Working on the School Library Loans project at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery I come across a diverse range of wonderful objects; Maori clubs, Egyptian amulets, African statues and Tibetan ritual paraphernalia, to name but a few. One item that I came across, was, I have to be honest, not very exciting to look at. A block of polished fossiliferous limestone, 12cm square, with a small bronze plaque set into one side which reads, ‘A piece of rock on which the ROYAL CHARTER struck MOELFRE October 25th 1859’. However, all objects in a museum have a story to tell, and this rather unassuming block of stone tells of a tragedy that struck the coast of Anglesey over 150 years ago.
The stone commemorates the wrecking of the Royal Charter, a passenger ship that was destroyed in one of the worst storms to hit Britain. The Royal Charter was built at the Sandycroft Ironworks on the River Dee at Hawarden, Flintshire, and was launched in 1855. She was a new type of ship, a 2719-ton iron-hulled steam clipper, built in the same way as an ordinary clipper ship but with auxiliary steam engines which could be used in the absence of suitable winds. The ship was used to take passengers to and from Australia and could carry up to 600 passengers. The ship was considered one of the fastest at the time and could make the journey to Australia in 60 days via the Cape of Good Hope.
On the fateful day of 25th October 1859 the ship was returning from Australia with 371 passengers and 112 crew, though exact numbers are sketchy as the inventory was lost in the wreck; the passengers included many gold miners, some of whom had struck it rich in Australia and were carrying large sums of gold about their persons. A consignment of gold was also being carried as cargo. As the ship reached the north-western tip of Anglesey the weather turned for the worse – in fact it would prove to be one of the most ferocious and destructive storms ever to hit the shores of Britain.
As the storm gathered the captain of the ship, Thomas Taylor, was advised to dock at Holyhead for shelter, but instead he decided to try and carry on to Liverpool, a decision that would have disastrous consequences. Near Point Lynas the Captain signalled to a Liverpool Pilot Boat, but conditions were so bad that the pilot could not reach the ship. During the night of 25/26 October the wind rose to Hurricane force 12 on the Beaufort Scale in what became known as the “Royal Charter Storm”.
Also known as the Great Storm of 1859, it is considered to be the most severe storm to hit the Irish Sea in the 19th century. There was extensive structural damage along the West coast of Britain and a total of 133 ships were sunk during the storm and another 90 badly damaged. The death toll was estimated at around 800, including some people killed on land by falling rocks and masonry.
As the conditions got worse the ship dropped both of its anchors late at night in the hope of riding out the storm. However, at around 2am on the morning of the 26th both anchor chains snapped. Despite cutting the masts to reduce the drag of the wind, the Royal Charter was driven inshore, with the steam engines unable to make headway against the gale. The ship initially grounded on a sandbank, but the rising tide drove her on to the rocks at a point just north of Moelfre at Porth Alerth on the north coast of Anglesey. Battered against the rocks by huge waves whipped up by winds of over 100 mph, she quickly broke up.
One member of the crew, Joseph Rogers, managed to swim ashore with a line, enabling a few people to be rescued, and a few others were able to struggle to shore through the surf. Unfortunately most of the passengers and crew, a total of over 450 people, died. Many of them were killed by being dashed against the rocks by the waves. Others were said to have drowned, weighed down by the belts of gold they were wearing around their bodies. The survivors, 21 passengers and 18 crew members, were all men, with no women or children saved. Bodies continued to wash up on the beach over the weeks following the shipwreck, and a memorial was placed on the cliff top, reading:
“Where the Royal Charter met its end and the memory of those who died.”
The aftermath of the storm was described by Charles Dickens in ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’. The disaster had an effect on the development of the Meteorological Office as Captain Robert FitzRoy, who was in charge of the office at the time, brought in the first gale warning service to prevent similar tragedies. The intensity of the “Royal Charter storm” and winds were frequently used as a yardstick in other national disasters – when the Tay Bridge collapsed in 1878 the Astronomer Royal referred to the Royal Charter storm frequently in his report. During an episode of the BBC TV Show Who Do YOu Think You Are?, gardener Monty Don discovered his great-great-grandfather, Reverend Charles Vere Hodge, died on board the Royal Charter.
The memorial stone from Buxton Museum and Art Gallery has now been transferred to Oriel Yns Mon on Anglesey, a museum dedicated to the history of the island, where it forms part of the displays and tells the story of the tragic events.