Monday, December 30, 2013

The Heroes of the Royal Charter

by Gillian E Hamer, Author of The Charter

The legend of the 1859 shipwreck of the Royal Charter off the coast of the island of Anglesey, North Wales, is a story I have grown up with from a young age. One of my earliest memories of holidays on the island was using a family friend’s metal detector on the beach at Red Wharf Bay. My enthusiastic screams of delight as I found penny after penny in the sand – all washed-up buried treasure of course – may have been more muted had I realised the pennies had been buried for me to find.

But that summer’s day must have lit a spark somewhere deep inside. My family now have a cottage on Anglesey, and I’ve spent many days visiting the old church at Llanallgo which features heavily in the story, and walking the cliff paths at Point Lynas, the spot where the ship sank. All of these memories came together in a decision many years ago that the shipwreck had to feature in one of my crime novels. The voices carried on the winds that I imagine in my head as I walk the rugged coastline seem to need to be heard. And, as I watch white water break over jagged rocks, it’s too easy to imagine the terror of the women and children who died there.

There were many rumours of local families who stole gold from the bodies of victims washed-up along the shoreline, turning those who helped on the fateful day from heroes to villains overnight. Despite the accusations, those same twenty-eight men are honoured to this day in the church where the graves many of the victims and a memorial to the ship are still visited every year by hundreds of travellers captivated by the story. Through many hours of research, I’ve never found any truth in these stories of treachery, although I did use my own fictional interpretation of the rumours as the backdrop to some of the murder and mayhem in my novel, The Charter.

However, what I did find through my research were a number of heroic men--heroes in many different ways. Here in a series of eyewitness and media accounts from the day, I’ll try to recount a story that has captivated me for almost thirty years.

Letter from William Foster, ship’s Carpenter to his wife.
Moelfre, Red Wharf Bay,
October 26th 1859.

My Dear Wife – I am sorry to inform you that the ship is a complete wreck. She has gone to pieces this morning at about 5 o’clock. There are only 25 to 30 of us saved out of about 400 souls. Dear wife, give my love to the children and tell them I will be home as soon as this letter. Remember me to Mr & Mrs Rodgers, and all inquiring friends. I shall tell you about it when I come home. So no more at the present from your affectionate husband.
(letter courtesy Liverpool Records office)

As tragic as his tale, there’s no doubt William Foster was one of the luckiest crew members aboard the Royal Charter. He and the ships’ boatswain were the only two officers to survive when the ship hit rocks near the small beach of Porth Alerth, near Moelfre on the North East coast of Anglesey, on the morning of October 26th 1859.

It had been a very different story just four short years earlier when the ship was launched to much pride and celebration in its nearby hometown port, although the launch, too, was not without its own drama.

As reported by the Northern Daily Times – Wednesday Aug 1st 1855:

"The New Screw Steamer Royal Charter

"Yesterday was fixed for the launch of the magnificent screw steamer Royal Charter, built for Messers GIBBS BRIGHT & Co, of the Australian Steam Navigation No. The vessel was built at Sandicroft Works, on the Dee near Queens Gerry, Flintshire. The lines of the vessel were originally laid down for Messers CRAM and Co as a clipper ship.

"Much interest was felt in the launch of the vessel, great numbers travelled yesterday from Liverpool and Chester to be present. From 9am till 4pm rain poured down, yet despite this fact, both banks of the Dee were crowded with spectators, and boats gaily decked with flags passed up and down the river.

"Precisely at 1pm the great vessel moved in its place and the wine bottle, which consecrates its “christening” was flung by Mrs S BRIGHT, who performed the ceremony. The vessel glided on gracefully, amid cheers and waving, but, just after entering the water, met, with a sudden check, and rested motionless as she lay before. Every effort was made to free her by the tug boats, but without effect. She was propped up firmly to wait for the next tide.

"She is full rigged, with double yards and topsails. Her saloon will have 50 first class passengers, she has 28 state rooms, with double berths, each room, 10ft by 6ft 4 ins. When sailing she will spread as much canvas as the Great Britain. She carries trunk engines, with direct action, the latest patent by Messers PENN and Co of London, similar to those in the HIMALAYA. Mr William PATERSON of Bristol, builder of the GREAT BRITAIN, is the builder of the ROYAL CHARTER.

"She has six water tight compartments, and an immense box keelson running the full length of the vessel, and has the capacity to carry 5,500 gallons of water. She carries Messers TROTMAN and PORTERS patent anchors, which, along with the cables were manufactured at Messers WOOD Bros, Dee Iron Works."

It’s reported that the Royal Charter finally reached the water on 30th August, 1855.

So, what took this steam ship – modern and advanced for its time – to end its life just a few short years later in one of the biggest loss of lives the Welsh coast had ever seen? It was a tragedy that affected so many people in many different ways. Charles Dickens, for example, who visited the scene and described the aftermath of the event in his novel, The Uncommercial Traveller based on the tragedy. He wrote to the Meteorological Office and its leader at the time, Robert Fitzroy, who set up the first gale warning service:

“So tremendous had the force of the sea been when it broke the ship, that it had beaten one great ingot of gold, deep into a strong and heavy piece of her solid iron-work: in which several loose sovereigns that the ingot had swept in before it, had been found, as firmly embedded as though the iron had been liquid when they were forced there.”

So determined were the authorities never to see such a tragedy within sight of a shoreline again, the wreck was instrumental in the setting up of the Trinity House Lighthouses that are now such a fundamental part of sea safety around our coasts.

There seems to be have been something of a ‘Titanic mentality’ about the Royal Charter at the time. The ship was so big and grand, a flagship of its fleet, that inspired such national pride that no one could imagine how it could ever fall victim to the seas. The below articles from the Daily Post in April 1859 shows what a huge event it was for the locale when the Royal Charter arrived in port.

"Arrival of the Royal Charter, 6th April 1859.

April 7th.
"The splendid screw-steamer, the Royal Charter, Capt TAYLOR of the Black Ball of Australia Packets arrived in the Mersey yesterday evening after an exceedingly rapid passage of 65 days. She left Port Philip Heads on 21st January and was off Cork at 2am yesterday. She brings 149 passengers and 27,000 ounces of gold."

April 8th.
"The Royal Charter left Hobson’s Bay on 21st January, rounded the Horn on 21st February, 22 days, crossed the line 14th March, 42 days. With lights winds from the equator from 20th February – 7th March, she ran 4079 knots, her average per day being 300 miles, her greatest days run 396 miles. Addresses were presented to the Captain and his officers by the passengers."

Some say that it was this belief, the ‘unsinkability’ of the Royal Charter that led to her demise – and not just the treacherous storm. Passenger numbers were doubled; at the time of her sinking it was reported she was carrying around 371 passengers plus a crew of over one hundred plus other company employees. Exact figures were never confirmed as records were lost with the ship. Many of the passengers were gold miners, returning home after years spent at mines in Australia – these men were rumoured to be carrying large sums of gold around their person, as well as a huge consignment in the ship’s cargo. As sailing time records were broken, pressure was put on the ship’s Captains at the time to try for better times. All of these factors must be taken into account.

On her final journey, as the ship reached the north-western tip of Anglesey on 25th, October 1859 the barometer was dropping, and it was claimed later by some passengers, though not confirmed at later hearings, that the master, Captain Thomas Taylor, was advised to put into Holyhead harbour for shelter. He ignored any such advice and pushed on for Liverpool.

Off Point Lynas, near the fishing port of Moelfre, the Royal Charter tried to pick up the Liverpool pilot, but the wind had now risen to Storm force 10 on the Beaufort Scale and the rapidly rising sea made this impossible. Overnight, the wind rose to Hurricane force 12 in what became known as the ‘Royal Charter gale’ and the Captain sought shelter in Moelfre Bay.

As the wind rose it changed direction from E to NE and then NNE, driving the ship towards the shoreline. At 11pm she anchored, but at 1.30am on the 26th, the port anchor chain snapped, followed by the starboard chain an hour later. Despite frantic attempts to cut the masts to reduce drag, the ship was driven inshore, with the steam engines unable to make headway against the gale. The ship initially grounded on a sandbank, but in the early morning of the 26th, the rising tide drove her onto rocks at Porth Alerth. Battered against the rocks by huge waves whipped up by winds of over 100 mph, she quickly broke up.

At day break, about 5.30am, the wreck was seen from the shore by local men, Thomas Hughes and Mesech Williams who could do nothing but stand and watch the tempestuous sea and the helpless wreck.

“Every moment the horrified spectators expected to see the waves burying in their depths the wrecking vessel, and more intense became their terror and excitement, when they beheld a man let himself down from the decks by a rope into the midst of the breakers.”

The Royal Charter broke up on
these rocks near Moelfre
An eyewitness account from Councillor WAGSTAFF of Bangor, who arrived at the scene early on the morning of Wednesday 26th after confirming rumours of shipwreck with the Customs House, recalls the scene in detail.

“On the beach I saw people from the locality with some survivors. One passenger was rambling about the shore, more like a maniac. He had lost his wife and child. I also spoke to two Cornish miners, who had been long in Australia, they had returned home with their savings and had lost about ten sovereigns each.

"I spoke to a young man, William John FERRIS who said the vessel struck between 2 and 3 am, and they set the bay on fire with signals of distress, they set off blue lights, rockets and fired canons in the hope of getting assistance from shore. A man swam ashore with a hawser and by this means some had been saved.”

That man, also seen from the locals on the shore, was to become a hero, decorated in later years for his selfless actions that night. Crew member, Maltese-born, Guzi Ruggier (also known as Joseph Rogers) managed to struggle through the surf with a line, enabling a few people to be rescued. Many were drowned, weighed down by the belts of gold they carried around their persons, or by the actions of the officers who had herded the women and children below decks for safety during the storm. In total only 21 passengers and 18 crew, all men, survived.

Liverpool Mercury, April 7th 1860

"Jose Rogers, the Maltese sailor who behaved so nobly on the occasion on the wreck of the Royal Charter, arrived in Melbourne as crew of the Great Britain. For thanks from the town, a purse of 40 sovereign was presented to him by the Mayor of Melbourne and the manager of the Theatre Royal."

Liverpool Mercury, September 11th 1897

"Death of a Brave Man

"The death took place yesterday at the Liverpool Northern Hospital of Joseph Rogers, in his 68th year. In October 1859 on the occasion of the wreck of the Royal Charter, on the Anglesea coast, (he being a member of the crew) he performed an act of valour which secured him lasting fame.

"Carrying a rope, he swam through boiling surf to the rocks, and was the means of saving 35 persons by means of a canvas chair. He went twice from ship to shore with a line. His achievement was acknowledged by presentations from the Board of Trade and the Liverpool Sailor’s Homes. He received £200 collected for him from the Liverpool Exchange.

"For several years he kept a small public house in Prison Weint. Until a few years ago, the famous auxiliary screw steamer, Great Britain, lay in the upper reach of the Birkenhead Float, and Rogers, while the caretaker of that ship, used to recount his adventures to curious visitors. He continued to follow the sea and latterly had been skipper of a steam flat on the Mersey.

"He died of bronchitis."

A large quantity of gold was said to have been thrown up on the beach at Porth Alerth, with some families becoming rich overnight. This is recounted by Councillor WAGSTAFF’s eye witness account.

“I saw a number of people searching the beach, when asked what they were searching for, they said ‘Gold’. One man found a bag containing 100 sovereign, up to 300 were found in all, and I’m of the belief all were handed to the Custom House agent, who took names of the finders. There was 20 men employed in taking charge of property found on the beach.

I saw many bodies washed up, among these two children. Everywhere I saw nothing but distress.”

The gold bullion carried as cargo was insured for £322,000.00 but the total value would have been considerably higher due to passengers carrying it on their persons or in the ship’s strong room. After the disaster, there were rumours and allegations for many years of local residents that became rich from the spoils of the wreck or by exploiting grieving relatives, and the ‘Moelfre Twenty-Eight’ who had been involved in the rescue attempts were forced to send an open letter to The Times newspaper trying to set the record straight and refute the accusations.

Many of the bodies recovered from the sea and shore were buried at St Gallgo’s Church, Llanallgo, where the graves and a memorial can still be seen. There is also a memorial on the cliff path above the cliffs where the ship struck, which is now part of the Anglesey Coastal Path.

The other unlikely hero, who maybe became the Royal Charter’s final victim, was the Rector of the local parish churches of the area, which included St Gallgo’s, Reverend Stephen Roose Hughes.

As the bodies were recovered from the sea and shoreline and carried up to the village, St Gallgo’s Church became the local mortuary. Furniture was removed to make room for the bodies, and services were moved to the Church School opposite, where later the inquest for the shipwreck was held.

Reverend Roose Hughes features in Dicken’s account of the events. He records the care with which the reverend gentleman carefully recorded the physical details of each body, its clothing, the contents of the pockets and any detail which man enable and identification to be made. Each body was carefully examined by the stream of relatives which soon started to descend on the village and who came one by one to the Rector. In some cases bodies had to be exhumed and taken away after identification. Dickens records that Roose Hughes had written 1075 letters in reply to those which had written to him enquiring after loved ones.

The strain of the event led to the early death of the Rector. He lies amongst those who bodies were recovered from the sea. His gravestone bears the following inscription:

“His noble and disinterested exertions on the memorable occasion of the terrible Wreck of the ‘Royal Charter’ are well known throughout the World. The subsequent effects of those exertions proved too much for his constitution, and suddenly brought him to an early Grave.”

He died on February 4th, 1862, a date on which the life of Stephen Roose Hughes is celebrated annually in St Gallgo’s Church. The oak panelling of the chancel there is in his memory.

The remains of the shipwreck lay to this day in less than five metres of water, just off the rocks at the far end of Porth Alerth beach, now just a series of iron bulkheads, plates and ribs which become covered and uncovered by the shifting sands. Over the years, I’ve heard numerous reports of divers finding coins, sovereigns, pistols, spectacles and other personal items on the wreck site. One television news bulletin around a decade ago featured a diver who reported finding gold bullion half-buried in the sea bed. Running short of air, he failed to free the gold, and when he returned, days later, the sands had covered the area and it remains buried. Teams have air-lifted, water-dredged and metal-detected for other treasure as late as the summer of 2012.

I believe that the Royal Charter still holds treasure and will never give it up. But I also believe the story of her loss and the men that became heroes on that fateful day in October 1859 are just as important as all the buried treasure in the world.

And I hope now you’ve learned a little more about the story of the Royal Charter you believe that too.


If you’d like to purchase my contemporary novel based around the legend of the Royal Charter shipwreck, please click here. Or you can comment below to win a signed paperback (international). Please be sure to leave contact information if you are entering the giveaway.

My other two novels, Closure and Complicit, which also feature historical facts about the island of Anglesey can be found on my website.
You can follow me on Twitter @gillyhamer
And for more details of other books from Triskele, visit our website.


  1. This is such fascinating information. I'd love to read your book!
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  2. Such a fascinating story on which to base a novel!

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