Are you aware that here in Dorset many tragedies have occurred in which hundreds of lives have been lost at sea? Shipwrecks used to be a regular occurrence around the coasts of Weymouth and Chesil beach and caused much interest from local people and even other people who would travel miles to see the wrecks. These many witnesses all have sad tales of the awful scenes they saw. You can only imagine the fear and horror the eyewitnesses felt.
‘I can never forget the awful impression that was excited by his ingenious contrivance to produce the effect of the firing of a signal of distress, in his sea storm.’
Below is an account of the two most famous Dorset shipwrecks, The Royal Adelaide and The Halsewell.
The Royal Adelaide
The Royal Adelaide was an iron built ship. On board were about 30 crew and about 30 to 35 men, women and children emigrants looking forward to their new lives in Australia. The ship left on 14th November 1872, but terrible storms and thick fog stopped it going from where it was headed. On 25th November people watching from the shore could tell that the ship was trapped in the bay. Throughout the day and as the night began the captain tried to save his ship, but at about 5mp it hit the beach.
Local people lit flares and tar barrels so that the rescue operation could begin. A line was constructed to pull people to the shore, but it was low, close to the sea and the passengers were scared to be dragged through the waves.
Although the ship was falling apart, only one person at a time could be rescued and the women’s big dresses made it awkward for them to climb into it. Sixty men, women and children were brought to the shore before the line broke. One dad tried to save his two children but one daughter was trapped on the ship.
(picture of women with big dresses)
The wreck was a big thing for the local people. They gathered on the beach and some even came from other places by train. The things on the ship were washed up on shore and were spread over half a mile.
Candles, cotton, sugar, livestock (one pig survived), brandy, rum and gin were washed up on the beach. Some people drank the alcohol and died from the cold, others buried the goods to retrieve them once the police and the coastguard were gone.
The Halsewell was a big East Indianman merchant ship. It had an expensive cargo and the 242 passengers included the Captain’s two daughters and nieces. It was going to have been Captain Pierce’s final voyage before he retired.
In January, 1786 it was on its way to India, as it headed into a terrible storm. For several days the ship was tossed and turned by huge waves against blizzards and hurricane force winds until finally it crashed onto the rocks. More than 160 people died including the Captain’s daughters and nieces.
Water leaked through the hole where the anchor goes and then into the gun deck and the hold. There was also water in the bilges and the ship wasn’t looking in a good shape.
Off the Devon coast they tried to turn the ship and head for the harbour but snow and ice made the rigging heavy. The masts were cut away and four men became tangled up in the rigging as it fell overboard and they could not be saved.
During a quiet patch in the storm they managed to turn the ship around but as they got closer to the coast a violent wind drove the Halsewell into the shore.
They lowered the anchors to stop the ship from hitting the rocks, but the winds were too powerful for the anchors to stay in the seabed. They fixed the cannons to let people know on land that the ship was about to come ashore, but even their huge noise was lost in the scary storm and the loud noise of the wind and the waves.
On Friday 6th January the ship hit the cliffs so hard that people sheltering in the cabin were thrown against each other and lanterns and furniture thrown everywhere.
To begin with people hoped the Halsewell would hold together until dawn when they could be rescued, but the ship had broken in half and the sides were beginning to fall apart. Some of the crew managed to jump towards a cave in the cliffs.
Two of the survivors climbed the dangerous cliff to raise the alarm. Throughout the day 74 seamen were rescued from the rocks but another 60 died of cold or were washed into the sea. Another 100 were lost in the wreck.
These two shipwrecks were both tragic and the scenes the local people saw are beyond imagining. It shows that the stories you read about shipwrecks aren’t as made up as you would think. In fact shipwrecks occur even today, they are not as frequent as they used to be because ships are not such a common form of transport nowadays. People have also learnt from their mistakes, making modern ships much stronger and rescue teams more efficient. Although even the Titanic, ‘the unsinkable ship’ did in fact crash into an iceberg and sink into the Atlantic in 1912 and even more recently a cargo ship running aground off the Norwegian coast leaving sailors trapped inside. Only these people could know the terror that the people that sailed on the Halsewell and the Adelaide felt.
‘Can anything be done,’ he kindly asked, to save
these dear companions from the briny wave?’
Ah hapless parent! Who can paint thy woe!
‘they’re doomed to sink, deep in the gulf below’.