swiftly. The remembrance service at Paul Church in Mousehole was not only attended by the local community, but also by the Duchess of Kent. In 1982, within Truro Cathedral, a national memorial service was attended by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Elsewhere, a disaster fund of £3 million was raised to support the crew’s bereaving families, while the crew themselves were granted rare posthumous awards for gallantry.

Coxswain Trevelyan Richards was posthumously awarded the RNLI Gold Medal for Gallantry, and each of his crew were awarded bronze medals.

The RNLI Arunspeed-class Lifeboat in action. Credit: Wikicommons

The Tyne and Arun lifeboat classes

Less than a year after the Penlee lifeboat disaster, in November 1982, the RNLI launched a new grade of lifeboat known as the Tyne class. These possessed a steel hull and the critical ability to self-right.

The new vessels had been in development when the Penlee incident occurred and were a welcome sight after the downfall of the Solomon Browne, which had been constructed from wood.

The successor to the heroic lifeboat lost in action at Penlee was named Mabel Alice, and she was of the Arun lifeboat class. She was unable to use the slipway at Penlee due to her size, so was instead stationed at nearby Newlyn while continuing to be known as the Penlee lifeboat.

The Coxswain was the son of one of those lost in 1981. He too received an RNLI Bronze Award for bravery before retirement in 2008.

The lifeboat Mabel Alice has been subsequently replaced by Ivan Ellen, while the Penlee lifeboat crew are partly manned by the same family.

Up the coast, as a continuing mark of respect, the original lifeboat station has been maintained by RNLI volunteers and serves as a memorial to its brave crew. Oilskins hang on the drying rack, the mechanic’s tools are neatly ordered and the service boards detail all the rescues that were initiated from the original station.

In 1985, the Town Council added a memorial garden to the north-west. The walls are set with several plaques that commemorate those who were lost.

The Penlee Lifeboat Station is now a fitting memorial to the brave souls who perished in the line of heroic duty. Credit: PenleeLifeboat/Twitter/X.com

Penlee lifeboat station – Grade II listed

In more recent years, the Penlee lifeboat station has been listed, on the advice of Historic England, as a Grade II structure by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Not only is the station one of the last works of WT Douglass, the slipway may also be one of the earliest examples in England of its type thanks to the reinforced concrete grids that make up its roller slipway.

The listing will help protect the station, enabling her to continue her role as a reminder of the disaster and the bravery of the RNLI as they battle to save lives at sea.

On the listing, Adrian Carey – RNLI South-West Head – said:

“Standing quietly inside the old Penlee lifeboat station, you can’t help but feel the incredible courage, determination, and selflessness of the crew of the Solomon Browne.

The listing will help ensure that the building, which stands in testament to the sacrifice the crew made that night, remains as a reminder and comfort to all those connected to Penlee RNLI and the wider RNLI community.”
A memorial to those lost in the 1981 disaster hangs on the gate by the old lifeboat station. Credit: Shutterstock

Ongoing recognition – in memoriam

Many generations within Mousehole continue to be affected by the Penlee lifeboat disaster. As such, in addition to maintenance of and access to the original lifeboat station being enabled, ongoing recognition of the lifeboat disaster takes place in many forms.

In 2021, some forty years after the incident, a flotilla of boats sailed the waters close to Mousehole and the Penlee station. The region’s present-day lifeboat and crew dropped a wreath in remembrance while local people were invited to visit the original station, view older lifeboats as well as step aboard the current RNLI vessel.

Elsewhere and also in 2021, an online remembrance book was published that included a foreword from the President of the RNLI, the Duke of Kent.

In Poole – where many new RNLI crew members receive their training – the names of the Solomon Browne’s crew are inscribed on the RNLI Memorial. Each new recruit is inspired to be as brave as those lost in December 1981.

In Mousehole, in memory of those they lost, the Christmas harbour lights are dimmed between 8 and 9pm while the lights from The Ship Inn, one of the village’s pubs of which crew member Charles Greehaugh was once landlord, can be seen from out at sea.

The RNLI and the Coastguard will never forget. And neither shall we. Credit: Shutterstock
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About Gillian Carmoodie

Gillian has been a part of the heritage world for longer than she would care to admit. From piloting pre-war racers across Montlhéry and traversing the Cumbrian mountains with an Edwardian automobile, to flying a WWI Tiger Moth and obsessing over all things shipping, Gillian lives for history.

Starting out on Classic Car titles for Bauer's extensive portfolio, Gillian has since moved onto a successful freelance career covering all manner of heritage aspects as both writer and photographer. She is currently involved with the RNLI's bicentenary and was a proud part of the new Land Rover Defender's launch campaign.

When not buried in a book or lost to the archives, you'll usually find her under the bonnet of her classic Rover or exploring the old shipyards of the North East. Gillian mostly runs on high-octane Earl Grey.