Family Memories of Porthgwarra by Christine Gendall

My father’s family fished out of Porthgwarra, near Land’s End, for at least three generations and they knew that area of cliffs, rocks, tides, and weather conditions intimately.

During the years various family members have been involved in tragedies and rescues from the sea, which dominated their lives.

My paternal grandfather, Jack Harvey, was always willing, along with others in the cove, to assist those in danger at sea. He was a member of the local coastguard Life Saving Apparatus Company (L.S.A.) and was often called out with that team. There were occasions however when he became involved in rescues without being “called out”. In this article I write of some events which have been related down through our family.

In the Penwith area, the wreck of the Khyber, on 15th March 1905, is well recorded. The sailing ship, with a crew of twenty-six men, had sailed from Australia in October 1904, with a cargo of grain. On 14th March 1905, the Khyber had been sighted passing the Wolf Rock lighthouse, heading across Mount’s Bay towards The Lizard, in heavy seas with a freshening gale.

Ann Jackson and her cousin Janie Williams from Roskestal Farm had been visiting in Porthgwarra, half a mile away. Ann was engaged to Jack Harvey and since the evening was extremely rough and wet, she persuaded Jack that since she had company, he need not walk them back to Roskestal. Jack was always to regret this decision. He later said that he might have seen the distress signals from the stricken vessel as she was pounded near the cliffs at Tol Pedn that night. In the event no one saw the Khyber until early next morning, when she was spotted, almost ashore, by a workman who arrived at the site, near Portloe Bay, where the coastguard houses were under construction. A workman ran to Porthgwarra to summon help from Jack and other neighbours.

By the time they arrived at the scene, the sailing-ship was on the rocks and within fifteen minutes had completely broken up. Only three members of the crew were saved, and it is recorded that workmen with ladders from the building site rescued them. No photographic evidence exists of the wreck of the Khyber, but I have seen post-cards showing an artist’s impression of the ship close to the cliffs.

We must remember that communications were very limited in 1905. A message had been sent to the Sennen lifeboat crew, but they were unable to launch because the sea had thrown boulders onto the slipway. The Penzance lifeboat Elizabeth & Blanche was also summoned, (that was a pulling and sailing vessel), and was towed to Tol Pedn by the steamer Lady of the Isles because the storm was too great for the crew to make headway by rowing. However, they arrived too late to be of assistance, after a very brave attempt.

Along with many locals, Jack Harvey searched for other survivors from the Khyber and picked up wreckage. After Jack and Ann married in 1906 two mementos which he had retrieved were kept in their home. One was a white china plate with the picture of a young lady on it and the other was the telescope. Some years later a lady visited their cottage at Porthgwarra and said that her husband-to-be was one of the victims of the Khyber disaster and the plate, with her photograph on it, was being brought back as a wedding present. Jack then gave the visitor the plate. The telescope is now in the possession of Jack and Ann’s grandson.

On the cliffs between Porthgwarra and Tol Pedn stand two markers, which warn shipping of the Runnelstone Rock about a mile out to sea. In 1923 a steamer, the City of Westminster, hit the Runnelstone Rock in fog and knocked off the top twenty feet, and then became lodged there. The L.S.A. company was called out, but the ship’s crew and passengers were rescued by the Sennen and Penlee lifeboats. Jack returned to his home at Rospletha Cliff, a mile away and later was in his garden with his son Raymond when they heard the continuous blasts of a ship’s siren. This was a recognised distress signal and they thought that another ship had got into difficulties in the vicinity and Jack expected to hear the rocket signal another call-out of the L.S.A. The fog then started to lift, and they could see the City of Westminster had broken in half as the tide had dropped back. The crew of the tug which had been standing by signalled to the coastguard, by lamp, that a piece of rigging of the stricken vessel had caught round the siren lanyard, causing the siren to sound. triggering a false alarm.

In 1925 the L.S.A. company was called out to an east coast trawler which had run aground one mile west of Tol Pedn coastguard station. Jack took his sixteen-year-old son Raymond with him to assist, although he was too young to be a member of the team. The ship-wrecked fishermen took to their dingy, which, in their haste, capsized and two men were drowned. The remaining men righted the dingy and hauled themselves ashore on the rocket line fired by the L.S.A. team and were helped to safety. With his knowledge of the rocks and tides, Jack Harvey thought that the vessel would probably be salvageable. He was discussing this with Raymond, who was keen to go aboard the trawler with him, via the dingy, to inspect the craft for damage. As they were deciding what they should do, the Penlee lifeboat appeared, put two men aboard the trawler, attached a line and pulled the vessel off the rocks – and so Jack’s hopes of salvage money disappeared back to Newlyn!

Following this incident Raymond was asked to join the L.S.A. group although he was two years under the required age of enrolment. He served for many years, becoming the teams “No. 1”, the person responsible for firing the rocket and line to stricken vessels.

On another occasion Raymond Harvey, in his late teens, got up one morning as dawn was breaking, to go to work. As was usual he opened the front door to look at the weather and sea conditions. (The family then lived in the centre of Porthgwarra.) About a quarter of a mile from the cove he saw a craft, the size of a fishing boat but since it was not the crabbing season, he doubted that it was a local boat. He looked through a telescope and thought there was something loaded up on the craft. He called his father, gave him his telescope and Jack declared that it was a boat full of men. They took a torch and flashed the light in the direction of the boat and a flashing light responded Jack and Raymond hurried to the slipway in the cove and launched their dingy and towed ashore the boat, which contained 16 Greeks of whom only one spoke broken English. These men were very cold and said that their ship had been in collision with another vessel near the Wolf Rock Lighthouse and had sunk. The families in the cove gave the men hot drinks and warmed them and provided them with warm clothing. The coastguards were contacted, and the men were later transferred to the Seaman’s Mission at Newlyn.

Another boat with 15 men from the same sinking later came ashore at Cape Cornwall. The Harvey family and their neighbours, none of whom were well off, heard nothing further from these rescued seamen, although at the time of the incident there had been a promise of compensation.

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