‘A helpless ruin on the shores of Anglesea’ – The Royal Charter and the Rothsay Castle Shipwrecks

Collections - Posted 21-10-2019

The 26th of October marks the 160th anniversary of the Royal Charter disaster, which saw the loss of over 450 lives off the coast of Anglesey. Amongst the books held in the National Library’s Welsh Print Collection are a number narratives recording both this disaster and another shipwreck off the coast of Anglesey 28 years earlier, that of the Rothsay Castle which saw the loss of around 130 lives. While the causes of these shipwrecks were radically different, one due to a particularly fierce storm, the other due to the actions of a drunken captain, the legacy of both shipwrecks was the implementation of measures to prevent further shipwrecks.

The Royal Charter was an iron-hulled steam clipper built at the Sandycroft Ironworks near Hawarden in 1855. One of the first ships of its kind, it broke the record for sailing between Liverpool and Melbourne on its first journey, completing the journey in 59 days. The Royal Charter was on course to matching this record, this time on the return journey, when it was caught without warning in one of the fiercest storms that had been witnessed along the British coast, later named the Royal Charter storm. As Alexander McKee notes, “no fewer than 133 ships were totally wrecked around the British Isles that night, and a further 90 driven ashore and badly damaged…Most of the ships so destroyed were small, but nearly 400 lives were lost on them.”[1] In total over 800 deaths were attributed to the storm, with by far the largest single loss of life on the Royal Charter.

Up until this point the Royal Charter’s journey had been largely uneventful; indeed, the passengers had presented the captain with a testimonial as they were anchored off Cork on 24 October. As they reached the Irish coast, stopping off at Queenstown (Cobh), the passengers were excited by the prospect of arrival at Liverpool, sending letters and telegrams to family members announcing their safe arrival. However, having passed Holyhead the weather had taken a serious turn for the worse, with the ship’s captain, Captain Thomas Taylor, unable to attract the attention of a pilot boat, due to the poor visibility, to guide them in to Liverpool, despite signalling from the Skerries and Point Lynas.

By the time the ship had reached the coast off Moelfre, the Royal Charter was in serious difficulties, being forced on the rocks off Moelfre by 100 mile-an-hour winds despite desperate and ultimately futile attempts to anchor the ship and to cut its sails. Captain Taylor and his crew fought through the night and morning to save the ship and to get passengers to safety, with the help of villagers on shore. However, just after the dawn the ship split in two, confining the majority of its passengers and crew, and also the considerable cargo of gold it was carrying, to a watery grave. Despite the heroic efforts of the crew and villagers only 40 survived the shipwreck. Amongst those lost was the crew member Isaac Lewis who, in a tragic irony, hailed from Moelfre. Lewis, trapped on the ship, recognised his father on the rocks but was swept away by a huge wave as he was being rescued. More apocryphal versions of his fate record his last words to his father as “Oh, I am come home to die” or “Oh father, I’ve come home to be drowned.”[2]

The Royal Charter disaster was a national event, even drawing the interest of Charles Dickens, who visited Moelfre and the wreck site soon afterward. Most significantly, it also focused the efforts of Admiral Robert FitzRoy, who had been in the process of lobbying for the creation of a national storm warning system since the summer of 1859. Following the disaster, FitzRoy drew up charts of the storm, recording its hourly progress along the British coast as an illustration of the need for such a warning system. FitzRoy’s detailed proposals for a storm warning system were accepted by the Board of Trade in December 1859 and implemented in September the following year. As Peter Moore notes, “FitzRoy’s storm cones were to be a vital new weapon in the battle against shipwreck.”[3]

While Captain Taylor had done his upmost to save his ship, passengers and crew from certain disaster, the same could not unfortunately be said of Lieutenant Atkinson, the commander of the Rothsay Castle which was shipwrecked off Penmon on August 17, 1831. Unlike the Royal Charter the Rothsay Castle was not a sea-worthy vessel, having being built in 1816 for use on the river Clyde. By 1831, it was an ageing ship with rotting timbers, pumps that did not work, no buckets and no means, such as flares or lights, of alerting others if it was in distress. Delayed by the weather, by an eagerness to get as many passengers on board as possible and by a gentleman’s desire to have his carriage hoisted onto the ship, the Rothsay Castle left Liverpool at midday, two hours later than planned and heading into increasingly dangerous tides. By the time it was in open sea, the weather had again taken a turn for the worse, with the steam packet struggling to make headway to Beaumaris.

As the weather worsened and the ship began taking on water, the passengers made several requests to the captain, who had retired to his cabin for a two-hour lunch, to turn back. The captain, who had emerged from his long lunch drunk and abusive, refused, insisting that there was no danger and that “he was not one that turned back.”[4] By 10pm the Rothsay Castle had reached the Great Orme’s Head, having travelled 36 miles in ten hours. As it approached the Menai Strait the ship was in serious difficulties, taking on more water, struggling against strong waves and with its pumps failing to pump the water leaking into the ship. Despite this, as they reached the Menai Strait the passengers were relieved, believing that the worse was behind them and that they would soon be docking at Beaumaris. Tragically this was not to be the case.

As they entered the Menai Strait, the ship hit Dutchman’s Bank, a sandbank off the coast of Penmon. This was followed by a series of further collisions as the Rothsay Castle travelled a mile further down Dutchman’s Bank. The captain, having once again emerged from his cabin was heard giving “confused and contradictory orders” to his crew.[5] Following this series of collisions the Rothsay Castle broke up, its iron funnel and main-mast falling first, taking Lieutenant Atkinson to his death with them and causing heavy damage to the side of the ship. Of the estimated 150 passengers and crew on board, only 21 were saved.

Like the Royal Charter, the Rothsay Castle shipwreck also left a literary legacy, becoming the subject of a number of odes at the Beaumaris Eisteddfod the following year. It also left a more lasting legacy – the establishment of the Penmon Lifeboat Station in 1832 and the construction of the Trwyn Du Lighthouse, which was built in 1838.

Dr Douglas Jones

Published Collections Projects Manager


Further reading

  • Adshead, Joseph – A Circumstantial Narrative of the Wreck of the Rothsay Castle Steam Packet, on her passage from Liverpool to Beaumaris, Aug. 17, 1891 (London, 1833)
  • A & J. K. – Wreck of the Royal Charter Steam Clipper on her passage from Australia to Liverpool, October 26th 1859 (Dublin, 1860)
  • Bransby, James Hews – A Narrative of the Dreadful Wreck of the Rothsay Castle Steam Packet in Beaumaris Bay, during the night of Wednesday, August 17, 1831, in a letter to a friend (Caernarfon, 1832)
  • Dickens, Charles – The Uncommercial Traveller (Oxford, 2015)
  • Jones, Ivor Wynne – Shipwrecks of North Wales (Newton Abbot, 1973)
  • Jones, T. Llew – Ofnadwy Nos (Llandysul, 1971)
  • McKee, Alexander – The Golden Wreck: The Tragedy of the Royal Charter (London, 1986)
  • Moore, Peter – The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future (London, 2015)

[1] McKee, Alexander – The Golden Wreck: The Tragedy of the Royal Charter (London, 1986), p. 50.

[2] Ibid., p. 94.

[3] Moore, Peter – The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future (London, 2015), p. 244.

[4] Adshead, Joseph – A Circumstantial Narrative of the Wreck of the Rothsay Castle Steam Packet (London, 1833), p. 33.

[5] Ibid. p. 70.

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