There has been a lot of interest recently in the tragic story of the Phillips sisters who drowned whilst collecting mussels. The piece was published in Welsh Country Magazine in January 2018 but has not appeared anywhere else. In order to allow more people to read it I have placed it below – The Bleeding Stone of Adulam
Adulam Baptist Chapel on Cefn Road is an uncompromising block of rendered grime, stranded on the east side of Swansea. It may squat on a bleak hillside forever blasted by cruel winds, but it does enjoy fine views down to Jersey Marine. Adulam is less important than it once was and the graves which remain belong to people who have long ago departed. But their stories still have the power to touch us, once we know them. And none can ever reach us in the terrible way that the Phillips grave does. Look at the gravestone and you can see that it bleeds.
No one can be indifferent in the face of what it represents. It tells a story from almost 150 years ago but even the inevitable passage of time cannot diminish that family tragedy. The gravestone was placed there by John and Eliza Phillips who lived at Halfway in Llansamlet, between Neath and Swansea in 1870. The gravestone, inscribed in Welsh, remembers their three daughters,Phoebe fourteen, Emma twelve and Amelia seven, who drowned together in what was described at the time as a ‘melancholy accident,’ ‘a heart-rending scene,’ one of the most distressing accidents we have had to record.’ But then, how else could you describe it?
15 August 1870 seems to have been a pleasant day, and offered the chance of some summer freedom for the girls, an adventure certainly, but with a purpose that would make Mam pleased – to collect some mussels for tea. They called to invite their cousin next door to come with them but their aunt, Tamar Davies, refused to let her accompany them.
Harvesting mussels wasn’t really something they did. Phoebe had been twice before but it was the first time for Emma and Amelia. They ran excitedly down to the shore between Port Tennant and Crymlin Burrows in the early evening and Phoebe took them out to an extensive sandbank called the Dulridge Bank, about half a mile off shore, which at low tide sat about 6 feet above the level of the beach. The locals knew that this substantial feature channelled the water as the tide came in and very quickly created a turbulent, racing current of terrible violence and power. But these were children and no one had told them.
There were other people down there too that evening. A French seaman, Joseph Corin, had gone for a walk along the shore from his mooring in Swansea and in the peace of that late summer’s afternoon had laid down in the grass on the dunes and fallen asleep.
He was awoken by screams, for whilst the girls collected the mussels and laughed and giggled, the water around them rose. And then, when they looked up, they saw they were trappedon the wrong side of churning and dangerous currents. They ran up and down the rapidly diminishing sandbank, waving their cockle baskets and screaming as the water rose quickly around them.
Soon there were over one hundred people there watching this terrible thing unfold, unable to do anything. They watched Corin throw off his clothes and dive into the cold water. They watched him swim through the current but saw that he couldn’t climb up on to the sandbank. They heard Constable Flynn who, attracted by the noise, immediately called for a boat. They saw men running everywhere trying, and failing, to find one.They heard thatWilliam Thomas, landlord of The Vale of Neath public house in Port Tennant, had borrowed a horse from Mr Gould, the local farmer. They saw that it refused to enter the sea and that a second horse was brought, which was persuaded to ride off into the tide.
Of course all this took a long time.
The horse was joined by a group of men from the Port Tennant Copper Works who rushed into the water too. One of them, a moulder called Enright, grabbed hold of Phoebe and swim back with her, with every intention of going back for the others, but the current was too strong and the girl sank. When she surfaced she was caught by William Thomas who turned the horse to the shore. The poor animal however was exhausted and reared up in the water before it fell backwards on its two riders, and was dragged away by the tide.
This left William Thomas in a terrible situation, struggling for his own life in the water whilst trying to save Phoebe. The description of what happened in the newspapers is heart- breaking. The child, naturally terrified, clung so tightly round his neck as to nearly choke him. He with difficulty unfastened her grasp, and held her at arm’s length, himself growing rapidly exhausted.
Phoebe, crying out for her sisters left behind, soon became convinced that that he was deliberately abandoning her.
She cried piteously not to leave her, and made frantic clutches at him. After repeated struggles she again got hold of him round the neck, and again nearly choked him with the deadly tenacity of her hold. Again he thrust her from him, himself half drowned and almost powerless, and again she closed upon him in an embrace of death.
But what was he to do? The sense of self-preservation is paramount within us all. Readers might have speculated upon their own bravery in such circumstances but deep within themselves they might have understood how they would have reacted in such a situation.
With a last effort he tore her arms away from his neck, and pushed her off, swimming away from her for his life, feeling, as he left her, the clutch of her fingers at the sleeves of his shirt. On glancing back he saw her arms and hands just above the water, waving wildly about, and the tide carried her away, never to be seen any more alive.
Such powerful writing. It might be fanciful in places but you can see how readers would have been so moved by both the description and the dilemma. William Thomas was picked up, nearly insensible and quite exhausted, by James Brown, who had come out on a horse borrowed from Mr. Roberts, formerly of The Cuba Hotel and was with difficulty brought ashore, hanging on to the animal’s tail, both horse and men having to do battle for their lives with the surging current.
And all the time Emma and Amelia were still running up and down what was left of the sandbank in frantic terror, screaming for their sister and watching her disappear forever beneath the grey water. Men tried desperately to reach them but to no avail and the spectators could only watch in horror as the inexorable tide submerged the sandbank. Swimmer after swimmer was hurled back by the force of the waves. Eventually Joseph Corin reached the bank, but too late to save the children, who had stood their ground bravely against the rising tide, till the water had reached their armpits, crying all the while piteously for help as they saw the unavailing efforts that were being made to bring them succour.
They were washed away.
When Corin returned to shore he was in an exhausted condition, barely conscious. And he was alone.
The last that was seen of them was their little hands and arms waving wildly about, above the surface of the water, as they floated away in the distance, and were ultimately submerged and drowned.
On Tuesday morning the bodies were recovered. Phoebe and Emma had been deposited on the shore near Port Tennant by the receding tide. Amelia was found at Mumbles, on the opposite side of the bay. The inquest was held at the Vale of Neath where the bodies were brought. The parents were not at the inquest to listen to the details of their daughters deaths . The bodies were identified by their aunt, Tamar Davies, who had not allowed her own daughter to go with them collecting mussels.
The coroner Mr Strick was full of praise for the efforts made to rescue them by ordinary men putting themselves into life-threatening circumstances whilst the police bemoaned the absence of a boat. Their efforts were described as being above all praise.
He reflected on the amount of time that had been lost. The girls had been fatally trapped very quickly indeed but at least an hour had elapsed between the time the children were first seen and the moment when they were eventually submerged and swept away. If a boat had been available they would probably have been saved. Indeed if the rescue had started sooner before the water became too deep they might have survived.
He agreed that everyone did their best but he did regret the loss of the horse, offered up so nobly. And they were expensive things, horses. This one was worth about £16. Mr Strick felt there should be a collection to reimburse Mr Gould for his loss and he was happy to offer the first contribution. Very soon a sum the £16 had been raised.