History

Lost gold and drowned souls: the story of the Royal Charter shipwreck

TheRoyalChartershipwreck

‘The Royal Charter’ shipwreck. Image: Public domain and Creative Commons License. Item is held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

On October 25th and 26th, 1859, a force twelve hurricane battered Britain with the most furious gales ever recorded; winds in excess of one hundred miles an hour.

In a time before radios or any kind of storm warning system, this devastating storm sunk 133 ships around the British Isles and claimed around 800 souls.

More than half of those who perished were on board the Royal Charter which was smashed along the brutal, rocky, coast of Moelfre, on the Isle of Anglesey.

The steam clipper was one of the most famous ships of its day, as it was one which could boast a voyage from Liverpool to Australia in 59 days.

The ship had traveled twelve thousand miles from Port Melbourne, Australia, and was only a matter of hours away from its destination in Liverpool when the hurricane hit.

Scene of the shipwreck of the Royal Charter. Image: Engraving Public Domain. National Library of Wales.

Scene of the shipwreck of the Royal Charter. Image: Engraving Public Domain. National Library of Wales.

She was carrying tens of millions of pounds worth of gold in today’s money, procured from the gold fields of Victoria.

Many of her passengers were returning home to their families in Britain with new found fortunes and hopes of better lives.

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After failing to hold her anchors during the long night, the large vessel ran aground on the rocky shelves jutting out from the shores of Moelfre in the early hours of the morning.

The villagers awoke to a dramatic scene unfloding on their doorstep, and despite the dangerous conditions around 30 men rushed down the cliffs to try rescue the passengers.

The Royal Charter was just metres from the shore.

Despite the efforts of the local men who created a human chain stretching out into the sea, and despite the bravery of Maltese seaman, Joseph Rogers, who battled the enormous waves to swim ashore with a rope upon which a bosun’s chair was hoisted, the ship was suddenly thrown so hard against the rocks that she split in two.

Consequently, only an estimated 40 passengers out of around 500 survived.

The Life Line by Winslow Homer, depiction of Bosun's Chair in action

‘The Life Line’ by Winslow Homer, depiction of a bosun’s chair in action. Image: The George W. Elkins Collection, 1924, Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art. Public Domain Wikimedia Commons.

In the sound documentary Haunted Shore, Emma Roberts investigates the aftermath of the disaster and how it directly effected the villagers of Moelfre, whose small, humble, fishing village became overwhelmed with scenes of death and grief.

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The story of the wreck of the Royal Charter has endured as an example of extreme bad luck and tragic timing, but it left a positive imprint on the history of Britain for one reason; the introduction of the National Forecasting Service.

Understandably the wreck received lots of attention from the national press, and the hurricane was henceforth known as the Royal Charter Gale.

Vice_Admiral_Robert_Fitzroy

Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy (Image: Met Office)

As a result of this and the terrible loss of life, Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy (Director of the Metropolitan Office 1855-65), set about trying to prove that the path of the storm could have been predicted by his department’s observations.

Scientists were sceptical about the accuracy of predicting the weather, but Fitzroy’s evidence was enough to convince the Government to allow him to at least test his methods of forecasting.

From 1860 the Met Office began collecting weather forecasts and by 1861 a storm warning system was implemented, which has contributed to saving countless lives in the many years since.

 

One of Fitzroy's original charts to show his understanding of the Royal Charter Gale (Image: Met Office)

One of Fitzroy’s original charts demonstrating his understanding of the Royal Charter Gale. Image: Met Office

 

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