My history hero: William Trevelyan Richards

Chosen by Simon Mayo, broadcaster

Broadcaster Simon Mayo

This article was first published in the January 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine

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William Trevelyan Richards was the coxswain of the Solomon Browne, the Penlee lifeboat based in the Cornwall village of Mousehole. On 19 December 1981, Richards and his crew of volunteer lifeboat men set out in a vicious storm to rescue eight passengers aboard the Union Star, a cargo ship being driven towards rocks off the south Cornish coast. Despite heroic attempts by the crew of the Solomon Browne in the face of 50-foot waves, both vessels never returned to port. Sixteen lives were lost. For his unstinting bravery, Trevelyan Richards was posthumously awarded the RNLI Gold Medal.

When did you first hear about Trevelyan Richards?

I remember sitting in a pub in Worthing, which is where I was working at the time, and hearing about the tragedy. A couple of nights later, there was a collection to raise money for the families and everyone coughed up loads. It was Christmas and everyone felt moved by the plight of a village that had lost so many people. I would have read about Trevelyan Richards then, but it wasn’t until the folk singer Seth Lakeman was on my FiveLive show a couple of years ago and played his song, Solomon Browne, that I started reading around the story.

Then the historian Neil Oliver explained how these fantastically heroic tales should be part of the historical canon for kids. And I thought, “You know what? You’re right”. You can praise Neil Armstrong and Nelson Mandela and all those extraordinary people – indeed, there’s a whole industry remembering them. But let’s not forget there are ‘ordinary people’ who do things that are just as extraordinary.

What kind of person was he?

I know very little about him, apart from that he lived with his mum. That’s it, really. But I don’t think I need to go down to Mousehole and talk to his descendents to find out more. I know all I need to about Trevelyan Richards – and that’s that he was prepared to risk his life for the Union Star‘s passengers in this astonishing act.

If you stopped people in the street tomorrow, they probably wouldn’t know who he was. He wasn’t a military man, he wasn’t a politician, he didn’t change the law. He just went about living his life but when the moment came, he gave everything to try to rescue those people.

What made him a hero?

His remarkable bravery. There was no drama, no panic. Richards said to the captain of the Union Star: “We’re going to make an attempt to come alongside”. It was like he was on some kind of pleasure boat pulling into the harbour! The captain of the Sea-King helicopter that got to the Union Star first wrote a letter to the inquest in which he talked about watching how the lifeboat never appeared to hesitate. It just kept coming and coming – and kept getting blown away. He wrote that “their spirits and dedication were amazing” and that “they were truly the greatest eight men I have ever seen”.

All the people on the Solomon Browne were ordinary people. This wasn’t something they did 24 hours a day. They had jobs and they were volunteers. It was just that, in the heat of the moment, they did extraordinary things. When Trevelyan Richards went down to the pub and asked for volunteers, he could have filled the boat and then some. No-one queried for a second that they should go.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

None whatsoever! From my youngest days, I can remember always visiting lifeboat stations on holiday but I never thought “One day, I’d like to do that”. But you do read this story and think “Would I have done that? Would I have jumped in there?” The involvement of these men was unquestioning, but it still makes you wonder if, when the moment came, you’d have reacted in the same way.

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Simon Mayo was speaking to Nige Tassell. Simon Mayo has been a presenter on BBC national radio for over 20 years, most notably on Radio 1 and FiveLive. He holds a degree in history and politics from the University of Warwick. In January, he takes over Radio 2’s prestigious weekday Drivetime show. To find out more about the Royal National Lifeboat Institution visit www.rnli.org.uk