Sinking of the Royal Charter

The coast of Anglesey is often ravaged by storms off the Irish Sea. The windswept trees and shrubs along the west coast reflect this. However, on the night of 25-26 October 1859 an exceptional storm, considered the worst in the 19th century, hit Anglesey and the rest of Britain, with tragic consequences.

That day the steam clipper Royal Charter was making its way across the Irish Sea towards Liverpool, after a brief stop in Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland. It was returning from Melbourne, Australia, with around 375 passengers and 112 crew. One of the fastest ships at the time, it had left Australia on 25 August, 59 days previously.

Among the passengers were many miners returning from the Australian gold fields. In the hold were boxes full of gold, each labelled with the owner's name and brought to the ship in Melbourne with a police escort. The contents of the boxes were worth £322,440, which in today's money would be many tens of millions of pounds. Much more gold was being carried by the passengers themselves, in their luggage or sewn into their clothes. It was a ship of fabulous wealth.

The Captain, Thomas Taylor, mindful of the reputation of his ship as being the fastest around, aimed to get from Queenstown to Liverpool within 24 hours. They set sail up St. George's Channel, but the wind soon picked up and turned against them. Being a hybrid steam/sail ship, they lowered the sails and continued on powered by the engine.

The storm approaches

They came within sight of Holyhead by early afternoon, at which time the sky had taken on a hazy and unusual look. As this was before the days of satellites, radios and broadcast weather reports, they had no idea of the hurricane bearing down on them. They pressed on towards Liverpool, despite the increasing wind.

They rounded the corner of Anglesey and headed east along the coast towards Liverpool, fighting against the easterly winds. Soon the 100mph gusts turned to come from the north. As the coast of Anglesey lay just three miles to the south this was an unfortunate turn of events. The winds strengthened even further and all attempts to steer the ship with the rudder failed. She was drifting like a log, heading for the coast.

At around 11pm Captain Taylor gave the order to drop the anchors to halt their drift towards land. They weren't going to make the crossing to Liverpool in 24 hours now. As the winds increased further to full hurricane, Force 12, rockets and other distress signals were set off. But no other ship could make it to their rescue.

After struggling against the fierce winds for two hours, one of the two anchor cables snapped. An hour later the second cable also failed. The winds were now driving the ship towards the rocky coast at speed. In desperation the captain ordered that all the masts and rigging be cut down and dumped overboard, to reduce the area exposed to the winds. This would give the steam engine a better chance of fighting against the gales. However, before this could be done the ship shuddered as she was driven onto a sand bank.

All is lost

The ship was now resting at an angle in Porth Helaeth, next to the little village of Moelfre. The hull was sound and undamaged, but the winds were still blowing strong. As the sky began to lighten they could see that they were just 25 yards from the rocky shore.

At the same time, just beyond the cliff top, Thomas Hughes and Mesach Williams were working at securing the roof of the latter's cottage, which was threatened by the winds. The dawning light revealed to them the drama developing off the coast. Hughes ran to the village to raise the alarm while Williams watched helplessly from the cliff top. On board the ship, plans were made to try to rescue the passengers and crews. It was decided to try to get a rope ashore from the ship, which could then be used, along with a bosun's chair, to bring people to safety. A Maltese seaman, Guże Ruggier (also known as Joe Rodgers), volunteered to take on the dangerous task.

A strong swimmer, Rodgers declined the offer of a lifebelt, tied the rope around his waist, crawled out on the boom at the bow and dove clear of the ship into the water. Struggling against the waves, he eventually made it ashore, where a crowd of villagers had gathered. The line was secured and the task of bringing people ashore began, assisted by 28 brave Moelfre residents who formed a human chain on the landward end.

However, at this time the tide was rising and was lifting the ship off the sandbank. Soon the waves threw it clear of the sandbank and onto the adjacent rocks. The ship broke in two and the fate of most of the passengers was sealed. Those who did not drown when thrown into the heavy sea were battered to death on the rocks. Few made it to shore.

Only around 40 of the roughly 490 passengers and crew survived. All the women and children aboard perished. While the line was being prepared in the rescue attempt a number of women and children waiting to be taken off were swept overboard by a huge wave, so the rest were told to remain below deck until the bosun's chair was fully operational. The ship broke up before they had their chance of rescue.

Aftermath

News spread around Anglesey quickly and many people descended on the site, hearing rumours of treasure. Also on the scene was Mr. W. H. Smith, Customs House agent for Beaumaris. He was to act as Receiver of Wreck, to ensure that all property thrown up by the wreck was treated according to law. Any gold that was found on shore was to be brought to him, and the finder was given a receipt for it. However, he was only one man to keep watch over the activities, and many gold ingots disappeared into pockets. Later salvage operations brought up most of the gold from the seabed, but some continued to be washed up around the coast for many years, and today scuba divers still find some.

Also given up by the sea over the next few weeks were the bodies of the perished. Many were soon recovered near the wreck and taken to the local church of Llanallgo. The rector, Rev. Stephen Roose Hughes, took charge of the dead, 140 of whom now lie in that churchyard. He also wrote hundreds of letters to relatives of the dead and comforted the bereaved. It took a terrible toll on the gentle man and he died within three years, aged 47. He too lies in the churchyard.

Many bodies were carried along the coast and washed up in other parishes along the coast. The neighbouring parish of Penrhos Lligwy was served by Rev. Hugh Hughes, brother of Rev. Stephen Roose Hughes. Forty five victims lie there. On the other side of Moelfre 65 bodies washed ashore in a sheltered cove in Llaneugrad parish. Some were carried as far as Red Wharf Bay and are buried in Pentraeth and Llanddona.

The News

Such a dramatic event, the sinking of a ship full of gold with huge loss of life, was bound to attract attention around the world. Reporters rapidly made their way to Anglesey. The more sensationalist part of the press ran stories of local villagers plundering the bodies of the dead. The Daily Telegraph called for the death penalty for the "greedy Cambro-British thieves". The people of Moelfre were outraged at these accusations. The 28 men who had struggled to save those on the ship banded together to write a letter in response, saying that, if it were not for them, there would have been even fewer survivors.

Two months later one of the most famous writers and journalists, Charles Dickens, arrived on Anglesey to investigate the aftermath. He spent much time with Rev. Hughes and writes movingly of the efforts he made in identifying the dead and ministering to those affected by the tragedy. He also included extracts of some of the letters received by the vicar, from people expressing their gratitude for the work he had done. This piece was originally published in issue 11 of Dickens' journal All the Year Round, and later included in his book The Uncommercial Traveller. It can be read here.

Other Shipwrecks

The Royal Charter was not the only ship to come to tragedy that night. The hurricane blasted its way north from the English Channel, across southwest England and on through Wales and up to Scotland. Over 133 ships were completely lost and another 90 severely damaged. The total loss of life was over 800 souls. The scale of the tragedy prompted efforts into improving weather forecasting and storm warnings.

The Meteorological Office had been founded just five years previously. It was under the charge of Robert FitzRoy, who previously had been the captain of HMS Beagle, on which Charles Darwin took his famous journey that lead to the development of the theory of natural selection. He developed methods of compiling charts to forecast the weather (a phrase he coined), set up a system of observation stations linked by telegraph, and introduced gale warnings and newspaper weather reports.

However, no matter how good the forecasting, storms still come and ships still occasionally get caught up in them. In a remarkable coincidence, in 1959, just a day after the centenary memorial for the Royal Charter had been held at Llanallgo Church, another ship, the Hindlea, was wrecked just a short distance from the site of the Royal Charter.

Another fierce storm had blown up and, despite having a much stronger engine than the Royal Charter, the Hindlea could not make headway against the wind and decided to anchor in the bay near Moelfre. As with the previous wreck, the winds changed to northerly. The anchor chain held, but the winds were so strong that the anchor began to drag across the bottom as the ship was blown towards the rocks.

Unlike 100 years ago, modern ships have radios to send out distress signals, and the lifeboats are much more powerful and manoeuvrable than those in the Royal Charter days. The Moelfre Lifeboat was launched under the command of the legendary coxswain Dic Evans and was soon close to the Hindlea. However, the storm was so powerful it took the brave crew several attempts to get alongside the ship. Each time one of the Hindlea crew members was able to jump into the lifeboat before it was swept back, until all eight crew were rescued. The now abandoned ship wrecked on the headlands 45 minutes later.

For this remarkable rescue Dic Evans was given the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's Gold Medal for Gallantry, the first of two of these rarely given awards that he was to win, alongside many other honours. Four other members of the crew were also given silver or bronze medals.

Further reading

Books

The Golden Wreck: The Tragedy of the 'Royal Charter' - Alexander McKee, 2000
An account of the tragic wreck on the coast of Anglesey, in 1859, of the ship Royal Charter, which was returning from the Australian goldfields laden with treasure.

Shipwreck!: Charles Dickens and the 'Royal Charter' - Philip Steele & Robert Williams, 2009.
The story of the wreck of the Royal Charter with a reproduction of Charles Dickens' report of the disaster and other contemporary reports.

Life and Death on the "Royal Charter" - Chris and Lesley Holden, 2009.
The true story of a treasure ship wrecked on Anglesey. Written from the view of a local diver who first visited the wreck in 1982.

A Golden Mist - John Wheatley, 2010
An account of the sinking of the Royal Charter off the coast of Moelfre in 1859. It includes fictional accounts from the viewpoints of a passenger and a Moelfre resident, plus the modern story of a South African woman with Moelfre ancestors who returns there and discovers the history of the wreck.

Websites

Photos of artefacts from the wreck - http://www.peoplescollectionwales.co.uk/Collection/1515-the-great-storm-of-1859

Map & descriptions of other ships lost during the Great Storm - http://www.peoplescollectionwales.co.uk/Item/59543

Descriptions of the Royal Charter graves at the various parish churches - http://john-wheatley.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/royal-charter-graves.html

Transcriptions of contemporary news items about the Royal Charter -http://www.old-merseytimes.co.uk/ROYALCHARTER.html

Description of the wreck on the Llanallgo Church website - http://www.royalcharterchurch.org.uk/wreck.html

Merseyside Maritime Museum collection of artefacts - http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/visit/floor-plan/emigration/royalcharter/

Website from an S4C TV documentary about the Royal Charter - http://www.s4c.co.uk/royalcharter/e_story1-2.shtml

BBC report with underwater footage of the wreck - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-north-west-wales-14866235

 

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Last modified 2 January, 2017