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The horrific wreck of the Royal Charter had all of the elements of a sensational story: a huge loss of life, gold strewn on the shore, and a news feast accusing the people of Moelfre with plundering the wreck and stripping the bodies of victims for loot.

The horrific wreck of Royal Charter in 1859 had all of the elements of a sensational story: huge loss of life and riches in the form of Australian gold. Men were seen 'picking sovereigns out of the holes and crevices of the rocks as they would shell fish.' A news feast accused the people of Anglesey of plundering the wreck and stripping the bodies of victims washing ashore.

Enroute from Melbourne, Australia in 1859, the steam clipper Royal Charter had called at Cobh before heading into the Irish Sea for Liverpool. Then came one of the severest gales recorded, driving her against the cliffs near Moelfre, Anglesey. Monuments stand in remembrance of the approximately 500 lives lost, but they do not show the wealth of stories originating on that fateful day.

Capt. Mends of H.M.S Hastings was called to protect the cargo because 'it was being plundered by the natives.' An English paper, inflaming the rhetoric, claimed gangs of [Moelfre] wreckers have sweeped [sic] down on Moelfre Bay ... surfeiting their itching palms with dead men's treasure.' A local Welsh language paper castigated people for looting the wreck and bringing shame upon Anglesey: 'Y llong yn ddarnau, a phobl y wlad yn ysbeilio! These charges were not unlike news columns describing ‘wreckers' looting ships that had wrecked on Cornish shores. Like those stories, the charges need investigating. Were the people of Moelfre guilty of such 'barbarism' and 'plunder'?

They had their defenders; the Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald printed a spirited defence against the libellous charges. Local people were praised in the survivors’ testimony. The Liverpool Daily Post admitted the Coastguard and militia weren't needed to prevent plunder 'to the credit of the Anglesea peasantry.' Even a Beaumaris correspondent admitted that the people he saw picking up gold sovereigns handed them to the Collector of Customs.

So, was this a non-story? Not quite.

At the Menai Petty Sessions on 7 November 1859, just over a week after the wreck, fourteen-year-old William Parry was tried for stealing a gold watch from the beach; Henry Roberts for taking gold rings and paper bills of exchange drawn from an Australian bank; and David Edwards for stealing a shirt, a Guernsey jacket, and an anchor.

'Stealing from a wreck' was a crime under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1850. Anyone found stealing any part of a wreck or cargo could be fined £50 and other penalties, including gaol. The act downgraded the punishment from a capital felony. The trial reports suggest how local Anglesey people interpreted the act of 'wrecking'. It is doubtful they understood the law; merchants and lawyers argued over its meaning.

Young William Parry believed he could claim clothing from the shore. He readily admitted to taking some 'trowsers' and 'rags' while hiding the watch. David Edwards, too, told police that 'there was no harm' in taking the shirt and Guernsey jacket. This belief is in keeping with other examples around Britain where people thought that 'wreck' washing ashore was a 'gift' of the sea (or from God).

Parry hoped that the owner of the watch would offer a reward. Roberts also wanted a reward. Indeed, he did not trust the officers at the wreck site, claiming that he intended to hand over the gold rings and bills of exchange to the Receiver of Wreck in Beaumaris. His case highlighted previous experiences local people had with law enforcement over salvage. When Rothsay Castle was lost in 1831 near Moelfre, many poor people were not paid for what they found.

In the eighteenth century, salvage payments for wreck were often paid in kind on the spot. By the nineteenth century, payment was caught up in government bureaucracy. 'Wrecking' often occurred when people distrusted authorities, taking wrecked goods as salvage payment themselves.

David Edward's case had a twist. While he was arrested for 'stealing', in fact he was acting under the authority of local rector, Rev. Stephen Roose Hughes, who had asked people to collect whatever items they could find and bring them to him, so they could be used to identify victims.

The three arrests led to only one conviction -- William Parry was sent to jail for fourteen days, 'as an example to other persons in the neighbourhood.' Henry Roberts was then tried at the assizes for felony, where his case was dismissed because he was drunk. David Edwards’s case was dismissed outright.

The cases didn’t support the press rhetoric. Of course, they may have been intentional theft. A Coastguard officer testified: ‘if a man should accidently pick up a sovereign and put it in his pocket, who could blame him!' Indeed. At the first coroner’s inquest, it was noted that 'the report as to plundering by the natives is said to be entirely unfounded.' But also: 'it is hinted here […] that those who are paid for watching the wrecked property require some "watching" themselves’!

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