Not surprisingly, Weymouth and Portland folk have always looked to the sea for their favour and fortunes.
However, old Father Neptune is a fickle master, sometimes he gives us untold riches…but he also has the ability to take those we love. Such was the sad case in September of 1869.
You and I might think of Greenhill as a place where we dabble our toes when the weather is warm, or somewhere we sit in pleasant sunshine to enjoy stunning views with a cup of tea or an ice cream. The long shingle beach littered with the last of the sun worshipers and the hardy bathers.
To our ancestors though, Greenhill was very much a workplace. One September Sunday became a memorable day in Weymouth’s history. It was when rich pickings entered the bay, a vast shoal of pilchards spotted heading for the beach. Of course, despite atrocious conditions, local fishermen did what had to be done, chase the liquid money. ‘During the whole of the day parties of fishermen had been engaged on the beach near Greenhill, in the pilchard fishery.’
But that Sunday also harboured tragedy for the fishermen. The blustery weather certainly wasn’t in their favour, ‘the wind which was blowing in very strong gusts from the north-west’ had made for a ‘very sloppy sea.’
Our Victorian ancestors were out in force that Sunday, partaking in the day of the Lord, dressed warmly to keep out the Autumn chill, little knowing that as they strolled ‘in the presence of hundreds of promenaders, bent on pleasure,’ they would become witnesses that were ‘entirely unprepared for the terrible sensation that awaited them.’
Folks lined the grassy slopes along Greenhill common, watching as men dragged their wooden boats and heavy rope nets down the beach and into the water. Time after time they rowed out into the wind swept bay, laying their nets behind them. Having circled round, they then began the hard work. Men heaved and hauled in their cumbersome nets, moving ever closer to shore. The sea literally boiled with thousands of erupting fish, screaming gulls circled above, diving again and again to greedily snatch their fill. A productive days fishing was on the cards. Fishermen spoke of many a celebration that would be enjoyed that night at inns and taverns around town.
But about four o’clock that afternoon,‘opposite the house of Mr Trenchard,’ four men clambered into their vessel, ‘a trough, a little flat-bottomed craft.’ They too were going to grab their share of nature’s riches.
First to climb in was fifty-seven-year-old William Watch. Despite his goodly age, William was a strong man and a powerful swimmer. He sometimes worked as a porter, but fishing was in his blood, it didn’t always pay the bills though. William lived in a cottage on Chapelhay Stairs along with his wife Elizabeth and their growing brood.
Fellow fisherman, Samuel Chick, clambered in next, a mere whippersnapper at 27. Samuel Charles was the illegitimate son of Eliza Chick. Mother and son lived in Conygar Lane.
Also in the boat was William Chick of West Quay (or John, depending on which newspaper you read!)
The forth man to board that fated vessel was George Watts, a Blandford carpenter, but one who had moved recently to Wyke Regis. During the inquest he was referred to as ‘George ‘Smuggler’ Watts.’ Maybe a man with a somewhat checkered past?
Rowing hard against the wind, the four headed for the tell-tell signs of the rich vein of pilchards, their vessel’s stern low in the water, weighed down by nets and rope.
Once they reached their destination, the fishermen hurriedly began to lay their nets. Only problem was, the added weight of sodden nets dragging in the water made her stern sink her even lower. Fate waited patiently in the wings…but only for so long. A sudden swell swamped their low-lying boat, overturning her and catapulting all four fishermen into choppy seas.
William Watch, Samuel Chick and George Watts tried desperately to right her again. But ‘Hampered as it is supposed they were, with the ropes or net, they could not manage it properly, and turned her over three or four times.’ Though it was not to be, ‘at last, exhausted, they sank.’
Back on land, the unfolding tragedy was watched by horrified spectators. Boats set out from the shore, rowing furiously against the waves in a desperate attempt to reach the floundering men.
One of those boats heading for the upturned vessel contained Sergeant Brine, P.C. Hansford and William Burt.
Old William Burt kept his eyes firmly on the spot where he witnessed ‘ Watch rising and sinking,’ but once they reached the spot, Watch was not to be seen, only a man’s cap being tossed around on the swell. William reached in as far as he safely could and managed to grab hold of someone’s hair. Hauling in the fully clothed, sodden body was difficult, but the men managed and lay it out in the bottom of their boat. He was still alive, but only just. This was William Watch.
William Chick, (or was it John?) had launched himself clear of the tangled nets and rope as their boat overturned. He was found exhausted, frozen, but still clinging onto an oar some way away from the boat. William Chick was hauled ashore by one of the many men who had taken to the waters in a desperate bid to save the drowning fishermen.
By now the upturned fishing boat had righted itself again, but no sign of any of its other crew members. Fears were that they had been trapped by their own heavy nets and ropes which were now dragging the seabed. Sergeant Brine and P.C. Hansford clambered into the empty vessel. They frantically tried to free the dragging nets,‘but the party found they had but one knife between them.’ It was a slow and arduous task as they cut one rope after another, though far too late to save anyone still entangled in the waters below.
Meanwhile, William Burt, of a goodly age, but one that hadn’t robbed him of his strength, rowed a semi-conscious William Watch towards the beach. At one stage, Watch rallied slightly and muttered “Oh, Burt,” and he moved his hands and feet,’ but soon after fell silent. It took old William nearly fifteen minutes to finally reach dry land, where crowds had gathered.
Once ashore, Watch’s now motionless body was laid out on the shingle, he was quickly stripped of his sodden clothing. Desperate to help, residents of Brunswick Terrace had been busy, they ‘pulled the blankets from their own beds, and hurried down to the beach.’
Even Mayor Devenish arrived on scene to take charge, bringing with him stone water bottles and a supply of suitable stimulants. He ordered that troops be sent for to keep the rapidly gathering crowds back from the scene of the tragedy. That summons for help also brought two surgeons of the 51st Regiment from the barracks, they attempted to help local doctors in their frantic attempts to revive a by now seemingly lifeless Watch. For the next two hours, Dr Tizard, Dr Griffin and Dr Rhodes tried all within their means to resuscitate William Watch’s stone cold body, but to no avail.
Back out in the bay, fellow fishermen were still searching for the missing corpses of their comrades, George Watts and Samuel Chick. There was not a sign of them.
The inquest on the death of William Watch was held in the Burdon Hotel Tap, where his corpse was laid out for jurors to peruse. When Superintendent Vickery was questioned by the coroner about William Watch, he rather oddly replied that ‘he believed Watch had left eight or nine children; but Burt made a mystery about that.’ The body of 57-year-old William Watch, (father of an undisclosed number of offspring,) was laid to rest in Wyke Regis churchyard on the 24th September 1869.
Three days later, 27-year-old Samuel Chick followed in his friends footsteps, his body having later been washed ashore. He was also buried at Wyke Regis.
There is no further mention of George ‘Smuggler’ Watts. Presumably old Neptune wound his cold tentacles around him and held him tight.
If Weymouth’s military or naval history is your cup of tea try my other blog Nothe Fort and Beyond…
My first book of Nothe Fort and Beyond is now out.
It can be purchased at the Nothe Fort and Weymouth Museum bookshops.
Or on Amazon priced at £10.