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December 19, 2009

Why They Dim the Lights in Mousehole
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 03:00 PM *

The Christmas Lights of Mousehole, Cornwall, are world-famous. Since 1963, beginning with a single strand of lanterns along the quay, they have become a phantamagorical display. The story goes that the lights are in honor of a fisherman, Tom Bawcock, who (with his cat Mowzer) went out in a storm when no one else could and saved the town from starvation with his catch.

At 8:00 pm on the 19th of December each year, the people of Mousehole turn off the lights (except only a cross and angels) and leave them off for an hour.

And at the parish church of Paul, about a mile up the road from Mousehole, there’s a granite stone topped by an old-fashioned lantern holding a crystal chalice.

Like today, 19 December 1981 was a Saturday. On 19 December 1981, the coastal freighter Union Star, Michael “Henry” Moreton commanding, was on her maiden voyage from the Netherlands to Ireland with a cargo of fertilizer. On board were the captain, his wife, her two daughters, and four sailors. Their proposed track would take them around Land’s End. The weather was poor and getting worse.

In fifty foot seas, backed by hurricane force onshore winds, off Wolf Rock, Union Star’s engines died.

A vessel adrift on a lee shore is in deep trouble.

The fuel supply on Union Star had apparently been fouled by seawater. Some say that the mountainous seas forced water past the breather vent into the fuel tanks. Some say that the main filler cap was missing, or incorrectly fitted. No one living knows. Be that as it may, attempts by the crew of Union Star to restart the engines were unsuccessful.

The open ocean tug Noord Holland was in the area, and offered salvage under the standard terms of a Lloyds Open Salvage contract. That is, the fee for the salvage would be later determined by an Admiralty arbitrator, based on the value of the ship and cargo and the difficulty of the salvage. Rather than give the owners an indeterminably large salvage bill, Captain Morton refused the tow. (Note: The law has since been changed. As a result of this incident, the local coast guard commander can now declare a mayday and authorize salvage if the vessel’s master does not.)

The winds picked up, sustained 80 knots out of the southeast with gusts to 95. The situation aboard Union Star deteriorated rapidly. A distress call to RNAS (Royal Naval Air Station) Culdrose brought out a helicopter, but the flight crew was unable to take anyone off Union Star due to high winds and heavy seas. At times the masts of the freighter were being lifted higher than the helicopter’s rotor blades by the swell. Noord Holland was unable to pass a line. At the same time, the lifeboat at Penlee Point launched. The crew was eight volunteers, experienced sailors from Mousehole.

The Penlee Point lifeboat was Solomon Browne, a 47-foot wooden construction diesel-powered Watson-class boat. Due to the hazardous conditions, Coxswain William Trevelyan Richards did not take more than one person from any one family. They launched in bitter cold at 8:12 p.m. local time, well past full dark at that latitude and time of year.

Solomon Browne did what no one else could do. She got alongside Union Star. By now Union Star was close in shore, amid sixty-foot breakers. Solomon Browne radioed that they had four people off. Then radio contact was broken, and observers on shore lost sight of Solomon Browne’s lights.

The next day, the BBC reported:

Local men and those from neighbouring stations have joined a major sea and air search alongside a naval helicopter, life boats and fishing vessels.

They have been searching since the early hours of this morning and pledged to continue indefinitely despite waning hopes the men will be found alive.

The community is described as being ‘numb with shock’ as the Penlee lifeboat has been on station for 21 years and the crew were all experienced.

But the conditions last night were so poor that in spite many attempts a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter was unable to lift off any of the coaster’s crew.

This morning the Union Star is upturned and washed ashore at the bottom of cliffs.

Of the sixteen dead, only eight bodies were ever found.

There are little memorials scattered about town (I recommend this site; please read the comment thread, including a note made just two weeks ago by the father of one of the lost lifeboat crew members; another is from the wife of one of the sailors on Union Star). For example, on the side of The Ship Inn:

Charles Greenhaugh
Landlord of this house
and crewman of the Solomon Browne
lost with all hands 19th December 1981
Remembered with great affection
by the tenants managers
employees and directors
of the St. Austell Brewery Co. LTD.

Greater Love Hath No Man

The Penlee Lifeboat Disaster was the last time, to date, that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution lost an entire crew.

And that is why they dim the lights in Mousehole.

Comments on Why They Dim the Lights in Mousehole:
#1 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 03:14 PM:

Thank you, Jim. Both those stories brought tears to my eyes.

Here's to all those who go out when nobody else can or will....EMTs, police, firefighters, farmers, ranchers, fishermen, the lot.

#2 ::: soru ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 04:01 PM:

First heard this song live, so for a while, I just assumed it was one of those trad ballads about something that happened in the 18C or so.

#3 ::: JDC ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 04:04 PM:

As a Midwesterner, Gitche Gumee or no, I was flummoxed by the prevalence of RNLI fund raising when I first moved here. Eventually I remembered it's an island.

#4 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 04:26 PM:

The UK had pretty unique weather in December 1981. I remember my school's being closed for a week due to snow, or possibly due to the failure of the oil-fired boiler that heated it (this tended to happen a lot in the 1980s, but usually in January rather than December). I remember staying at home and watching TV, which during the daytime meant watching the test card and Pages From Ceefax while Christmas carols played on the audio... I remember learning the full lyrics to White Christmas from this (with the rarely-performed intro: "There's never been such a day / In Beverly Hills, LA...")

Every schoolchild of my generation knew precisely one thing about Mousehole, namely that it's pronounced Mowzl: the long-running upmarket kids' TV show Blue Peter visited the village for some reason or another, and one of the Blue Peter annuals showed you how to make the local delicacy of Stargazy Pie.

Thanks for the post, which has uncovered quite a heap of memories of the time. The links are humbling and fascinating.

#5 ::: Charlie Allery ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 04:48 PM:

Thank you for this.

The RNLI is an *awesome* organisation. I've heard it said that the government should provide this service, but also that it being outside government control prevents it being vulnerable to budget cuts. And it's worth remembering that back then, most of the crews were volunteers and held down full-time jobs to pay the bills.

I *always* put something into any RNLI collection box that I pass. If you enjoy being in or on the water in the UK, it's almost an obligation. Because they will be there for you, whether you've contributed or not.

#6 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 05:30 PM:

The current Penlee Lifeboat's web page.

#7 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 06:36 PM:

As Charley @5 said, thank you for this. The RNLI have saved many lives over the years, sometimes at the cost of their own. Greater love hath no man, indeed.

#8 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 07:03 PM:

RNLI crews are still mostly volunteers. For many years, the Humber lifeboat (based at the isolated tip of Spurn Point) was the only paid crew in the country. There are now four lifeboats with full-time crews.

The RNLI is perhaps part of the Matter of Britain, along with King Arthur and the Supermarine Spitfire. And maybe a little bit more real than either. They hauled the Whitby lifeboat 6 miles overland, in a snowstorm, to launch from Robin Hood's Bay, and saved the crew of the Visitor.

#9 ::: marek ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 07:45 PM:

And there was the Lynton lifeboat which went to the rescue of the Louisa in 1899 - but the weather was so bad that the only way it could be launched was to drag it up a 1 in 4 hill and then along 15 miles of Exmoor lanes, demolishing walls and widening the road as necessary as they went. That took all night, before the boat could be launched and the crew rowed - yes, rowed - into the storm.

That story sticks firmly in my mind because 70 years later C. Walter Hodges wrote The Overland Launch, published in the glory years of Puffin Books. I haven't set eyes on it for over thirty years, but its power has never faded.

#10 ::: marek ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 07:48 PM:

Always good to check the details of books read decades ago before rather than after posting about them. According to Wikipedia, it was the lifeboat which was called Louisa; the ship in distress was the Forrest Hall.

#11 ::: Doug Faunt ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 08:12 PM:

The Lynmouth lifeboat story was also made into a BBC radio play called "A Hard Row To Porlock", which I've listened to several times.

As a sometimes seafarer, I always donate to the RNLI when I see a box, and I do that regularly.

#12 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 08:26 PM:

Lots of copies out there cheap, marek (as low as 1p on Amazon UK). C. Walter Hodges is the author.

#13 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 09:02 PM:

There's an animated movie (made by former colleagues of mine) called Mousehole Cat that tells the story of Mowzer and Tom Bawcock

#14 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 09:03 PM:

Thanks, Jim. I remember vaguely when this happened, and well the 10th anniversary. My dad is a retired firefighter, and I have always been astounded at the bravery of normal people who are willing to regularly risk their lives to save others.

#15 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 09:15 PM:

There is no limit to the honor and the glory that may be achieved, by those who care what must be done, and do not care about the cost.

#16 ::: Neil Gaiman ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 10:08 PM:

In case it's of use to anyone, the town is pronounced "Mowz'l". Not "mouse-hole".

#17 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 11:01 PM:

Kevin Marks #13:

To bring the haul    home to the harbour....

Did y'note that the story was told in four-stress Anglo-saxon alliterative verse?

Continuing on the pronunciation thread:

Coxswain is pronounced coxun, and boatswain is pronounced bosun, and tackle is pronounced taakle.

Half a pound of flour and lard
Makes a lovely slagger
Just enough for you and me
Go bugger Jagger.
O how happy us must be
When we comes to the West Country
Where the oggies grow on trees
Go bugger Jagger.

#18 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 11:03 PM:

Jim, I believe there's a typo in "cox'n."

#19 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 11:04 PM:

And you fixed it between pillar and post. I mean preview and post.

#20 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 11:07 PM:

TexAnne: Fix'd before I saw your comment.

#21 ::: Aquila ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2009, 11:22 PM:

The lifeboat tragedy story that I know is that of the Mary Stanford, Rye Harbour, 1928. When the whole crew was lost it meant most of the village's fishermen were gone. Reading "Due to the hazardous conditions, Coxswain William Trevelyan Richards did not take more than one person from any one family" above made me shiver.

I know the story from Monica Edwards fictionalisation of it, and other lifeboat callouts in her children's books set there. The books are top quality Ransomesque tales of a group of friend's adventures with boats and ponies, very grounded in the real world of the Romney Marsh fishing village Monica grew up in.

#22 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2009, 12:25 AM:

#16: Awwww!

It would be fun for the residents to be able to say that they lived in . . . well, you know.

#23 ::: Don Fitch ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2009, 02:22 AM:

Inspiring accounts of courage, yes ... but I noticed, among the more traditional lighted Christmas decorations, the depiction of a large cat, facing most of Mousehole.

#24 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2009, 05:44 AM:

Stefan Jones -- along the lines of The Four Yorkshiremen, right?

"Yer family lived in a hole in the wall? Ye had a whole hole fer yerselves? A palace, that was, in comparison! Our whole town was..."

#26 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2009, 04:52 PM:

#17: There's a bit of dialogue in HMS Pinafore that was actually cut from the original production because the singer didn't feel up to actually having lines. In it, Hebe is generally making herself obnoxious by correcting everything Sir Joseph says (as he doesn't really know anything about naval operations.) He finally gets rid of her by requesting she get a tour of the "forecastle." As she's hustled off, she shouts back, "Fo'c'sle!" (Fox'l)

We actually split the role into three parts, which worked really well.

#27 ::: JGS ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2009, 09:29 PM:

Jim @25

Speaking a naval architect, though not one primarily concerned with seakeeping, those waves seem awfully high relative to their length (1:20 or 1:30 is the normal standard for open ocean) and the larger ships were being deliberately driven at very poor headings in order to get them rolling. More like a dynamic stability experiment than a realistic characterization of seakeeping. It would be interesting to see what sort of the physics model the game is using.

On the subject of RNLI disasters and songs, William Pint & Felicia Dale out of Seattle have recorded a very poignant song about the Mary Sanford (called, appropriately enough "Mary Sanford of Rye") on their album Seven Seas. One of the few songs that's made me tear up hearing it live. That album seems to have disappeared from iTunes, but I heartily recommend any of their music that one can find.


#28 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2009, 10:17 PM:

#27 JGS

Yeah. I thought those waves were way too close together. And the vessels -- in seas like that I'd want to put her bow into the waves. But that's an interesting video, just for showing scale from trough to crest.

#29 ::: Zelda ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 03:31 AM:

There is at least one memorial plaque in Cornwall naming an ancestor of mine lost at sea-- several generations older, though, as my great-grandparents came to the US circa 1910. Their daughter, my great-aunt, did a lot of research and turned up histories of fishermen and shopkeepers from Penzance to Newlyn, Mousehole, and Land's End. (So I knew about the pronunciation.)

JGS @27: There's plenty of Pint & Dale on my shelf, but I think not that particular album. Will have to fix that.

#30 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 05:06 AM:

"Due to the hazardous conditions, Coxswain William Trevelyan Richards did not take more than one person from any one family"

There was, a couple of years, a rather hairy contact in Helmand in which a British rifle section commander achieved notoriety by ordering a counterattack with the words "Married men, fire support! Single men, follow me!"

#31 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 01:44 PM:

For those who want the real thing.

The Cape Horn Road by Alan Villiers.

#32 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 05:47 PM:

Sinking ships: A magician and a guitarist do well. The captain and crew, less well.

#33 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 07:03 PM:

Neil @16: When this post had zero comments in it, I considered posting the pronunciation or Mousehole, but I thought it was probably the wrong note for the first comment. And, later, I thought that if I did, I'd make it sound patronising. I'm glad someone did, though, it was beginning to itch.

#34 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 07:28 PM:

I considered putting the pronunciation in the main post, but decided not to because it was spoken in several of the videos I linked to.

#35 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2009, 08:58 AM:

#32 ::: James D. Macdonald:

That's an impressive story, but your summary made me think of the old story about the cruise line magician and the ship's parrot. You know that one?

#36 ::: Pendrift ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2009, 09:35 AM:

Steve with a book @4 was the first to mention the pronunciation, to give credit where credit's due.

Neil @16 reminded me of another item he posted about terrible Twitter travel tips telling tourists that the places were pronounced Lie-cess-ter and Worse-cess-ter with a shire at the end, like Hobbiton.

#37 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2009, 10:13 AM:


"Bxnl, V tvir hc. Jung qvq lbh qb jvgu gur fuvc?"

#38 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2009, 11:44 AM:

Pendrift @ 36

Not as bad as Looga-Bah-Rooga then?

("Loughborough" is more likely to be pronounced Luff-burra by this moose.)

#39 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2009, 12:28 PM:

Pendrift @ 36: So should "Hobbiton" be pronounced "Hotton"?

#40 ::: Pendrift ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2009, 12:39 PM:

@38: Groan. I now have "Looga-Bah-Rooga sits in the old gum tree, merry merry king of the bush is he" running through my head.

#41 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2009, 12:40 PM:

Jim @ #32: God damn. Let's hear it for stage presence. Would love to know what happened to the captain and crew.

#42 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2009, 01:17 PM:

Pendrift @ 40

Earworm triggering is just another service from the Moose Operating Division.

Kookaburra backwards sounds like "a rubber kook", which is vaguely obscene
(and to quote the late Dean Grennel "if there's one thing I can't stand, it's vagueness").

I think I'd better stop about now, and make some tea instead.

#43 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2009, 01:44 PM:

Cadbury Moose #42: Earworm triggering is just another service from the Moose Operating Division

I'm still stuck on "cheap and chippy chopper" from another ML thread; it started out in its longer, more complete form, but has since distilled into a shorter, sharper earworm.

#44 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2009, 06:21 PM:

Joel @39: Probably more like "Hobb'n".

#45 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2009, 12:25 AM:

#37 ::: James D. Macdonald:

Yes, that's the one.

#46 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2009, 12:28 AM:

#41 ::: Lila: Would love to know what happened to the captain and crew.

For what it's worth, Wikipedia says: "The year after the sinking, [Captain] Avranas and several members of his senior crew were found guilty of negligence by the Greek Maritime Board.[citation needed]"

#47 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2009, 02:35 PM:

There's a song James Keelaghan wrote about the wreck and loss with all hands of the freighter Captain Torres that always gives me chills. Lyrics here. Not shown in the lyrics is that he concludes the piece by reciting Cyrano's final letter to Roxanne, which takes about two minutes; the amount of time the crewmen were said to have been given for their phone calls. The first verse, chorus, and a bit of the second verse can be heard "previewed" on this page.

La mer ne pardonne pas, indeed.

#48 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2009, 05:32 PM:

Synchronicity strikes, and not in a good way ...

... There's just been a fatal coach crash in Cornwall; a WI-organized coach trip to see the lights in Mousehole hit black ice and rolled down an embankment: two passengers confirmed dead, several injured.

(The first police car to arrive at the scene also skidded off the road and down the embankment; reports suggest the coach driver managed to avoid a much worse accident by avoiding a stand of trees.)

#49 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: December 26, 2009, 12:32 PM:

jgs@27: I'm not a naval architect -- or a seaman -- but I was thinking their behavior was not a course an actual seaman who was on the ships would have chosen in those conditions. Thanks for confirming (also jim@28).

#50 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 26, 2009, 01:45 PM:

#49 David Dyer-Bennet

If you lose power you'll fall into the trough, which is dangerous. Absent engines you could put out a sea anchor to keep her headed into the wind, or you could drop anchor. This gets us to the point where you might drag anchor. Which isn't a great place to be.

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