Over 450 Perish When Royal Charter Wrecks On English Coast
By James Donahue
The Royal Charter was an impressive early
steamship built in 1855, when the great clipper ships still ruled the high seas. She was designed like a clipper with a 235-foot-long
iron hull, three tall masts, a winged messenger figurehead but equipped with a 200 horsepower engine that allowed the vessel
to maintain its speed even when the wind stopped blowing.
The half-clipper, half-steamer was built
for the Liverpool & Australian Steam Navigation Co., and placed on a regular run between Liverpool and Melbourne, Australia.
This ship was fast for its time, with its owners boasting that it could make the trip in just 59 days, a full 30 days ahead
of its competitors.
This ship was so new in its design that there
was much ceremony surrounding its launch at Queensferry, North Wales, which went badly. People crowded the banks of the Dee
River as the wife of an owner, Mrs. Gibb Bright, broke the traditional liquor bottle across the bow. Then the heavy iron hull
slid down the ways until it struck the mud river bottom then stopped with a lurch. Workers did not calculate on low tide.
They waited until the tide came back in before floating the new ship.
A local newspaper boasted that the Royal
Charter was “full rigged, with double yards and topsails. Her saloon will have 50 first class passengers, she has 28
state-rooms, with double births, each room, 10 by 6 feet, four inches. When sailing she will spread as much canvas as the
Great Britain. She carries trunk engines, with direct action, the latest patent by Penn and Co. of London. She has six water
tight compartments and an immense box keelson running the full length of the vessel, and has the capacity to carry 5,500 gallons
The Royal Charter proved to be a profitable
venture for her owners, making regular runs between England and the British Colony down-under until getting caught in the
fierce Atlantic gale that wrecked it just off the English coast on October 26, 1859.
The ship, under command of Captain Thomas
Taylor, left Melbourne on August 26, bound for England with 388 passengers, 112 crew members and a large quantity of gold
in the strong room, mined in Australia, valued at the time at about 150,000 pounds. She stopped at Queenstown where 13 passengers
left the ship and 11 riggers boarded, thus putting a total of 498 souls on the ship at the time of the wreck.
When near the end of the long journey, while
off Holyhead, the passengers persuaded Captain Taylor to call at that port so they would have a chance to view the Great Eastern,
a 700-foot giant then under construction. Taylor gave in to the request and made the stall. The delay put the Royal Charter
in the worst place it could have been when the great storm struck.
The wind was already blowing by the time
the Royal Charter set sail on its last leg. By the time the ship was off Point Lynas, the seas were high and Taylor was steering
as near inshore as possible and firing rockets in a request for a pilot. The weather was already too bad and no pilot would
come to the ship. Taylor had no choice but to drop anchors, turn his bow into the wind, run his engines at full blast, and
attempt to ride out the gale.
The storm grew in intensity, the wind shifted
until both anchor cables parted at about 2 a.m.. Now the ship was being pushed toward the shore and certain destruction. The
engines could not prevail against the wind and seas. Taylor ordered the fore and main masts cut down in a last-ditch effort
to reduce wind resistance but it was too late. Cordage from the felled masts fouled the screw and the ship was now caught
in the trough of the seas. She swung broadside when it hit the rocky coast just before dawn.
When daylight came, the crew could see that
the ship had drifted within 400 feet of land. Crew member Joseph Rodgers volunteered to swim ashore with a line around his
waist and rig up a bosun’s chair, a system that operated by ropes and pulleys to carry wreck victims ashore when wrecks
occurred close enough.
Rodgers made it, set up the bosun’s
chair, and they used it to get a few people carried on it to safety before disaster struck. It came with a massive wave that
engulfed the ship, broke the hull in two parts and spilled the entire compliment of passengers, cargo and debris into the
boiling seas.In the end there were only about 25 survivors. It was believed at least 459 people died, including Captain Taylor
and almost all of the crew.
It was said that some passengers perished
because they jumped over the side wearing money belts filled with gold, and consequently sank like stones.
English writer Charles Dickens wrote of the
tragedy in his book, The Uncommercial Traveller.
Salvage operations over the years has recovered
a large quantity of the gold but much of it is believed to still remain on and around the wreck site. And that, of course,
has prompted many commercial efforts to explore and find the gold that might have been overlooked.