On this morning, 160 years ago, most of Western Britain woke up to destruction. The Great Storm, the worst in the 19th Century, had hit our shores and taken many poor souls with it; many of whom were out at sea in boats and ships when the hurricane-force winds took hold.
The Great Storm of 1859 is also referred to as The Royal Charter Gale, because of one particular ship The Royal Charter. Utilising both sail and steam, the Royal Charter was the fastest ship in the world, able to get passengers from Liverpool to Australia in under 60 days. It was built in Sandycroft on the River Dee, not far from where I live now.
This was the time of the Australian gold rush, and in October 1859 many families were heading back to England with their newly-made riches. Much of this was used as ballast to help the balance of the ship! Others had sewn the gold into their clothes for safe-keeping.
There had been reports of some strange meteorological events occurring leading up to the night, including sun flares and auroras (the northern lights) being seen across the world but at this time we didn’t have a weather-forecasting system. The Meteorological Office had been set up just 5 years previously but it was believed that the weather was truly unpredicatable. So, when the winds picked up, the ship sailed on. The Royal Charter passed Holyhead, the large port on Anglesey, and was on the home straight to Liverpool, just along the north Wales coast. At this time the Holyhead Breakwater, the longest breakwater in the UK at 1.7 miles long, was still under construction. The Royal Charter passed the SS Great Eastern – the largest ship the world had ever seen, designed by Brunel – which was docked at Holyhead.
However, the Royal Charter had a record to keep up – 60 days from Australia – so, despite the weather worsening, the Captain made the decision to continue eastwards towards Liverpool. Then, shortly after, tragedy struck.
The 100mph gusts changed direction and began to push them southwards towards the Anglesey coast, just three miles away. The command came to drop anchor in an attempt to stop them drifting towards the craggy coast. But this wasn’t enough. The winds, now Force 12, caused the anchor cables to snap. The masts were even cut down, the sails long taken down at this point, to try to stop any additional resistance to the wind, to give the steam power as much chance as possible. But to no avail. The ship was soon after grounded on a sand bank.
At this point, there was a glimmer of hope for the 400+ passengers and crew on board. Two locals were trying to secure the roof of their cottage at Moelfre, the shore now only 25 yards from where the Royal Charter had grounded. They raised the alarm and villagers rushed out to see if they could help in any way.
A Maltese Sailor Guzeppi Ruggier, known as Joe Rodgers, a strong swimmer who had sailed on the Royal Charter a number of times, took on the task to try to swim to shore with a rope in order to set up a ‘bosun’s chair’ – a clever swing on a pulley system in order to get the passengers from ship to dry land. Joe, who had tied the rope around his middle, eventually made it to shore and the locals of Moelfre set up a human chain to start rescuring the others.
But the tide was rising. Soon after the ship broke free of the sandbank and was thrown towards the rocks. It broke in two.
Women and children had been told to stay below board. Only 40 people – all men – survived that night. Many who attempted to swim, laden with their gold, drowned.
Over the coming weeks, many of the hundreds of bodies were found washed-up on shore and the local vicar took on the mammoth task of attempting to identify these poor people. Many of whom were buried at the church in Llanallgo at Moelfre and other churches nearby, and whose graves you can still visit today. He replied to over 1075 letters from loved ones asking for news. The accounts of his efforts, including harrowing stories of the sometimes unidentifiable bodies he had to deal with, were reported by Charles Dickens, who visited Moelfre following the storm when he was working as a reporter. You can read more in his book The Uncommercial Traveller.
The Royal Charter remains the highest death toll of any shipwreck on the Welsh coast. But this was not the only tragedy. The night of 25th October 1859 took twice as many lives at sea in the British Isles than the whole of the previous year. It is estimated that over 800 lives were lost that night. This was a time before the railways. Ships and boats were still used daily to transport goods and passengers. Many were out at sea, carrying on their usual business.
Robert Fitzroy, a Naval officer and scientist who had previously captained HMS Beagle, which famously sailed around the world with naturalist Chalrles Darwin, and founder of the newly formed Meteorological Society, looked closer at the reports of the storm that night. He was able to prove that the storm could have been tracked and a Storm Warning Service was established – the first weather-forecasting system and the service continues to this day.
You will probably know it as the BBC World Service’s Shipping Forecast.
I’m pleased to say that thanks to Fitzroy, the future of ships at sea following this fateful night was
Moderate or Good
As part of my ‘day job’ as Lifelong Learning Manager for Cadw a few years ago, I was very proud to lead an education project with local schools on Anglesey researching the Royal Charter, which was later recognised as a case study by the Welsh Government.
Following that, as Heritage Interpretation Manager for Cadw a couple of years ago, I helped develop a new Augmented Reality collection all about the Great Storm of 1859 and its impact on Wales’ coast and communities. You can hear more about that in a radio interviewwith me here, from 2 mins 22 sec:
But what happened to Moelfre? 100 years later, a similar fate struck its shores, but with much better outcome thanks to the bravery of the RNLI and Coxswain Dic Evans. The only injury was a broken ankle. You can read more about that story here: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2001/sep/26/guardianobituaries
Today you can visit the RNLI’s Seawatch Centre in Moelfre. You’ll see a statue dedicated to Dic Evans and one to the brave Maltese sailor Joe Rodgers. Inside, you can see some of the artefacts rescued from the Royal Charter shipwreck.
If you can’t wait to visit Anglesey, the People’s Collection Wales (Wales’ online museum) also has a number of artefacts on display, which you can see here: https://www.peoplescollection.wales/collections/377592
You can read another fascinating maritime story (I love boats!) on my blog here: http://idigarchaeology.co.uk/world-war-iis-best-kept-secret/
…and keep an eye out on tv next Spring, when I discover some more fascinating stories around the Welsh coast – I’ll keep you posted!