Men of the sea; 1869

Not surprisingly, local folk have always looked to the sea for their favour and fortunes.

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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 the 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 had been 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 it also harboured tragedy for the fishermen of the town.

The blustery weather certainly wasn’t in their favour that day, ‘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 were witnesses who  would be  ‘entirely unprepared for the terrible sensation that awaited them.’

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Folks stood 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, 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, many a celebration would be enjoyed that night at inns and taverns around town.

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.

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First to climb in was fifty-seven year old William Watch. Despite his good 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 on Chapelhay Stairs along with his wife Elizabeth and their growing brood.

Fellow fisherman, Samuel Chick, climbed in next, he was a mere youngster 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 he was a man with a checkered past?

Rowing hard against the winds, the four headed for the tell-tell signs of the rich vein of pilchards, their vessel sat low in the water at the back, weighed down by nets and rope.

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Once they reached their destination, the fishermen hurriedly began to lay their nets. Only problem was, added weight at the rear of the boat made her sink her even lower.

Fate waited patiently in the wings.

With that, a sudden swell swamped their low-lying boat, overturning her and catapulting all four men in choppy seas.

William Watch, Samuel Chick and George Watts tried desperately to right her again.‘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.’  But it was not to be, ‘ at last, exhausted, they sank.’

Back on land, the unfolding tragedy was watched by horrified crowds.

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 kept his eyes firmly on the spot where he had witnessed ‘ Watch rising and sinking,’ but once they reached the spot, he 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 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. Far too late to save anyone that was still entangled in the waters below.

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 the shore, where crowds had gathered.

Once on land, Watch’s now motionless body was laid out on the shingle, he was soon 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 to keep the rapidly gathering crowds back from the scene of the tragedy.

Two surgeons from the 51st Regiment arrived, they attempted to help local doctors in their frantic attempts to revive a 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, men were still searching for the missing bodies of 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.

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Three days later, 27-year-old Samuel Chick followed in his friends footsteps, his body having 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 there he stayed.

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Why not check out my ‘Tales from around the Victorian World.’ 

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for all sorts of Victorian snippets.

https://victoriantalesfromaroundtheworld.wordpress.com/2017/01/

 

or if Weymouth’s military history is your cup of tea try Nothe Fort and Beyond…

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https://nothefortandbeyond.wordpress.com/blog/

1872; Chesil shipwreck; death, drowning and detention, human nature at its very best and 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 the steep pebble bank as maybe their last, or maybe their salvation.

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

An 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 bottles spirits would be washed ashore, and men, women and children have been known to take advantage of these, often not even 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 in november a ship had set sail from London, bound for Sidney Australia, on board her were a crew of 30 and 60 odd passengers.

She was the Royal Adelaide, an iron ship of 1,385 tons, fairly modern for her time, many a sailing ship in this period was still totally of wooden construction, but the Adelaide was an iron vessel, with stout iron 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 the 25th November.

Under the command of William Hunter as ships master, she was coming up through the channel, somehow the wrong calculations were made as she sailed, and as visibility was poor, it wasn’t until the last moment that the master realised that 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. The fierce winds and tides swept the hapless ship back towards the fearsome Chesil bank and danger.

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

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

By now, the master and his crew realised that they were in imminent danger of coming to grief on the 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, the second mate and the ships carpenter were stood on the rolling deck with axes in hand should the order be given to chop the masts down.

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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 before, 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.

The waves surged and crashed around the stricken vessel as she lurched her way towards the boiling shore, the 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 ships crew jumped overboard and attempted to make his way through the pounding surf for the shore with a line. He never made it…the back tow of the waves smashed him against the side of the vessel, and beaten senseless, down he went.

From on shore the first to attempt a rescue were the Portland fishermen, without a thought to their own safety, they had plunged into the surging waves and managed to get a line across to the ship, not far behind were the coastguard men ready and waiting, they fired 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 the 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 the waves broke over the slowly fracturing ship.

Two more of the crew attempted to go over the side of the vessel to reach the safety of the shore, they were both seen hanging onto the 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, the men desperately trying to hang on, once again, waves forced the ship to roll back  towards shore, both men could hold no longer, their arms exhausted, first one, then the other dropped like stones, their bodies crushed like eggshells under the hull of the violently rolling vessel.

At last the crew on board managed to get the second line fixed, and the basket working.

Now they could start to get the frantic passengers ashore.

At first all went well, five women and several of the men were transferred safely across the 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, he had them gripped tightly in his arms.

One of the frantic women waiting on board snapped “No, indeed, I will save no one’s child”.

But no one was moving!

Sensing time was short, and seeing  no other way, Hunter, the master,  grabbed one of the children, climbed into the basket and rode safely to shore, handing the small 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.

He could only watch with a heavy heart from shore, it was now a case of every man woman and child for themselves.

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Once the master had crossed, people began to realise the dire urgency, the ship was starting to break up in the fierce 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.

The second young 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 the innocent little body straight from his arms…another one to Davy Jones.

Then, through the uproar of the surging sea and the 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 the rolling and twisting of the vicious seas, snapped like a twig underfoot.Image

There were still three people left aboard, if they wanted to survive, they needed to get off the boat.

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 the basket had been dragged onto shore, she had been swamped by the waves and had 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, but he was a big built chap, very tall and heavy set…too heavy for the equipment…the line broke, and 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 the 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 as many of  the items as they were washed ashore as they could carry. The tide of marauding humanity too overwhelming for the 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 whole sale plundering.

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A few were later arrested and taken before the 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. He was a respectable business man who owned a draper and grocers shop in Fortunes Well on Portland.

He was fined 40s and costs.

Twenty-five year old Jonathan Lane, a 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 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 the bodies were washed ashore, a series of burials took place on Portland 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)

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Read on for part 2.

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

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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)