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At the time of the Royal Charter Gale, 25-26 October 1859, the Board of Trade had the responsibility for ensuring that statistics were gathered each year about shipping casualties. The statistics for 1859 were made available on 11 February 1860, when the extent of the devastation that had been reported widely in newspapers finally became clear. The year-on year leap in the number of shipping losses for the month of October, where there had been loss of life, rose from 146 to a staggering 343.

In paragraphs providing the overview, the Board of Trade’s Surveyor General, Captain Robert Robertson RN, reported ‘This increase is chiefly attributable to the violent gales of October 25 and 26 and of October 31, and November 1 and 2. In the former gale, there were 133 Total Wrecks and 90 casualties resulting in serious damage. This number, however, includes the loss of 446 lives in the ROYAL CHARTER.’

This map provides an indication of the number of incidents around the Welsh coast. Many were small vessels, such as sloops, which were owned by consortia drawn from coastal communities. And so losses touched the lives of shopkeepers, blacksmiths, farmers, spinsters, widows, labourers, stamp distributors, etc., as well as mariners.

The commercial life of Wales and the world related to merchant ships. Britain had more ships than any other nation in the 1850s (over 34,000) and the mercantile marine employed around 240,000 sailors. Those who made their living from this commerce, would scan the list of losses at sea that would appear daily in newspapers such as The Times and the Liverpool Mercury, rather as modern businessmen peruses the performance of the stock market.

In the Victorian period, everyone was aware of the perils of the sea - stories of shipwrecks were relayed in penny ballads and newspapers. A burgeoning sense of social responsibility gave rise to many public bodies providing aid to sailors and their families. For example, in 1824 the Royal National Institute for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution were founded; in 1828, the Rev. James Williams of Llanfair-yn-Nghornwy, Anglesey, formed the Anglesey Lifesaving Association; and in 1839, the Mariner’s Royal Benevolent Society was established.

Charitable appeals at a local level were common to provide immediate aid and subsequently to raise money for shipwreck sailors and for their families (see the case of the EAGLE and the kindness shown by the people of Abergele and Llandrillo-yr-Rhos).

Despite the system of lighthouses and buoys around the Welsh Coast, mortality was still higher than in any other occupation, including mining - one in every 5 mariners who embarked on a life at sea also died at sea. Human error and bad weather was sometimes compounded by unscrupulous ship-owners who would dangerously overload ships in order to make as much profit as possible. There also were many incidents of insurance scams, whereby ship owners would deliberately over -insured their ships, sending them to sea in such a poor state of repair that they were hardly seaworthy. If the ships sank, the insurance paid out as much as several times their value. Mariners faced imprisonment if they refused to sail on such vessels after signing on. With sailors drowned and the ship on the ocean floor, evidence after the event was almost impossible to prove. Such vessels were known as ‘coffin ships’ and merchant sailors lived in fear of crewing them.

The loss of the Royal Charter added to the awareness of the plight of merchant mariners - a cause which, in the 1860s, stirred the Victorian MP Samuel Plimsol to launch a campaign to tackle the overloading issue. A Royal Commission on unseaworthy ships was eventually established in 1872, and in 1876 a new Merchant Shipping Act made the load line mark compulsory for all vessels using British ports, although the positioning of the mark was not fixed by law until 1894.

However, such was the extremity of the weather of the Great Storm that it would make little difference between old and new vessels, the highest level of seamanship and the lowest… the TWIN SISTERS was just two years old when it went to pieces off Aberystwyth… the ROYAL CHARTER, which had survived hurricanes in the Indian Ocean, was still broken in two and smashed to pieces by monstrous waves.

The Pembrokeshire Herald, on 11 November 1859, reproduced a report from the Liverpool Telegraph which listed some of the ships wrecked on the coast of Wales:

‘A sloop at Newport, all drowned; A schooner at Aberporth, all drowned; a brigantine, at Penarth, all drowned; BROTHERS, at Porthcawl, all saved; BEATRICE CATHERINE, at Porthor Bay, all drowned; CHARLES HOLMES, at Aberbach, all drowned; CAROLINA, at Porthgain, all saved; CATHERINE at Camaes, all saved; CLAUDIA, at Porthor Bay, all drowned; ELIZA BENYON, on the Mumbles, all saved; EBENZER, on the Mumbles, all saved; ELIZA, at Bardsey, all drowned; ELIZA at Porthferin (Porth Ferin), all drowned; FAME at Mostyn, one drowned; ELLEN at Newquay, all saved; FRIENDS, at Newport, all saved; HOPE, at Port Lechog (Porth Llechog), all saved; HOPE, at Newquay, all saved; JOSEPH, at Milford, all saved; JOHN ST BARBE, at Penarth, one drowned; KINGSTON, at Penarth, all saved; LOUIS ALBERT, at Penarth, all saved; MAJOR NANNERY at Newquay, all drowned; MARY ANN at Newquay, all saved; MORNING STAR, at Cardigan, all drowned; MATHILDIS, at Newport, all drowned; MARY at Sully Island, all drowned; MESSENGER, at Penmon, all drowned; MARTHA, at St David’s, all saved; MARGARET, at Newquay, all saved; ORION, at St David’s, all drowned; ORIENTAL, at Rhyl, all saved; PRISCILLA, at Porthor Bay, all drowned; ROYAL CHARTER, at Red Wharf Bay, 459 drowned; ROBERT, at Newquay, all saved; ship on Cow and Calf rocks, all drowned; THAMES, at Penarth, all drowned; three vessels, at Dinas Head, all drowned; UNION at Newquay, all saved; WATCHET TRADER, at Skvrawather (?Scarweather Sands), all saved; WAVE, at Freshwater Bay, all drowned.’

The Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald on 12 November 1859 printed a report from Aberystwyth which gives additional names;

‘The smack BRITANNIA, Rees, vessel wrecked on Ceibwr beach, crew saved… the VICTORIA, Enos, of this port (Aberystwyth), ran in to New quay, totally wrecked, crew saved… the MARGARET LLOYD, William Lloyd, totally wrecked and all hands lost (near Cardigan)… a smack sunk near Dinas Cross, from Aberystwyth, name unknown (two bodies later discovered, one an elderly person about 60, and another younger and the name SWANSEA TRADER)…. The EAGLE, Evan Richards, wife and child lost, but master and crew saved… a boat marked TWIN SISTERS came ashore seven miles south of this port , William Poster master… another boat came ashore by Penroe, below the harbour, marked LAUREL, Amlwch, John Reece, master….’

The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, on 29 October and 5 November 1859, printed information gathered by a local correspondent:

‘The JOHN ST BARBE, laden with oats for Gloucester ran ashore, and had one man drowned. The schooner Thomas, of London, ran ashore, two men lost. The Bideford palacca, a total wreck, all hands lost; three pilot boats stoved in, and rendered quite useless, whilst others were driven ashore at high water mark. Five vessels were driven ashore on the west mud, near Penarth,—the BLANCH, of Bridgwater, laden with oats, a total wreck; the John of Bristol, got off the following tide, lost her rudder and sustained other damage. The ADA and the AVON, of Bristol, were sunk and lost their rigging, sails, &c. Two strange vessels were wrecked near Lavernock Point and went to pieces, name and place of hailing unknown, all hands-supposed to be lost. A brig, laden with pitwood, total wreck, crew drowned. The KINGSTON, of Cork, and the LOUIS ALBERT (a French brig), and the FOUR BROTHERS and FOUR SISTERS, of London; all stranded and much damaged. ... A little smack called the MERLIN, which was employed in carrying lime stones from Barry to Cardiff, was lost, and the captain and his brother, and a man who used to help them on the beach, were drowned. The three bodies were conveyed to Barry Church.’

‘… The Polacca brig which sunk off Cardiff Sands, is the SUSAN, of Bideford… Three Bristol pilot boats have sunk at Sully Island; crew saved. Also, the Mary (sloop), of Milford, with loss of three men…

These reports begin to reveal how widespread and devastating the storm had been all around the coast.

Find out more about some of the ships that were lost during the storm on your stretch of coast with this collection.

Sources include:
Pembrokeshire Herald and General Advertiser, 11 November 1859
Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, Glamorgan, Monmouth, and Brecon Gazette

To find out more about your local lifeboat station, follow this link to the Royal National Lifeboat Institute WWW site:

Here are some of the home pages of present day lifeboat stations around the Welsh coast - note how many were established in the first half of the 19th century as a result of Victorian philanthropy:

There are many online resources for Samuel Plimsol, the link to one is shown below:

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