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The ‘Royal Charter’ sailed 11,000 miles from Melbourne only to sink off Anglesey

Posted in Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships on Saturday, 30 November 2013

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This edited article about maritime disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 470 published on 16 January 1971.

The Shipwreck, picture, image, illustration

Rev. Stephen Roose Hughes, rector of Llanallgo, whose exertions in finding and identifying the bodies were reported by Charles Dickens, by C E Reinhart

Captain Taylor of the ‘Royal Charter’ should have received a testimonial from his passengers for their swift trip from Australia. As it turned out, he and nearly everyone else on board perished a few miles from their journey’s end. Only a few survivors staggered ashore.

Exactly two months to the day since she had left Melbourne, Australia, the iron ship Royal Charter rounded The Skerries, a lonely outcrop of rocks lying just off the nort-west tip of the Isle of Anglesey. Though her single screw was driven by an engine of no more than 200 horse-power and she was of 2,719 tons displacement, she had made remarkable time. In fact, her passengers were so pleased with the swift passage – some 11,000 miles in just over 60 days – that they had drawn up a testimonial of their esteem for the master of the ship, Captain Taylor, and collected sufficient money among themselves to be able to make a presentation to him on arrival at Liverpool, their destination.

A foolhardy captain might have tried to save time on the last short lap of the voyage by steaming between The Skerries and Carmel Head. But not Captain Taylor: he was a veteran employee of the company, Gibb & Bright of Liverpool, who owned the vessel, and was not a man to take risks. What is more, as the ship swung eastwards beyond The Skerries he realized that this final lap, of some 60 sea-miles, would be in the teeth of an east-north-easterly gale. But his 200-h.p. engine was functioning well and he still had plenty of coal in his bunkers. He would give the north coast of Anglesey a wide berth, raise all the steam he could in his boilers, and with luck tie-up in Liverpool Docks inside eight hours, or ten hours at most.

The Royal Charter had a crew of 112 officers and men. She carried a valuable cargo, which included nearly 80,000 ounces of pure Australian gold. She had cabin and deck accommodation for almost 400 passengers. In all, there were 498 men, women and children on board. Of these, before that terrible night was out, only 39 escaped with their lives, and many of those were badly injured.

The lighthouse on Point Lynas, on the north-eastern tip of Anglesey, hove into view before midnight on the evening of Tuesday, 25th October, 1859. Captain Taylor remarked that he was closer to it than he cared to be, and promptly ordered the helmsman to alter course a few points to port. Soon afterwards the helmsman protested that he could not hold the course laid down for him because the gale on his port beam was so strong, and even increasing in strength.

It was a pitch dark night: no moon, not a star in the sky. The only light was that of the Lynas Point lighthouse – and that was now all too close for comfort. As a precaution, Captain Taylor gave orders for signal-rockets to be fired and blue lights to be shown; at the same time he decided to run for shelter, if possible, in Dulas Bay, even though that meant being dangerously close to a lee shore.

In the bay he dropped anchor both fore and aft, but kept his engine running to ease the strain on the anchor-chains. As they began to drag, he adopted the desperate expedient of cutting down his masts to lessen the wind-resistance. Unluckily, the rigging from one mast fouled the screw when it tumbled overboard and the screw ground to a halt. Now the Royal Charter was completely helpless, at the mercy of both the on-shore gale and the irresistible set of the tide towards the rocks.

One of the few survivors put on record what happened from that point onwards: “Having such confidence in Captain Taylor,” he wrote, “I had gone to my cabin. Suddenly I heard a voice cry out: ‘Come directly, we are all lost!’ It was the voice of a fellow-passenger, a Captain Withers, who had himself once suffered shipwreck. By my watch it was three o’clock in the morning. Hastily throwing on a few articles of attire, I ran up on deck. I found the ship was drifting towards some rocks, and at that very moment she was thrown upon them and we all fell to the deck at the sudden impact. Our ship bumped heavily two or three times more. All was confusion, families clung to one another, the younger children crying out piteously.

“Just then a huge wave came down upon the ship with tremendous force, breaking through the skylights and hatches. The ship bumped on the rocks continuously for two hours and more, and the seas rushed in with ever-increasing force. I, with many others, was knocked by the waves against the wall of the saloon as we tried to make our way up on deck, having no wish to be drowned below like rats in a sinking ship – as indeed we were.

“Soon afterwards, a great sea came against us broadside and broke the ship quite in two, just at the engine-room. The two halves of the ship then slewed round, and each became a total wreck. Parties of men, women and children, passengers and crew alike, were carried down with the debris, and as many must have been killed as drowned. Having made up my mind that I had best jump overboard into the sea on the lee side, I attempted to lay hold of a rope. But instead I fell headlong into deep water, which was so thickly strewn with portions of the wreck that I had to force an opening with my arms before I could come to the surface. I was repeatedly thrown ashore, and as often washed back. But at last some seamen who had reached shore managed to grasp my outstretched hands and so rescue me. By that time I was insensible.”

This fortunate survivor did not know of the gallant attempt made, strangely enough, by a Portuguese sailor as soon as the ship went aground. Unlike most seamen in those days, he was a strong swimmer, and he offered to take a line ashore and make it fast so that he could then haul a heavier rope ashore, so that this lifeline would enable some, if not all, of those on board to make their way to safety. He did in fact reach the shore, miraculously escaping being smashed to pieces on the rocks. But the line was too short, and was snatched from his hand before he could make it fast, so his gallant effort failed.

As the first streaks of light broke over Dulas Bay they floodlit a terrible scene. The ship had wholly disintegrated. Tossing about in the raging sea were the bodies of men, women and children. Trunks and chests and personal possessions tossed on the water, continually breaking up on impact with the wreckage and the lurking rocks whose tips only just projected through the water now that the tide was near full. Though she been an iron ship, all that was left of her consisted of a few contorted metal sheets. Many of the casualties owed their terrible injuries to having been thrown against them by the surge of the waves and cut to pieces.

When daylight had fully come, rescue parties had reached the bay, summoned by the first men to struggle ashore and survive the ordeal. But they came too late. Theirs was now the grisly task of collecting, over succeeding days, no fewer than 459 bodies. They were assisted by the able-bodied among 39 passengers and crew, almost equal in numbers. Veteran Captain Taylor, of the Royal Charter, for whom the testimonial and gift had been planned by his grateful passengers for presentation on arrival at Liverpool, was not among them: he had gone down with his ship.

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