The 26th of October, 1859, will be forever remembered as the day that the sailing-ship ‘Royal Charter’ was totally devastated within a few metres of the rocks at Moelfre on the eastern coast of Anglesey in North Wales. Nearing the end of her sixth voyage from Melbourne, Australia, to Liverpool, England, she ran into hurricane-force winds that left her captain with no option but to let-go his anchors, and trust the safety of his crew and passengers to the strength of the anchor-chains and the power of his somewhat inadequate steam-engine. But the chains only held for a short time before they snapped, and the engine proved totally inadequate to keep the ‘Royal Charter’ safe from disaster in the blackness of a moonless night. Pounded against the shore by the relentless force of the waves, she broke up with the loss of almost 500 men, women and children, and scattered perhaps 100,000 ounces of gold into the sea. Only a few men were saved, and their survival was thanks to the bravery of a Maltese seaman who swam ashore with a line, and to the heroism of the men of Moelfre who rushed to the wreck-site as the scene turned from black to grey as daylight dawned.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the tragedy, Chris and Lesley Holden tell the story of the ‘Royal Charter’, from her launch at Sandycroft on the River Dee in Wales, through her six circumnavigations of the world, to her total destruction so very close to her home port of Liverpool. The story then continues with the actual newspaper reports of the subsequent inquest and inquiry, with eye-witness accounts written by those who were fortunate enough to survive.
A number of famous Victorians have connections with the ‘Royal Charter’; William Patterson who built the ‘Great Britain’ for Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and also the ‘Royal Charter’ for Gibbs, Bright & Co.; Charles Dickens, the author who came to Moelfre in search of his wife’s relatives; and Admiral Robert FitzRoy, who had risen from captain of the ‘Beagle’ to become head of the Meteorological Department at the Board of Trade. Other persons soon became household names; Joseph Rogers, the seaman who managed to reach the shore with a line; the Reverend Stephen Roose Hughes, who worked tirelessly to identify the battered and decaying bodies; and Samuel Edward Gapper, who gave a graphic account of his miraculous escape from death.
The loss of the ‘Royal Charter’ on that fateful day had a number of repercussions, the two most important being the introduction of a standard method of testing the quality of anchor-chains and anchors, and it also provided the impetus for FitzRoy to proceed with his fledgling system of weather forecasts. All these are discussed in the book.
Much of the ‘Royal Charter’ and her cargo was salvaged in Victorian times, but the book includes underwater-photographs that give a diver’s-eye view of what remains today.