A History of Mumbles - Beach Safety and Victorian Bathing Tragedies by Wendy Cope (2023)

by Wendy Cope

Editor's Note:

Today, lifeguards patrol the spectacular beaches in the area, which have been drawing people from all over the country for many years. These reports from the nineteenth century illustrate the hidden dangers for swimmers in the currents, when there were no lifesaving measures in place.

Way back in 1865 the account in The Cambrian of a man’s drowning at Langland reported that, 'No assistance, could be rendered to the poor man, as there was no boat in the bay, and for any swimmer to attempt to rescue him in so heavy a sea would be certain destruction. A man was immediately despatched from Mr. Crawshay’s residence to the Mumbles on horseback, and as soon as possible a boat was put off to his assistance, it being hoped that he was keeping himself afloat till assistance came. Before the boat arrived, however, it was discovered by those on shore at the far end of the bay, by means of a powerful glass, that he was quite dead and floating on his side.

Osborne Cottage and Rotherslade Bay

Rotherslade Bay was the scene of a distressing accident in 1869. The Cambrian reported that ' It is our melancholy duty to record the untimely death of Miss Martha Slain Colston, third daughter of the Rev. J. R. D. Colston, Headmaster of Thistleboon House School, the Mumbles. This young lady went out with her sister and a friend to bathe in Langland Bay, on Tuesday, about noon. The day was not windy but the waves were rather rough, and a large roller, hissing up the sands, swept her and her elder sister, who were not then immersed above the waist, out of their depth, and compelled them to swim for dear life. The effort was too great for her, and she called to her sister (from whom she had been separated by the cruel wave) that she was drowning. Sisterly affection again and again united them, but the stronger felt her utter inability to give her effectual assistance, and was compelled to strike out for help to the shore. This she fortunately reached, and three gentlemen without delay swam to succour the unfortunate young lady, who had then sunk.

Tidings of the disaster soon spread, and produced among all who heard them one sad feeling of sorrow and consternation. Many hastened to the scene of the accident, and made every effort in their power to recover the dear girl who had been overpowered amid the breakers. As time progressed the concourse increased, until the bay and headlands were well covered by sympathising and anxious spectators, earnestly gazing upon the unconscious deep, which had cruelly claimed, for a time, one of the cherished treasures of a loving household. Backward the ebbing tide slowly went, and the anxiety of all present became intense, as darkness seemed to be closing over the landscape and shutting out all hope of recovering, for the night at least, the body of the deceased. With rare judgement and most praiseworthy perseverance, a number of gentlemen, by joining their hands, formed a cordon, and effectually swept that portion of the bay where Miss Colston had disappeared. Conspicuous among them was Mr. Clarke Richardson, who lived at Langland Bay, who to the unspeakable gratification of the whole neighbourhood, succeeded in the object of his search..The corpse was recovered by him, and it was soon afterwards removed to Thistleboon, a melancholy consolation to bereaved parents, for a loss that must have been felt to be almost irreparable.

At the inquest it was observed that 'Her skin was mottled on the forehead and about the upper part of the cheek by small abrasions, evidently the result of rolling on the pebbles on the spot where she sank. The other parts of the body did not suffer, having been shielded by the bathing dress'.

This tragedy led to a gentleman from Monmouth writing to The Cambrian newspaper concerning ladies' bathing dresses.

Bathing Dress from 1858

He definitely had a point to make.

The late lamentable accident at Langland Bay, Mumbles, has led my mind to the subject of ladies’ bathing dresses and I cannot help thinking that the dress of the form generally worn is bad and may under certain circumstances be extremely dangerous. I mean the long robe tied round the waist and hanging loosely down to the feet. I do not know whether Miss Colston wore a dress of this description on the occasion of the disaster, but if she did, it I am sure it must have added greatly to her difficulties, both in impeding her whilst swimming and when struggling to regain her footing. I do not for a moment wish to say that a perfect form of dress would render such accidents impossible, I only say that the dress generally worn greatly increases the danger of bathing.

In still water the long robe is not much in the way, so long as the ladies remain in shallow water, but should they by any chance get out of their depth and have to swim, then it becomes dangerous, in some measure from its weight, but principally by interfering with the free movement of the limbs. Indeed, with the long loose dress, swimming must be quite impossible; floating by paddling with the hands may be managed, but the stroke of the feet being so much hindered by the dress flapping about them, anything like progress through the water is quite out of question. In water in motion there are other dangers. When standing in a current, the passage of the water being very much prevented by the dress, the bather is in continual danger of losing her footing, and should she lose it, the dress is greatly in the way of her recovering it. On a beach there are a number of currents, of which the most dangerous to bathers is, perhaps, the back flow of the water after a wave has broken; against this, men divested of clothing have to stand firmly in order to keep their footing. What must it be then to a lady, weaker in body and encumbered in such a way? The chances are she is swept off her feet and carried out by the wave. And when out of her depth how helpless she must be, even if a good swimmer, with a dress heavy with water, hampering her and entangling her limbs in its fatal folds. Her strength and skill are of little use, she is washed hither and thither by the sea, and should no assistance be at hand must inevitably perish.

In the name of common sense let these dangerous dresses be discarded in favour of others allowing more play to the limbs. Those consisting of a trousers and jacket, worn by some ladies are, I think, very good. Whilst they allow free movement, they are fully becoming and fully satisfy all the demands of decency.

It seems likely that the use of the long dresses persisted for some time as the account of the inquest in 1874 on Mrs. Bevan of Osborne Cottage, who died at home, states that she was found by two young ladies who had called to hire ‘bathing gowns’.

In 1878, there followed another fatality, this time in Caswell Bay and this time, a young boy was the victim.

Caswell Bay 1880

On 30 August 1878, The Cambrian newspaper recorded that 'It is our melancholy duty to report a sad and fatal bathing casualty which occurred in Caswell Bay, resulting in the death of John Michael Dillwyn Llewelyn, the son and heir of the respected High Sheriff of the County, John Talbot Dillwyn Llewelyn, Esq., of Ynisygerwn, and great nephew of L. L. Dillwyn, Esq., M.P. for the borough. The facts of the case are of a peculiarly painful nature. Mr. and Mrs. Llewelyn and family have, it appears, been staying for some little time at their Marine Cottage, Caswell Bay, which as our Swansea readers know, is a picturesque spot some five or six miles from Swansea. The deceased was exceeding fond of the water, and having learned to swim well, often indulged in bathing, being, as his bereaved father expressed it at the inquest, “perfectly at home in the water.” About four o’clock on Tuesday afternoon the deceased and a party of friends were on the sands, and although the sea was then unusually rough, the deceased, having nothing to fear, undressed himself and dashed boldly into the sea. After enjoying himself for a few minutes he was seen by Mr. John Lewis (formerly draper of Castle Street), to be apparently in danger, battling with the surging waves and unable to reach the shore. Mr Lewis, who was also bathing with his two sons, instantly went to the assistance of young Llewelyn, and succeeded in getting hold of him; but unfortunately a cruel wave separated them, and Mr. Lewis was compelled, having regard for his own personal safety, to abandon his efforts. Mr Lewis shouted for assistance, and it was only with difficulty that he succeeded in successfully battling with the waves, which at one time were fast drifting him out to sea, and he reached the shore in an exhausted condition.

In the meantime the critical position of young Llewelyn was seen by several spectators on the shore, and it was evident to all that he was in imminent danger. Several able bodied men were on the sands, but it is said that not one of them made an effort to save the drowning lad, save and except a man who hastened with a rope. One brave-heated, heroic young lady, however, (Miss Maskelyne, cousin of young Llewelyn) regardless of personal danger, and being a splendid swimmer, nobly rushed to the aid of the now rapidly receding lad. She carried a rope, and for some time battled strongly and bravely with the huge billows, and the rapid undercurrent. Her efforts too, were destined to be cruelly disappointed. She was beaten back by the waves, and was at length thrown exhausted upon the beach and so overpowered that a gentleman was forced to go to her assistance. In the midst of these two noble efforts at rescue, the poor youth drifted further and further out to sea, still desperately battling with the waves, until at last he sunk in the presence of several personal friends and a number of helpless and panic stricken spectators. The body was recovered about midnight of the same day, having been cast upon the shore by the receding tide, and it was at once borne to the cottage of his bereaved parents, whose loss can be imagined, but whose poignant grief can only be fathomed by those who have been called upon to part with a dearly-loved son under similar or equally trying circumstances. The deceased was nearly 13 years of age, a lad of great promise and ability, of kind, generous, disposition, beloved by his schoolmates and companions and by all of his acquaintance.

Caswell Bay Hotel

The inquest the following day at the Caswell Bay Hotel made clear that the man who brought the rope was John Howell, who lived at the Llewelyn’s house, Caswell Cottage, and he had been alerted to the catastrophe by Gwendoline Llewelyn, the boy’s sister. Many years later it was Gwendoline who ran a home for children at Caswell Cottage.

The following week The Cambrian published letters, which threw further light on the struggle to save the life of young John Llewelyn and the lack of any safety measures to aid swimmers in difficulties.

The first letter is from John Lewis, who came nearest to making a rescue.

The report in The Cambrian of Friday last is not exactly correct. I was not bathing as stated, but had been dressing 10 minutes or more. I did not lose him to save myself, but when under water we got separated— how I don’t know. The wave not only knocked us down, but it lifted us up, taking us out to sea. For some time I was not able to hold my own still less to do anything for the little boy. Finding the current was too strong for me, I shouted to my brother that we could not get in, and that we were being carried out to sea. I then had another struggle, and by great effort managed to get out of danger. To again go back to the little boy (without assistance) would, I felt certain, be fatal to me and do him no good. I then called to those on shore to come to assist or bring a rope or do something. No one came for 10 or 15 minutes at least. Then a man brought a coil of rope, which to make bad worse, we had to undo in the water. I felt satisfied it was too late, for the youth appeared to be drowning when I first laid hold of him. Up to then, I knew nothing of who he was or his great ability as a swimmer. I knew he must be “somebody’s boy” and it was my duty to save him if I could. In the meantime my brother got to the boat, but the men who came near said it could not live in such a sea—so did nothing.

My main purpose in writing is to call attention to the need there is of providing some simple but efficient method of saving life in such places. What I felt the most want of at Caswell Bay was a rope to be had without delay, and should be glad if this unfortunate occurrence lead to one being kept there, and one or more in all our Bays—not in a coil, but on a reel fixed in a light frame or to a bathing machine, with the addition of a life buoy and belt.

Yours truly,

John Lewis.

Fairfield House, Swansea.

Another letter was from Thomas Cross who was on the beach at the time of the tragedy and who also criticised the report and the lack of any safety aids.

As one of the “able bodied men” who were on the sands when this terrible accident occurred to poor young Llewelyn, I feel I must offer a few remarks, as it does not redound much to the “able bodied men’s” credit, as published in all the papers, that they made no effort to rescue this poor boy. Now, I know everyman there would have run any reasonable risk to have saved this precious life, but to have gone out to this poor lad in such a sea, and not able to swim himself, would simply have been walking into one’s grave. Mr Lewis’s evidence at the inquest proves this. He, a full grown man, stripped, and in the water, was powerless, and we, who could not swim, and our clothes on, were doubly so. - - - - - I trust for the future lifebelts will be kept at hand ready for use, for if one had been visible on this occasion I should not have hesitated to have run in at once to the poor lad’s assistance.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,

Thomas Cross. Oystermouth Road.


There have been many long reports of the drowning of children of local families when sea bathing. These have merited long reports perhaps because the families were well known and of some social standing, but many more people were drowned in the local bays whose demise caused far less notice. There was no attempt to install any kind of safety measures until the 1880s. Nothing appeared to have been learned over the years. When one considers how long it would have taken to ride to Mumbles and row a boat back to Langland, the idea looks as hopeless as it turned out.

Luckily, not everyone who got into difficulties in the sea was drowned. Rescues were made by individuals and some of these were rewarded by the Royal Humane Society. In 1873, J. M. Tucker was awarded the society’s bronze medal for rescuing Lydia Hawkins at Langland and the following year Mr. Collins, a Swansea solicitor, was awarded a testimonial for rescuing Albert Oakshott.

Perhaps it was the drowning of John Dillwyn Llewelyn’s son or perhaps an awakening social conscience but the 1880s saw the beginnings of a will to improve safety on local beaches. In 1880 the Local Board of Oystermouth were offered a considerable amount of money toward a small lifeboat for Langland as the bay was far from any small craft, but the Board turned down the offer as they did not wish to spend money to pay for a man to attend it. One correspondent to The Cambrian suggested that a man was not necessary if the boat was housed in a small shed and the bathing woman was entrusted with the key. He also suggested that if a boat was not to be had perhaps the philanthropists would buy a few planks, to be cared for by the bathing woman, so that swimmers could provide themselves with one before venturing out of their depth. He then commented that these planks were found in nearly all continental bathing places resulting in fewer drownings. I don’t think the idea caught on here, the Victorians were not ready to surf! However, during the next few years the Board were finally persuaded to acquire a boat for Langland and Mr. Smith was employed at 10 shillings a week to look after it.

Henry Smith was successful in saving a number of people from drowning and the local Mumbles paper reported that he was called upon twice within a fortnight in August 1889. The first of these involved Mrs. Ben Evans who in company with Miss Collins was bathing in the little bay, got some 30 yards beyond her depth and was suddenly seized with cramp. Miss Collins was not far off and she also found that she could not return to the shore in consequence of the strong sea on at the time. Mrs Evans fortunately succeeded in attracting the attention of Mr. Smith who immediately swam out to her assistance and with great difficulty succeeded in saving her. He then rowed out to where Miss Collins was struggling and got her into the boat, where she lay quite exhausted. There was a very rough sea on at the time and Mr. Smith experienced much difficulty in affecting the rescues.

The second incident concerned the saving of Mr. Percy Jones who was bathing in Langland, ‘the gentlemen’s bay’ at low water. The newspaper then stresses,


In 1893 Henry Smith was awarded a medal by Answers magazine in appreciation of his heroism and the successes he had achieved in saving lives at Langland bay. The Cambrian newspaper reported that 'Smith - - has been instrumental in saving the lives of fourteen persons (chiefly visitors) from drowning during the past six years. We think Smith, who is a fine swimmer, deserves recognition at the hands of the Royal Humane Society, if only for the noble part he took in the attempt to rescue young Barton at the latter end of last summer. '

With the turn of the century a number of people had formed a bathing committee to improve the bathing regulations. The Oystermouth Urban District Council had declared that it had no authority to make bye-laws governing bathing and were not permitted to spend money on anything connected with it. They were only allowed to spend a limited sum on wages for a man employed as a boatman or general bathing official. However, the bathing committee drew up a list of resolutions to improve safety which they presented to the Council who then accepted them as a set of bathing bye-laws!

These were,

1. That mixed bathing be allowed. Previously men had bathed in Langland Bay and Ladies bathed at Rotherslade, often called Ladies Bay.

2. That bathers should use bathing machines and wear ‘University’ costume.

3. That the bathing official should have a cap and jersey bearing the words “Bathing Official”.

4. That he should have authority to forbid bathing altogether on any day when it would be positively dangerous through too heavy a sea or ground swell.

5. That cases with glass fronts containing lifebuoys, belts and lines should be placed in convenient situations in both bays.

The bathing committee collected a considerable sum of money which they used to buy a new boat as the old one had become unsafe and they erected cases containing lifebuoys and lines on the path to Rotherslade below the Osborne Hotel and also on the path in the middle of Langland bay. These were kept open so that anyone could get to the contents without delay. These measures together with the fact that the boatman was experienced and a strong swimmer, and the owners of the bathing machines and refreshment booths were on the beach and ready to help in an emergency, meant that swimming at Langland and Rotherslade bays became much safer than it had been a few decades earlier.

Bathing Machines at Bracelet Bay

However, after a man drowned at Bracelet bay in 1904, the coroner urged Oystermouth Council to provide a boat, a man and a lifebelt for that bay as well.

During the 1920s and 1930s bathing machines fell out of use but the beach at Langland was still overseen by Henry Smith’s successor, Barney.

The Langland Lifeguard Club was formed at the end of the thirties and opened its hut on the beach in 1939. After the war they helped to keep the beach safe. Then the council appointed lifeguards to patrol Langland and Caswell beaches for the summer months and now the lifeguards are appointed by the R.N.L.I.


The illustration of the Bathing Dress from 1858 has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighbouring rights.

All other photographs are the copyright of Oystermouth Historical Association

Previously published in Saint Peter's Church Parish Magazine.

Also see:

How Two Sea Tragedies Affected Me

Nurse Lloyd's Rescue from Drowning at Caswell

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