Gibbs Bright & Co were the owners of the ROYAL CHARTER. In the aftermath of the storm and the loss of the vessel, they were criticised for focussing on the retrieval of the gold bullion and other cargoes from the wreck, instead of assisting with the recovery of the bodies. The loss of the ROYAL CHARTER eventually caused the company's bankruptcy.
Gibbs, Bright & Co was established in Bristol in 1818, when George Gibbs and his son (also called George) began an association with Robert Bright.
The Gibbs family made its first fortune in the late 1700s as Bristol wool merchants - trading cloth to Spain and importing fruit and wine. The Gibbs established a monopoly on the import of guano from Peru for fertiliser and this success lead to the establishment of a merchant bank called Anthony Gibbs & Sons. The Brights owned sugar-producing estates in the Jamaica and a connection between the two families was established through their West Indies trading activities.
The company became the agents from Brunel's great steamships, the GREAT WESTERN and the GREAT BRITAIN, and held places on the governing board of the Great Western Railway. In the early 1850s, the company began to own their own vessels to be used on voyages to and from Australia. The company purchased Brunel's GREAT BRITAIN in January 1851. The GREAT BRITAIN set sail for Australia in August 1851. The clipper ship, EAGLE, 1065 tons, sailed for Port Phillip and Adelaide a month later. The acquisition of the ALBATROSS followed and this ship was the first to land gold from the New South Wales gold strike in August 1852. On 14 October 1852, the company acquired a Royal Charter to establish the Liverpool and Australia Navigation Company and, by the time of the loss of the ROYAL CHARTER, had some 8 vessels working on the Liverpool/Australia run.
The bankruptcy of George Cram with a partially complete iron-sailing vessel on the stocks, provided the company with the opportunity to add to their fleet. The Port of Liverpool Shipping Register was notified of the ownership of the ROYAL CHARTER by Tyndall Bright, Acting Secretary, on 28 April 1855.
The company's adverts around the time of the ROYAL CHARTER's loss proposed to 'Steam to Australia under 60 days, passage money pound 14 and upwards'. Other vessels mentioned in adverts as being part of a line of the largest, finest and fastest merchant ships in the world include the MARCO POLO, LIGHTNING, C. OF THE SEA, DONAL MCKAY, SALDANHA, OCEAN CHIEF, BRITISH TRIDENT, GIPSEY BRIDE, GREAT TASMANIA, COMMODORE PERRY, and MONTMORENCY. The Melbourne branch of the firm Bright, Brother & Co had been established, and the company had agents in North Wales at Abergele (A F Watts) and Bangor (Edward Ellis Junior, Shipbuilding yard, Garth Point).
This cargo book, conserved by the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (Merseyside Maritime Museum), includes references to cargo consignments for vessels such as the ELECTRIC, METEOR, KING OF ALGERIA, HILTON, EAGLE, ROYAL CHARTER and GREAT BRITAIN.
Pass your mouse over this image and see if you can spot the references to the ROYAL CHARTER on these two pages of Profit and Loss calculations.
Notice that the columns adding up the amounts are divided into three for the old imperial monetary system of pounds, shillings and pence. Try totalling up at one of the pages. Did the accounting clerk get his sums right? Don't forget that under the old monetary system there were 12 pence in every shilling and 20 shillings in every pound.
It was an application to Sir Richard Bulkeley, then the local magistrate and Lord Lieutenant of Carnarvonshire, by Mr Pitcher in search of his family which prompted Sir Richard to write to the Board of Trade criticising Gibbs, Bright & Co for focussing more on the recovery of property than the recovery of bodies. The circumstances were reported again in the Llandudno Advertiser at the time of the 50th anniversary of the disaster:
'The great majority of those in search of the remains of their friends, not succeeding in recovering: them, naturally inferred that they were in and under the, debris of the wreck. The result of the conclusion was an application to Sir Richard Bulkeley, praying him to exercise his influence, with the proper authorities, to oblige them to raise the wreck, that, the poor bodies might be disengaged from the machinery, which it was unanimously agreed they were, entangled in. This happened the latter end of November. Sir Richard Bulkeley, with that kindliness of feeling for which he, is distinguished, immediately communicated with the Board of Trade, and the relatives of the lost had the satisfaction of seeing their wishes partially carried out. A steam-tug was sent to Moelfre, and after disturbing a portion of the iron of the, wreck, it was confidently affirmed that no, bodies were in or under it. These operations were carried on under the superintendence of Captain Fell and Captain Martin. Several, bodies were, washed on shore the same week; but whether this resulted from the efforts resorted to by the steam-tug, or the wind proving favourable to such an issue, at, that time we cannot now presume to determine.'
The directors of Gibbs, Bright & Co responded to the letter to the Board of Trade with two letters reprinted in the Monmouthshire Merlin, 3 December 1859:
'We are indeed aware of the distress which is most naturally felt by those who have lost friends in the Royal Charter, but we believe we have done everything to relieve it. The wreck is now in the bands of the underwriters, but previous to directing the attention of the divers to the recovery of the treasure, a close search was made for any bodies that could be found. We should mention, also, that boats have been paid by us to pick up such bodies as may be found floating at some distance. So determined are we, however, that nothing we can do shall be left undone, that we send by this night's tide a second lump for the express purpose of attempting to raise such portions of the wreck as would not be raised in the search or gold. It has however; for some time been impossible to identify any of the bodies, except occasionally from a shred of clothing, and we confess our fear that the search will be very useless and most painful. In conclusion, we must express our conviction that there can be no feeling but one of great sympathy on the part of those who are now about the wreck, though we can readily understand how the expression of concern tor the recovery of property may be construed into a want of feeling towards individual sufferers’
You can visit one of Gibbs, Bright & Co's surviving vessels today at Bristol - Brunel's GREAT BRITAIN:
Welsh Newspaper Online sources include:
Llandudno Advertiser and List of Visitors, 25 December 1909
Monmouthshire Merlin, 3 December 1859