Being on the coast and both valuable ports for trade, Weymouth and Portland have had their fair share of shipping disasters. Take the year 1857 and a peek into local papers reveals a concoction of calamities for those working the local waters.
Even nowadays crowds love to stop and watch Weymouth’s town bascule bridge be raised to let modern day shipping pass through, either the tall masts of yachts sailing majestically back into their moorings in the marina, or sleek cruisers heading out to sea for a days fun.
So it was with our ancestors, like their modern day counterparts, those going about their every day lives and work, grumbled about the delays, even more so when all did not go to plan and town traffic was brought to a stand still.
Come January 1857, a trading vessel from Liverpool sailed into the harbour, safely under command of Captain Thrift. The Escape waited patiently for the middle iron section of the old town bridge to be swung open, she was heading for one of the quayside warehouses to unload her cargo.
Captain Thrift misjudged the state of the tide though, as the Escape started to make her way up through the middle channel, her hull struck the bottom and there she became firmly wedged. There was little that could be done, she was well and truly stuck!
As town ground to a stand still, horse and cart, irate men, women and their goods were left stranded on either side of the harbour, peering across the waters to their desired destinations, their short journeys all but impossible until this problem could be resolved.
The crews frantically unloaded the cargo, hoping that she would raise in the water and set herself free, but that did little apart from keeping the bystanders entertained at their hectic activity. It wasn’t until nearly an hour and a half later and the rising of the tide that the vessel floated free and could proceed on her way into the back harbour.
But like most disasters, there was always someone who made the most of a bad situation and a quick buck to boot. So it was for the rowing boat ferry men, who suddenly found themselves skulling frantically back and forth across the waters, transporting folk galore to and fro.
In May, it was the South-Western steamship The Empress who made the news. As was normal practice, the fair sized vessel was swinging round in the harbour after having returned from the Channel Islands in preparation for her outward bound journey. Unfortunately in doing so within the close confines of the harbour walls, she came into collision with a nearby much smaller vessel, the Hope, which was the pride and joy of local businessman, Mr Francis Lee of Love Lane.
Luckily someone observed the smaller boat being dragged dangerously by her mooring rope and had the gumption to cut her free before any more damage could be done to Mr Lee’s precious vessel.
Later that year the steamers were the downfall of yet more locals. On Friday 19th June, three Weymouth men set about their usual routine, employees of the Channel Islands Steamer Company, all were experienced pilots employed to bring the vessels that plied between Weymouth and the Channel Islands safely into port.
However, that Friday was one that three men would never forget. The youngest of the hard working trio was 35-year-old John Parks, who lived at no 32 Hope Street along with his wife Mary Ann and their brood of 6 children.
The second pilot also residing on the harbourside area, at no 1 Hope Quay, that was 42-year-old William Grant, with his wife Jane, and their daughter Sarah.
Bringing up the proverbial rear was a man of many years experience working the seas in and around the area, 77- year-old William Tizard, recently widowed, who resident at no 2 Cove Row along with his spinster daughters. These men and their families all belonged to a tight knit sea faring community that surrounded the bustling working harbour.
Expecting the imminent arrival of the paddle steamer Cygnus, the men set sail towards Portland in their vessel, it was just another working day for them, little did they know what fate had in store!
The Cygnus rounded Portland and was heading for Weymouth. Spotting the pilots in the distance, the master of the ship, Captain Munns, set course to meet the men who would be guiding her into port. As the vessels drew nearer to each other the captain ordered the engines to be stopped, and the vast paddle wheels that churned the waters to a white froth slowly ground to a halt. Pulling alongside the pilots prepared themselves to board ship.
Then for some unknown reason, the engines sprung into life, and slowly but unstoppably, the great wheels began to turn, faster and faster, churning the surrounding waters into a maelstrom, drawing the smaller vessel ever nearer to disaster. As shocked passengers watched, the inevitable horror unfold before their very eyes.
The youngest of the men, John Parks was quick to react, he threw himself into the sea and swam away from the sucking vacuum as hard as he could.
The other two were not so lucky. Both men and boat were drawn into the churning wheel, the great wooden boards forcing them under the boat and spewing them out again like ears of corn out of a threshing machine. Little remained of their working boat, a few smashed wooden planks, and what was left of the bottom of the hull.
The men fared no better. The battered body of old man Tizard was hauled on board and laid out on the deck, he was still alive, but only just, his terrible injuries revealed the force of those churning paddles.
William Grant was in an even more dire state, where the boards had struck him, his clothing had been torn to shreds, and his body laid prone and senseless on the deck, little chance was given for his survival. Once ashore he was conveyed to his home and into the care of his shocked family. Three doctors were called to tend his wounds, they shook their heads, they had done what they could, but feared the worst, nature and God would decide the mans fate.
Well, someone had obviously been watching over William that day, it was not to be his time, slowly he regained consciousness and his body started to heal.
Only a matter of days after I had written this piece, I came across an old postcard on a well know auction site, and being an avid collector of local history items I snapped it up, not really knowing what it was apart from being Weymouth related.
Having posted it on a Weymouth history Facebook page I was surprised to read this message “The man on the far left is Mr Tizard he was the Weymouth pilot and coxswain of lifeboat, sad to say He was drowned going to pilot a boat ….His son Bill Tizard was a local Weymouth Boatman. (This info come from my friend David Bishop.)” So it seems that the Tizards maintained a long history with boating and piloting in the Weymouth area, and that Neptune wasn’t quite as lenient with one of ‘old man Tizard’s’ relative.
If you enjoy reading stories of Weymouth and Portland of old, why not buy a copy of my book Nothe Fort and Beyond. Enough gossip in there to fill your evenings.
Available at the Nothe Fort and Weymouth Museum bookshops or on Amazon at