Weymouth-Dorset.co.uk Local History

Shipwrecks and

Those in Peril on the Sea

The sometimes gentle seas can give way to such horrendous storms that over the years have taken countless lives. The winter gales, the treacherous currents, the undertow and Chesil Beach have so often combined to make for such disasters as shipwrecks. Shipwrecks abound in the Weymouth area of Dorset, though have most notably occurred around Portland or Chesil Beach in the area known as Lyme Bay.

So beautiful a natural wonder, yet so dangerous too, Chesil Beach is the only one of its kind in the world and now has World Heritage status. It is a most curious thing of nature. An eighteen mile bank of shingle stretching from Portland to West Bay at Bridport in Dorset, the pebbles are graded by the sea. At the Portland end they are large and gradually decrease in size until the bank tails off when it reaches West Bay. It only takes a walk along Chesil Beach, even 10 miles from Portland, to appreciate how the pebbles shift so easily and so quickly.

It is not only the bank itself, but far more dangerous is the suction of the undertow. As the waves recede, the sucking down motion of the undertow can be heard and woe betide anyone caught in it. It sucks down the pebbles from the beach too and they move so quickly that it can be difficult to remain upright once the water laps the feet. Just the combination of this can prove fatal. As John Meade Faulkner wrote in his classic tale "Moonfleet" in 1898, "And once on the beach, the sea has little mercy, for the water is deep right in, and the waves curl over full on the pebbles with a weight no timbers can withstand. Then if the poor fellows try to save themselves, there is a deadly undertow or rush-back of the water, which sucks them off their legs, and carries them again under the thundering waves. It is that back-suck of the pebbles that you may hear for miles inland, even at Dorchester, on still nights long after the winds that caused it have sunk, and which makes people turn in their beds, and thank God they are not fighting with the sea on Moonfleet Beach"

Chesil Beach and Portland Harbour from Portland

This picture taken from Portland shows Chesil Beach on the left (Lyme Bay), Portland Harbour on the right. The Fleet Lagoon lies just behind Chesil Beach in the middle of the picture, separated from Portland Harbour by the road across from Wyke Regis and Weymouth. Weymouth Bay is to the right of Portland Harbour, though not shown in this picture.

By far the most dangerous parts of the sea are those at the Portland end of Chesil Beach, in an area known as the ships graveyard, called Deadman's Bay, but the danger for ships doesn't end there. Portland with its rocky coastline on its western side culminating at Portland Bill meeting the several currents in the notorious Portland Race, make for some of the most dangerous conditions of the coastline of England. Further round the Bill lies the unsuspected Shambles, a sand and shingle bank just ten feet below the surface of the water at low tide.

Yet Portland also provides a safer haven. Its eastern side, the Portland Roads, is a natural shelter of the Channel from the South Westerly winds that are so frequent here. It offers a protective arm of safety around the ships that seek shelter from the rough and stormy seas in Lyme Bay.

With these kinds of permanent natural conditions it is easy to see why so many ships have foundered along these shores in times of severe weather. The sea has claimed so many lives over the centuries and the local churchyards, particularly Wyke Regis, Portland and Radipole, have many communal graves or memorials for the victims. Often the poor souls were buried on the beach where the tide had thrown them up. As the local coroner once said, "the sea always gives up its dead".

Such is human nature, that few ships, if any, when wrecked upon the shores have survived the plundering. Once the life-saving duties had been accomplished, though some showed no such mercy, the plundering began. Many of the ships that have been wrecked have carried some kind of precious cargo. The locals gleefully plundered the bounty of such a ship once they heard that there had been a shipwreck.

There is estimated to have been 1000 or more shipwrecks along the Dorset coast over the centuries. Those given below are the major ones around Weymouth Bay, Portland and Chesil Beach from Wyke Regis to Abbotsbury.

 

SHIPWRECKED

 

Aeolus, Golden Grove, Piedmont, Catherine, Venus and Thomas 1795

The year 1795 saw several ships wrecked in one day. The ships were all of the same fleet, that of Admiral Christian, which was on its way to the West Indies because the French were threatening the British supremacy there. Some 200 ships made up the fleet and as they sailed close to Portland and Chesil Beach, several of them were wrecked. Severe gales had blown up in the channel and it was too late for some to reach safety before disaster struck.

As dawn broke on the 18th November, the Aeolus and the Golden Grove, both merchant ships, were wrecked near the Passage House at Wyke Regis on the bank leading to Portland. Four more ships, the Piedmont, the Catherine, the Venus, all transport ships, and the Thomas, another merchant, were wrecked together a few miles from Fleet on Chesil Beach.

Between Weymouth and Abbotsbury, 7 miles to the west, the beach was strewn with bodies. As rapidly as they could be buried yet more were thrown up by the tide, along with bits of the wrecked vessels. Some three hundred or so lost their lives that day. The women and officers of rank if it could be established, were buried in Wyke Regis churchyard and there is there a memorial tablet. Those that survived, despite their evident suffering, received little in the way of assistance from those locals too busy with plundering the wrecks. Once they reached dry land however, they were more humanely treated.

On board the Catherine, where only two out of the forty on board survived, was an American, Cornet William Stukely Burns with his wife and young son. Cornet Burns had alienated his family in America by his allegiance to the British. Mrs Burns and her son were the only two who survived that wreck and such was their destitution that Charlotte Smith, a literary figure of the time, wrote a 'Narrative' of the terrible tragedy. Mrs Burns account of her terrible experience was used in it. It was sold in order to raise funds for the benefit of Mrs Burns and her infant son and they remained in Weymouth thereafter.

For more information on these ships, please see Rootsweb's: NARRATIVE OF THE LOSS OF THE CATHARINE, VENUS, AND PIEDMONT TRANSPORTS AND THE THOMAS, GOLDEN GROVE, AND AEOLUS MERCHANT SHIPS, NEAR WEYMOUTH

 

Earl of Abergavenny 1805

A 1200 ton ship of the East India Company, wrecked in Weymouth Bay on 5th February 1805 is one of the best known shipwrecks around Weymouth. The East India Company, whose main docks were in London, due to their trade, built lavish ships for their merchants. These ships traded with the Far East in India and China and on their return home they brought with them luxurious goods such as silk, porcelain, Oriental ornamental pieces and tea.

The East India Company held its ship, the Earl of Abergavenny in high regard, so the loss of her was devastating. Captain John Wordsworth was in command of the ship on her journey from London to Bengal when a storm blew up in the English Channel and the ship took refuge in Portland Roads. Once there, Captain Wordsworth awaited a pilot to guide them safely through the hazardous shipping area. Not long after his arrival, the ship struck the Shambles sandbank off Portland and was grounded for several hours. By evening she was floating freely and it was realised that she had damage of large holes. Captain Wordsworth made a desperate attempt to reach Weymouth beach but by now his ship was severely waterlogged and was drifting. Local vessels tried in vain to reach the stricken ship, but none could get close enough to rescue those on board. At 11pm, the Earl of Abergavenny gave a sudden lurch and was no more. She sank in the shallow waters of Weymouth Bay, one and half miles from the beach the Captain had so bravely tried to reach.

One hundred and forty-one of those on board were rescued after clinging to the masts and shrouds, which were the only parts of the ship to remain above water, which they did for many months afterwards. The temperature of the water was near freezing and the sea claimed the lives of 261 crew and passengers. Captain Wordsworth went down with his ship, much to the sorrow of his brother, the famous Poet Laureate, William Wordsworth.

Captain John Wordsworth lies buried on the south side of the church at Wyke Regis, though there is no gravestone, there is a memorial to him in Grasmere, the home of the family. Eighty more of the ships passengers are buried elsewhere in the churchyard. More were interred in the graveyard of St. Ann's church, Radipole.

 

Alexander 1815

Another of the East India Company's fleet of ships, but this time on a return journey to London. The Alexander had left Bombay in October 1814 and was almost home when she was hurled onto the beach at Wyke Regis during severe gales. It was 2am on the morning of Easter Monday, 27th March 1815. Nobody would have heard the cries for help at such a time and in such an area as the ship was found. The wreckage and bodies of most of her crew and passengers of 150 lay scattered along Chesil Beach from Wyke Regis to Abbotsbury. Just five of the crew survived, but even so, things were made difficult as none of them could speak English. The circumstances of the event that night were never told.

There is a mass grave of 140 of the poor souls whose lives were claimed by the sea that night, in Wyke Regis and a memorial tablet in the wall of the church.

 

Carvalho, Colville and Leonora 1824

The severe gales of the night of 23 November 1824, which destroyed the Esplanade at Weymouth and almost washed away the village of Fleet, caused even more shipwrecks and lost lives. The then rector of Wyke Regis, George Chamberlaine, recorded the event in the parish registers, describing it as a "dreadful hurricane". Fifteen vessels were shipwrecked along the Dorset coast that night.

The West Indiaman, Carvalho was wrecked on Chesil Beach at Fleet with all hands lost.

The Colville, another West Indiaman was also wrecked on Chesil Beach with all hands lost. A Henry Gosling on board, realising what his fate would be tore off a piece of his shirt, wrote his name on it and tied it round his neck. Seventeen of those on board the Colville were buried on Portland.

A week after the storms, the Leonora was driven ashore between Wyke Regis and Portland with all hands lost.

 

Columbine, Arethusa, Mary Ann 1838

Severe gales once again hit the Dorset coast on 28 November 1838 and again more than a dozen vessels were wrecked with loss of life.

The Columbine, a schooner, was wrecked on Chesil Beach between Wyke and Portland. There had been 16 or 17 on board. They all drowned.

The Arethusa, bound for Antigua was lost with all hands just west of Fleet.

A Plymouth schooner, the Mary Ann was wrecked at Abbotsbury. Four men and a boy were drowned, one man, John Randall, was saved.

 

Royal Adelaide 1872

On 25th November 1872 a storm blew up in the channel and before long it was to claim seven lives on the Chesil bank between Wyke Regis and Portland. The Mayor of Weymouth at the time, James Robertson, was at the Royal Hotel when he had word that a large ship had been wrecked on Chesil Beach. The ship was the Royal Adelaide, an iron-built vessel of 1385 tons bound for Sydney, Australia carrying emigrants. The Mayor, leaving his guests behind at the banquet he had been holding, began organising help for the shipwreck victims and sixty lives were saved. Seven were not so lucky as a line put out to rescue them parted, the ship broke apart and they drowned. The captain of the Royal Adelaide was said to have made an error of judgement in attempting to round Portland Bill and get to the relative safety of Portland Roads. The ship had struck the Chesil bank broadside on. Almost three thousand tons of the ship's cargo was saved, though doubtless more was actually 'saved' unofficially. The cargo included spirits, and four local men finding such and making merry with it died the following day.

The Royal Adelaide was not the only ship to fall victim to that November's gales. Two days previously, the Jane Catherine, a seventy-ton Welsh schooner en route to Port Madoc, was smashed on Chesil Beach between Wyke Regis and Fleet. The crew of four had no chance of survival and all drowned.

  

 Avalanche and the Forest 1877

The iron built, 1210 ton, Avalanche, left London bound for Wellinigton, New Zealand carrying 63 emigrants with a crew of 43 under the command of Captain Ephraim Williams. As she neared Portland Bill, a force eight gale was blowing along with driving rain. The seas were high and sailing was very rough. Sailing nearby was a wooden built ship, the Forest, bound for New York, carrying a crew of 21 men under the command of Captain Lockhart. The two ships were approximately 12 miles off Portland Bill on the stormy night of 11th September 1877. The ships had seen each other but too late to avoid a collision in the bad weather. The Forest struck the middle of the Avalanche, rebounded and struck again almost cutting her in two. The Avalanche sank straight away with the loss of 103 lives, only 3 were saved as they had scrambled onto the Forest. Captain Lockhart on the Forest gave orders to abandon ship using three small boats, but two of those were lost too with the loss of twelve men. The only remaining boat carried the twelve survivors of the two ships to safety, the three who had jumped on the Forest, its Captain and 8 crew. By daybreak, Chesil Beach was once again strewn with wreckage and the local fisherman in lerrets made a chain to rescue those in the boat.

The Forest stayed afloat, though partly submerged near Chesil Cove. It presented a shipping hazard and attempts were made to blow it up. Eventually, it was towed further out 11 days after the tragedy and successfully blown up by the Navy.

Walter Savill of Shaw, Savill and Company who owned the Avalanche, decided that in future, rather then risk any lives around such a treacherous area that most passengers for his vessels would depart from Plymouth.

As the bodies began to be washed ashore by the tide, the responsibility for burial lying with the local parishes, much publicity ensued at the deplorable treatment of the dead. The news hit 'The Times' newspaper and there was much uproar caused. The friends and relatives of those lost in the tragedy of the Avalanche launched an appeal fund. Contributions poured in from all over England as well as New Zealand and Australia. Before long, the appeal had raised sufficient funds to purchase a site and erect a memorial chapel overlooking the scene of the disaster. The chapel, sited at Southwell, Portland, was dedicated to St. Andrew and opened in 1879. It is known as Avalanche Church and the road nearby is also named after it.

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The poet, William Wordsworth wrote the "Elegiac Stanzas" after the death of his brother, Captain John Wordsworth on the Earl of Abergavenny in 1805. Verses 1 and 5 in particular are the most poignant concerning that fateful night. The verses are also fitting for all those who have been in peril on the sea and lost their lives on their fateful journeys throughout time.

In Memory of my brother, John Wordsworth,

Commander of the E. I. Company's Ship The Earl of Abergavenny in which he perished by calamitous shipwreck, Feb. 6, 1805

Verse 1

The Sheep-boy whistled loud, and lo!

That instant, startled by the shock,

The Buzzard mounted from the rock

Deliberate and slow

Lord of the air, he took his flight,

Oh! Could he on that woeful night

Have lent his wing, my Brother dear,

For one poor moment's space to Thee,

And all who struggled with the Sea,

When safety was so near.


Verse 5

Full soon in sorrow did I weep,

Taught that the mutual hope was dust,

In sorrow, but for higher trust,

How miserably deep!

All vanished in a single word,

A breath, a sound, and scarcely heard.

Sea - Ship - drowned - Shipwreck - so it came,

The meek, the brave, the good, was gone:

He who had been our living John

Was nothing but a name.

 

For further information about the Earl of Abergavenny, including crew and passenger lists, the website of Weymouth Diving - Weymouth Underwater Archaeological Group is excellent and strongly recommended.

 

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