Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Royal Charter - A Famous Shipwreck Forgotten Part 1

The South Australian Advertiser, 09JAN1860, pg3
I always find it incredibly interesting to see how tragedies were viewed during the time period in which they occurred.  This one is so gripping, I thought it appropriate to share during this blog series on the Royal Charter.  The article was taken from the Australian newspaper The South Australian Advertiser and published on January 9th, 1860.

Keep in mind that the Royal Charter was no ordinary ship.  It was its own modern-day miracle.  Cutting edge of the time.  It was a hybrid of sorts.  Instead of relying solely on sails which were at the mercy of the winds (or lack thereof), this ship could engage it's engine when winds were lacking.  It would have been highly desirable to travel on such a ship. 

Regardless of the ship traveled on, such a long journey was dangerous, but the sheer loss of life was, and is, incredible.  No woman or child survived this shipwreck.  I often wonder how my 3rd great grandmother got news of the wreck and how she was sure that her husband was one of the lost.  Did she write a letter?  Did she have a relative send one?  Did she assume when she heard nothing that he was dead?  To be widowed in 1859 with 2 young children and living in a coal patch town had to have been scary.  It had to have added to the misery.  Would she be turned out of the house that her husband built on company property?  How would she live and care for her children?  I do have some of these answers, but for now enjoy the gripping drama that unfolds (why doesn't Hollywood make this into a movie?):

"The Wreck of the Royal Charter.

[From the Home News.]

On the morning of the 27th October the Times published a brief telegram announcing the 'loss, on her way from Queenstown to Liverpool, of the Royal Charter, with over 400 passengers on board, of which number only about 20 were saved.'  It was not till about noon on the same day that this startling announcement was confirmed; and even then hopes were still cherished that it contained some element of exaggeration.  That so famous a ship, which had been telegraphed two days before as being off Queenstown after a most prosperous voyage from Melbourne, should have been utterly lost within two or three hours' sail from Liverpool, with an enormous freight of life and treasure, appeared a catastrophe so appalling in its magnitude and suddenness as to be all but incredible.  People ventured to hope that at least a large number of the passengers might have been safely landed at some point of the coast which did not possess the means of rapid communication; and that in a few hours more we should receive tidings of their rescue.  The hope was vain.  A mournful accumulation of authentic intelligence from the scene of the wreck proved ere long beyond the possibility of a doubt that the first announcement, instead of being an exaggeration, was actually an under statement of the disaster.  In another day, by putting together the various particulars supplied by the survivors, the newspapers were enabled to publish the following compendious narrative of one of the most astounding tragedies on record: -

After a splendid passage from Melbourne, accomplished in 58 days, and after having landed 13 passengers at Queenstown, and telegraphed her safe arrival to the owners, the Royal Charter made for Liverpool on the 25th of October.  She had sailed from Melbourne with 388 passengers on board, and a crew, including officers, of 112 persons.  After leaving Queenstown she took on board from a steam-tug 11 riggers who had been assisting in working a ship to Cardiff.  Thus she had now on board 498 persons.  Her cargo was small, consisting mainly of wool and skins.  A more important item of her freight was gold and specie, which at the lowest estimate is here put at L500,000.  On the evening of October 25, there was blowing from the E.N.E. a violent gale, which fell with full force on the ill-fated ship.  She arrived off Point Lynas at 6 o'clock that evening, and for several hours Captain Taylor continued throwing up signal rockets, in the hope of attracting the attention of a pilot.  None made his appearance.  The gale increased in violence; the ship was making leeway, and drifting gradually towards the beach.  It was pitch dark; no help was at hand.  The captain let go both anchors, but the gale had now increased to a hurricane, and had lashed the sea up to madness.  The chains parted, and not withstanding that the engines were worked at their full power, the Royal Charter continued to drift towards the shore.  At 3 a.m. she struck the rocks in four fathoms of water.  The passengers, a large portion of whom were women and children, had till  this moment no idea of the imminence of their peril.  The most perfect discipline and order prevailed.  The masts and riggings were cut adrift, but caused no relief, as the ship began to thump on the sharp-pointed rocks with fearful rapidity.  Shortly after she struck, the ship was thrown broadside on, perfectly upright upon the shelving stony beach, the head and stern lying due east and west, the former not being more than 20 yards from a projecting rock.  At this juncture one of the crew, a Maltese, named Joseph Rogers, nobly volunteered to struggle through the heavy surf and convey a rope on shore.  Though it was not believed by any one that danger was imminent, the captain gave the order, and Rogers ably fulfilled his duty.  A strong hawser was then passed and secured on shore, and to this was rigged a boatswain's chair.  While this was going on a fearful scene was being enacted in the saloon.  An attempt had been made by a Mr. Hodge, a clergyman, to perform a service; but the violent thumping of the vessel on the rocks, and the sea which poured into the cabin, rendered this impossible.  The passengers were collected here, and Captain Withers and Captain Taylor were endeavouring to allay their fears by the assurance that there was at any rate no immediate danger, when a succession of tremendous waves struck the vessel and absolutely broke her in half amidships.  Shortly afterwards the foremost portion was again torn in half, and the ship began to break up rapidly.  Several of the crew saved themselves by means of the hawser, while the remainder were hurled upon the rocks by the waves;  all the officers perished.  Captain Taylor was the last man seen alive on board.  He had lashed his body to a spar and was drowned.  The whole number saved out of the 498 persons on board was 39.

A number of stirring leading articles on the wreck of the Royal Charter soon appeared in all the journals.  Of these the most remarkable was one which appeared in the Daily News.  We extract it here in full, as it gives the most vivid picture we have yet seen of all the salient features of the terrible Catastrophe: - "

To be continued...