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Last Updated: Monday, 2 August, 2004, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
Lifeboat disaster photo found
Some of the widows and relatives of the crew of the lifeboat
The photo was taken in London a year after the disaster
A forgotten photograph of the widows of the eight-strong Mumbles lifeboat crew that lost their lives in 1947 has turned up in a shack in Alaska.

It is one of 37 images borrowed from the RNLI more than 50 years ago by American explorer Amos Burg but never returned.

Their discovery has inspired a new book on the formative years of the organisation and some of its rescues.

The crew of the Edward, Prince of Wales, perished as they went to assist the steamship Samtampa off Sker Point.

There never seems to be any question that they would launch the lifeboat despite the conditions being worse than anyone had seen for a number of years
Edward Wake-Walker

The book, Lost Photographs of the RNLI, has been written by Edward Wake-Walker, former head of public relations for the RNLI.

One day shortly before his retirement he was sitting in his office when a couple, who had travelled from America, asked to see him.

They had recently bought a shack in Juneau, Alaska, once owned by Mr Burg and had found the black and white images.

"They had come all the way from America with these 37 photographs of wrecks and rescues from the first half of the last century," explained Mr Wake-Walker.

He then set about trying to find out as much as possible about each image which led him to revisit the story of the doomed rescue of the Samtampa.

'Moving story'

On 23 April, 1947, the British steamship, ran into trouble at Sker Point, near Porthcawl.

Despite some of the worst conditions seen in the area for years the Edward, Prince of Wales, responded to the distress call.

"It's a very moving story," said Mr Wake-Walker.

"Whenever the lifeboat launched in those days it was taking a journey into the unknown, particularly on a night like that, because there was no radio.

Mumbles Lifeboat Station
The boat was launched from the lifeboat station at Mumbles pier

"There never seems to be any question that they would launch the lifeboat despite the conditions being worse than anyone had seen for a number of years.

"Nobody knows precisely what happened to the lifeboat.

"There was no sign that the engine had failed when they found the lifeboat. It is presumed she was just overwhelmed by the sea."

All eight bodies were recovered, most of them smothered in fuel oil and three had cuts to the head, probably caused by the rocks.

All 38 aboard the Samtampa also perished and because the rescue was unsuccessful the crew did not qualify for posthumous medals.

Certificate of honour

Their widows and close relatives were invited to the RNLI's annual meeting in London to receive a special certificate of honour, which is when the photograph was taken.

Mr Wake-Walker has since established that the woman pictured on the far left was Ella Gammon, wife of the coxswain William Gammon.

Also pictured are Elsie Noel, Irene Davies, Eileen Thomas and Mary Griffin who also lost their husbands and Dorothy Smith - sister of Richard Smith who was due to marry a few days after the tragedy.

The wife of William Thomas, Jenny, was too unwell to travel.

"It was quite a rare occurrence because they had lost their lives but did not receive posthumous medals," added Mr Wake-Walker.

"One of the things researching this book has brought home to me is how many ship wrecks there were in the first half of the last century and just how being at sea was a far more dangerous occupation than it is today."

Lost Photographs of the RNLI by Edward Wake-Walker is published by Sutton Publishing.

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