I launched The Lifeboat Station Project early in 2015, planning to photograph every RNLI station in the UK and Republic of Ireland using a Victorian photographic technique called wet plate collodion.
After its first few months, the Project started to build momentum. Lifeboat stations were getting in touch, asking when I’d be visiting them.
All lifeboat stations are special, but when a message arrived from Elaine Trethowan, volunteer Lifeboat Press Officer at the famous Penlee lifeboat station, I knew instantly this would be a really important visit. It would be an opportunity to introduce people to an extraordinary location along with the desperately sad events of 1981, highlighting what I believe it really means to volunteer as a lifeboat crew member.
And then Elaine suggested that I might like to spend time at the old boathouse.
This came as a surprise to me; I simply wasn’t aware that I might be able to spend a single moment in this special building. Unbelievably, I’d be welcome to spend the whole day there.
Another email from Elaine: “Would you like it if I can get some of the old crew down to the boathouse? I’m sure I can arrange for Raymond and Dudley to come down.”
I knew about these men. Dudley Penrose was the head launcher and Raymond Pomeroy was the winchman. Together they were the men who launched their crewmates on the Solomon Browne that fateful night.
PHOTOGRAPHS ON MY MIND
A strange thing happened pretty much straight away — three photographs appeared clearly in my mind.
Firstly, the view looking down the slipway; I felt I already knew how this would look.
Secondly, if Raymond and Dudley were coming along, I couldn’t help but imagine a portrait of them leaning against the boathouse doors, looking over my shoulder out to sea…but could they bear it?
Finally, it was clear the community of Mousehole and Penlee would still be shrouded in the disaster. So, I hoped it would be appropriate to make a photograph that was useful to those affected; acknowledging not only the tragic events of 34 years ago but also the debt of gratitude we owe to the lifeboat volunteers who still selflessly protect our waters despite the risks.
Again, this photograph was clear to me. I hoped to invite Patch Harvey, the current Coxswain, to stand in the open doorway of the old boathouse looking out to sea. I’d be inside with my camera, seeing him silhouetted in the doorway.
This glass plate would be my tribute to the disaster and to the heroism of continuity of service within the RNLI.
On 22nd September, I started work in Cornwall. I photographed the current station and crew based in Newlyn Harbour near Penzance. But the old boathouse was on my mind.
“Shall we go along there now?” Patch asked.
“Now? Right now?”
We jumped in his car and drove through the narrow streets that exit Newlyn on the way to Mousehole. And there it was: an old concrete building, the size of a small house, the iconic Penlee lifeboat station.
With the car parked in a lay-by, we walked the last few yards to the steps down to the boathouse. From what I’d been told, I knew that the first six crew members to make it over the steps once the maroons had fired would join the Coxswain and Mechanic on a shout.
We arrived at the old red door. Patch unlocked it. He turned the old rusty, encrusted iron handle, the same handle that had been grabbed and turned by countless crew, staff and family over the years.
I’ve seen many operational RNLI boathouses, and seeing one without a lifeboat – and knowing the reason why – is chilling.
I saw the winch anchored to the steeply inclined floor, the maroon launchers, a First Aid box, ropes, tools, a hammer, a ladder lying on its side — this was the ladder used by the crew to climb aboard the Solomon Browne, the very last item they would have touched on terra firma.
I asked Patch, “When you go to sea, are you prepared to risk your life to help whoever’s in trouble?”
I wondered if he thought about losing his life.
“No,” he said. He told me that crew members aren’t willing to risk their lives; they are simply willing to try to help save other people’s lives.
It reminded me of former Penlee Coxswain Neil Brockman’s words:
“When you live by the sea and with the sea, things happen and that’s why we need lifeboats.”
We locked the door behind us and headed back up the steps. Just a brief visit. We’d be back the next day.
A BIG DAY
Waking up on the Wednesday morning, of all the days I’d made photographs since I was a boy, this was perhaps the biggest.
Would the old photographic process work? Could I bring to the glass plates what I had visualised? Above all, would the photographs reflect the stamina, suffering and heroism of the local community?
I opened the curtains, the weather looked perfect for the process — a lovely bright, soft light.
I set off on the short distance from the village to the old boathouse. Patch had entrusted me with the key. I’d been warned that the old rusty handle could fall off in your hand, so I opened the door carefully and felt the air peacefully move around.
I made my way down the steep incline and opened the huge wooden slipway doors. The boathouse was now bathed in morning light as I watched the sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean.
I was joined by Roy Pascoe, an ex-crew member who, as he describes it, ‘keeps the old place tidy’. His kind, gentle manner helped me feel more comfortable, even a little less precious about it all.
The doors clanked. More footsteps and voices: Dudley and Raymond, the men who launched Solomon Browne, along with Nim and Nabo – two of the last surviving crew members to serve on the her.
Nim (Nimrod Bawden) had been crew at Penlee from 1960 to 1975, serving alongside many of those who were to be lost in the disaster. Leslie ‘Nabo’ Nicholls was on the crew at the time of the disaster but hadn’t gone on the shout on the night of 19th December.
OLD HABITS DIE HARD
Dudley shuffled through the boathouse with his hands in the pockets of his jeans. Something caught his eye in the far corner. His knockout hammer — it was on the ground.
He marched over to it, bent over and picked it up. “What’s that doing there?” he muttered.
Dudley firmly planted the hammer on the plinth at the bottom of the ladder to the mechanic’s office.
This was the hammer for knocking the pin out of the cable that would release the lifeboat down the slip. If the hammer wasn’t kept right there where he needed it, the launch of the lifeboat would be hindered, time would be wasted by such a simple error. Old habits die hard.
I’d expected it to be a sombre day, but there was laughter, joking and banter. Everyone seemed to enjoy their rare time together.
But we had to get on. Wet plate collodion isn’t swift, you see.
So, while they were all there, I marshalled them into position.
Nim, Dudley, Nabo and Raymond were standing together at the boathouse for the first time in many years.
This is the one and only plate of that scene:
Nim and Nabo headed home. Could I persuade Dudley and Raymond to hang on for one more photograph? The photograph I’d so clearly visualised.
They politely agreed. But I sensed that I’d only have one shot at it. It had to work. All of these people had made the effort, so it was my duty to get on with it.
I set the camera and briefed them about the process. They stood in position. A quick focus check. Load the plate onto the back of the camera. Draw breath for a second or two.
“Right. Are you ready?”
“Three. Two. One.”
I quickly developed and fixed the plate.
Just as well it turned out fine, Dudley had already gone! He’d been to the supermarket beforehand, so was worried that if he didn’t get his shopping home soon, his frozen chips would thaw out in the boot of his car.
Everyday life had intervened.
A TRIBUTE TO THE FUTURE
On cue, Patch turned up rustling in his all-weather gear. It was time to record his silhouette in the doorway.
On this coastal mission, I’ve learned that Coxswains follow instructions swiftly and efficiently. Patch’s photograph seemed to be made in no time — he was so calm and cooperative. I poured the fixer over the plate and the image magically appeared, exactly as I’d envisaged it.
Everyone had gone. We just had time to make one more photograph — the slipway.
I always love this point in the day, a tranquil time for reflecting, uninterrupted.
One creature did appear, though. A cormorant perched on the water’s edge. I kept moving as swiftly as I could without rushing, hoping the bird would hang around just long enough.
By the third attempt, it was still sitting on the decaying concrete structure.
Along with the cormorant, the old process recorded something else — an ethereal smokiness to the water.
In that moment, I knew my work at the old boathouse was done. As the plate sloshed in the wash tray at the top of the slip, I made good use of the rare phone signal by posting photographs online. We packed up and headed back to the village for a well-earned pint.
By the time I woke up in the morning, incredible things had happened: Over 11,500 people had viewed the slipway plate on Facebook alone. Furthermore, twenty or so people had already pre-ordered prints of the photographs.
I’d scheduled a day off for the Friday, fairly sure that I’d need it. In the event, it turned out to be packed full of conversations with locals; I couldn’t move through the village without being stopped for a pat on the back or a shake of the hand.
The community had clearly been moved and that, in turn, moved me beyond measure.
It was a truly personal life moment.
Before 19th December 1981, Penlee Lifeboat Station was just like any other part of the RNLI — normal folk embedded in their local community.
I’d heard how they’d been going ‘down the slip’ since they were youngsters to sweep the boathouse, make cups of tea and polish the lifeboat. You know, generally help out whilst joining in with the banter and bustle of station life.
When the maroons fired into the air signalling a shout, there’d be great excitement among the Mousehole kids. They’d rush along to the boathouse, seeing if they could beat the crew who’d then banish them to the other side of the wall, ordering them to stay put until the lifeboat had launched.
One day, if they were lucky, they might make it on to the crew and actually go to sea on a real life rescue; their ultimate reward for mucking in so reliably and diligently over the years.
They, too, would be able to don the famous RNLI yellows and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Coxswain, Trevelyan Richards, aboard the mighty Solomon Browne as she careered down the slipway into the unforgiving waters around Penlee Point.
However, 19th December 1981 changed everything.
Time and again, I’ve been told that there’s never been anything like the weather on that dark wintry night.
The wind was screaming along the coast through doors and windows, 60ft waves were crashing into the cliffs; the air thick with heaving clouds of salty spray.
Coxswain Trevelyan knew that a coaster — the Union Star — was having mechanical difficulties out at sea. He summoned his crew to the boathouse at Penlee Point. There he did something unusual – he hand-picked his seven crew.
There would be no two men from the same family. Everybody would be wearing their full personal protective equipment, no exceptions. All these were indicators of the gravity and the focus required to face the full force of what was to come.
The call from Falmouth Coastguard came. RNLB Solomon Browne launched. Those eight men never returned alive.
Every year, Mousehole’s Harbour lights are turned off for an hour from 8pm on 19th December in remembrance of all 16 souls lost that night:
The Penlee RNLI lifeboat crew:
Trevelyan Richards (Coxswain)
Stephen Madron (Mechanic)
The Union Star crew:
Henry Morton (Captain)
The Union Star captain’s family (also on board):
Sharon (teenage stepdaughter)
Deanne (teenage stepdaughter)
The only lights left on are a white cross and two illuminated wooden angels that stand on a hillside above the village looking out to sea.
After my time with you, people of Mousehole, your community in and around Penlee Point will forever hold a piece of me. When those lights are turned off tonight and you reflect upon those tragic events, I’ll be truly with you in thought and spirit.
BECOME A SUPPORTER
The Project is one of the largest photographic endeavours ever undertaken, but is mainly self-funded, so your support is absolutely vital.
Find out all the ways you can support the project here, including how to join The LSP Society:
50 LIMITED EDITION PRINTS
50 limited edition prints from each of the Penlee plates are available to buy on a dedicated page.
I’d like to thank the crew and staff at Penlee Lifeboat Station for hosting the Project with such generosity and warmth.
Special thanks to Elaine Trethowan, Patch and the veteran crew members for helping to make such wonderful photographs at both the old and current boathouses.
I’d also like to thank Beatrix Campbell, Jo Quinn and Elaine Trethowan for their hard work and diligence in helping me to write this post.
As ever, my gratitude also lies with my old pal, Hen, for volunteering his help so willingly and enthusiastically in and around Penlee. It means the world to me.