1872; Chesil Shipwreck; Death, Drowning and Detention. Human Nature at its Very Best & Worst!

Lyme Bay and Chesil beach have always been notorious amongst sailors of old (and new!) Many a ship and its crew and passengers have seen the sight of thunderous waves breaking on Chesil’s steep pebble bank as maybe their last, or maybe their salvation.

Storm sea at Chesil Cove

Since time immemorial the subject of shipwrecks have meant many things to the people who live near by…courage, in trying to rescue to poor souls from a watery grave.

Income, gathering up any booty washed ashore from the stricken ship and it’s passengers. (Great examples of this still exist such as the wreck of the MSC Napoli beached off Lyme Bay 2007.)

Finally, opportunity. Frequently barrels or bottled spirits would be washed ashore and men, women and even children have been known to take advantage of these, often not bothering to move from their landing place on the shore. If it was too big or too heavy to move and hide away in safety, they would imbibe somewhat to excess there and then!

Such was the sad case in 1872, much reported in the national news because of the shocking scenes that were witnessed after.

One Saturday morning late November a ship set sail from London, bound for Sidney Australia. On board were a crew of 30 along with 60 odd passengers.

She was the Royal Adelaide, an iron ship of 1,385 tons, fairly modern for her time. Many a ship of this period was still totally of wooden construction, but the Adelaide was an iron vessel, with stout masts and strong wire rigging.

Gales had been battering the South coast for some time and had not improved by the time of the disaster, the night of 25th November.

Under command of the ship’s master, William Hunter, she was sailing up through the channel, but somehow the wrong calculations were plotted and as visibility was poor, it wasn’t until the last moment that the master realised he wasn’t where he thought he should have been, heading for the relative safety of Portland Roads.

Coastguards keeping close watch from the shore could see the ship just off Chesil through the thick fog, but she seemed to turn and veer out to sea again.

All was well, so they thought, but the master had left these alterations too late. Fierce winds and tides swept the hapless vessel back towards the fearsome churning waves of Chesil bank and danger.

While trying to set her back on a safe course, they had raised the sails, but powerful gusts simply ripped straight through the heavy canvas of the jib and main topmast staysails tore like mere tissue paper.

Battling against worsening elements, they slowly heaved their useless tattered sails down again, fastening them to the masts, but they rapidly were loosing control of the vessel.

By now, master and his crew realised they were in imminent danger of coming to grief on Dorset’s infamous bank, where over the centuries, so many ships and and people had been claimed by Davy Jones.

Hunter had his crew standing by ready. Its second mate and ships carpenter stood on the rolling deck with axes in hand should the order be given to chop the masts down.

Rescuers on shore

Rockets were fired to alert those on shore of their plight, but huge crowds were already gathering on the beach, like crows around carrion, well aware of the ships impending fate.

They had seen it all too often. Some with great sadness in their hearts for those poor souls on board. Some with a greedy eye to ill gotten gains to be had.

Waves surged and crashed around the stricken vessel as she lurched her way towards the boiling shore. Adelaide’s second mate stood fast at the rails, short lead line in hand, calling out the depths as she rolled ever closer, 15ft, 13ft, 10ft…..then she grounded, swung broadside, and was firmly wedged on the shingle…but not quite close enough!

One of the crew jumped overboard, attempting to make his way through the pounding surf for the shore with a line. He never made it…the powerful waves back tow smashed him against the side of the vessel. Beaten senseless, down he went.

From on shore the first to attempt a rescue were Portland fishermen. Without a thought to their own safety, they plunged into surging waves and managed to get a line across to the ship. Not far behind were the coastguard men ready and waiting, firing their rockets towards the now dangerously rolling ship.

Unfortunately the panicking crew on board had concentrated on the first line to reach them, that of the fishermen, they were busy rigging it to their masts to attach the basket.

The line wasn’t up to the job. It snapped.

It took them some time to get the second line up and running. Passengers by now were on deck and crying for their salvation. Women and children hugged each other, hanging onto what they could to save themselves from being washed overboard as waves broke over the slowly fracturing ship.

Two more crew men attempted to go over the side of the vessel to reach the safety of shore. They were both seen hanging onto the vessel’s side when a sudden large wave broke and within seconds the ship rolled back towards the open sea. Watching from shore the people could only gaze on in despair while the men desperately tried to hang on.

Once again, waves forced the ship to roll back shorewards. No longer able to maintain their grip, arms exhausted, first one, then the other dropped, their bodies crushed like eggshells under the violently rolling hull.

At last the crew on board managed to get the second line fixed, and the rescue basket working. Now they could start to get passengers ashore.

At first all went well. Five women and several men were transferred safely across boiling seas…but then, for what ever reason, absolute fear, panic, the master could not get people to climb into the basket and head for safety.

One desperate father on board was begging someone, anyone, to take his two small children who were gripped tightly in his arms.

One of the women waiting on board to be rescued was heard to have snapped “No, indeed, I will save no one’s child”.

But no one was moving!

Sensing time was short and seeing  no other way, Master Hunter grabbed one of the children, climbed into the basket and rode safely to shore, handing the traumatised child over to the care of those on the beach. He attempted to get back to rescue the others, but was stopped by the coastguards. Now he could only watch with a heavy heart from shore, it was a case of every man woman and child for themselves.

The power of Chesil waves.

However, once the ship’s master had crossed, people began to realise the urgency. Adelaide was starting to break up from the fierce pounding seas. Falling spars had already knocked two men in the maelstrom. Water was surging through the sides of the boat.

If they didn’t get off now, they wouldn’t get off at all.

One by one, terrified crew and passengers were hauled over the swirling abyss between ship and shore.

Survivors being removed from the ship to shore basket.

The second child of the distraught father was handed to a male passenger to carry with him as he crossed, but half way over, a breaking wave swept his tiny body straight from the man’s arms…another one to Davy Jones.

Then over the incessant roar of surging sea and howling winds came a resounding crack, described by many as the noise of a volley of musketry being fired.

The hull of the vessel, no longer able to cope with rolling and twisting on the seabed floor, simply snapped like a twig underfoot.


There were still three people left aboard. If they wanted to survive, they needed to get off now.

Reluctant to get into the swinging basket, 33 year-old Mrs Irons had hung back, but realising that it was the only way to be saved, she frantically clambered in and prayed for her salvation to the Lord.

He didn’t hear.

By the time Mrs Irons and basket was dragged onto shore, she had been swamped by waves and breathed her last. (Buried Portland, St John 28th Nov)

Once again the life saving basket was hauled back to the stricken vessel.

This time a German passenger clambered in, a big built chap, tall and heavy set…too heavy for the equipment…the line broke. Down it, and he, went.

Now only a solitary soul remained on the doomed vessel.

A seventy-two year old lady who had been bed bound ever since leaving the port of London. Despite the desperate attempts of passengers and crew to get her ashore, she was adamant that she was staying put in her bed.

The Good Lord would decide her fate…and he did.

But that wasn’t to be the end of the tragedy…oh no.

The vessel had been carrying casks of rum and brandy. There was money and fun to be had here.

Despite soldiers of the 77th regiment and coastguards being placed on the beach to protect valuable (and not so valuable) goods as they came ashore, what followed was human nature at its worst.

Local people, even reputable traders from near and far came and gathered up as many of  the items as they washed ashore and as they could carry. A tide of marauding humanity too overwhelming for those men posted to guard the goods be able to do anything about. All they could do was stand and watch as men, women and children, wreckers… took part in wholesale plundering.

letter Civic Society. 1

A few were later arrested and taken before local courts to be made examples of by the Receiver of Wrecks.

Thirty-four year old Henry Cosser had spirited away one of the head boards from a ships bed. A seemingly respectable business man who owned a draper and grocers shop in Fortunes Well on Portland.

Fined 40s and costs.

Twenty-five year old Jonathan Lane, a farm labourer from Reform on Portland, had made off with his ill gotten gains, a spade. According to him, he wanted it as a  memento.

He was fined £5 and costs.

Even worse, those large kegs of spirits that ended up strewn along the beach…were opened there and then. Drunken bodies lay all around, too intoxicated to crawl from the sea spray soaked wet pebbles.

More loss of life from exposure and alcohol poisoning. (That’ll be a tale for another day)

Over the next few days as bodies were washed ashore, a series of burials took place on Portland at the church of St Johns for those whose remains  were found.

Some remained unidentified.

Found mariner; name unknown, buried November 27th.

Found mariner;  name unknown, buried November 28th.

Catherine Irons; age 33, passenger, buried November 28th.

William Edwards; passenger, buried November 29th.

Sonia Fowler; passenger, age 72, buried November 29th.

Matthew Clayton; age 37, buried December 2nd.

Buried in Wyke Regis church yard;

Rhoda Bunyan; passenger, age 6 years, buried on the November 29th. (a little note at the bottom of the parish records X Drowning in landing from the wreck of the Royal Adelaide)


Information taken from the official enquiry held December 1872 at Weymouth’s Guildhall.

Read on for part 2.

1872;Chesil Royal Adelaide shipwreck; part 2. Armageddon!


http://www.burtonbradstock.org.uk/History/Wrecks%20off%20Burton%20Bradstock/Historical%20list%20of%20wrecks.htm (excellent site covering shipwrecks on Chesil, and an illustration of the Adelaide herself in her dying moments)

http://www.jurassiccoastline.com/jurassic_Info1b.asp?ID=132&AreaID=132 (details and images of the shipwreck today in its watery grave)

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Is it true that the Aran fishermen wore different knitted sweaters so if they were shipwrecked they’d be able to identify the bodies? I don’t know where I heard that. I’m petrified of ocean storms.


  2. cannasue says:

    Depends which site you read, some say it,s purely a myth.
    I,m fascinated by the sea, not surprising as I live next to it! As soon as there,s a storm I have to get my camera out…but saying that I,m still very wary of the sea, having seen a couple of people washed away by waves, I know how quickly things can go wrong!
    Being on a boat in a storm going round the North Cape is quite an experience too…especially when it,s pitch black and you realise that you’re hundreds of miles from anywhere and anyone else. My hat off to those who set sail to the other side of the world when travel took months, and they literally were on their own once out in the oceans.
    On a more pleasant note, I love knitting Arran.


  3. calmgrove says:

    I wonder if John Meade Falkner, who would have been around 14 at this time and a schoolboy in Weymouth, actually witnessed this horrifying event. As you know, he describes a very similar scene at the climax of Moonfleet, with many details matching the real-life wreck of the Royal Adelaide (which you describe so vividly).

    Some other fascinating details about him, by a present-day relative of his, are here: http://www.rjbw.net/JMFalkner.html


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s