Ship of Gold; Ship of Doom.
The Last Voyage of the “Royal Charter”.
The Last Voyage of the “Royal Charter”.
With a registered cargo of almost 200,000 ounces of gold coins, specie and bullion from the Victorian goldfields, plus almost as much again travelling undeclared in the luggage and money belts of many of the Royal Charter’s 400 passengers and crew, the iron clipper with steam auxiliary engines was one of the richest ships to ever sail out of Melbourne. It was Spring in1859 and the Australian gold rush was booming. While hopeful diggers flooded in from every corner of the Earth, many of those who had already struck it rich chose to return to Britain with their fortunes of gold. It was these people who made up the bulk of the Royal Charter’s passenger list, able to pay the premium price for a ride on the fastest passenger ship of the day.
The 60 day voyage back to Britain, sailing around Argentina, across the Atlantic, up along the west coast of Ireland then across to Liverpool, was fast and uneventful (apart from the close approach of an iceberg off Cape Horne) and all aboard looked forward to seeing the shores of England within a couple of days.
Off the Irish coast, with less than 24 hours to harbour, one relaxed passenger described the weather thus: “….. not a breath of wind disturbed the water” as the ship used its auxiliary engines to steam through the calm ocean toward Liverpool. A few hours later the wind began to rise, then “freshened alarmingly” until the ship found itself engulfed by the most ferocious hurricane (force 12) of the 19th century.
Mountainous waves and howling winds drove the ship towards north east Wales, towards the rugged coast of Anglesey Island. The surging seas neutralised the forward motion of the steam engines and the wind changed direction so that it was soon forcing the ship ever closer to the shore. As the cliff lined Welsh coast drew nearer the Captain ordered both bow anchors laid out but the massive chains snapped as soon as they found purchase, puny before the storm’s fury. The captain and crew were powerless to prevent the Royal Charter being driven onto the rock shelves beneath the sheer cliffs of the tiny coastal fishing town of Moelfre.
As the sun rose in a storm lashed sky the residents of the small coastal town gathered on the cliff tops to watch helplessly as the ship was pounded by waves larger than any seen in living memory. There was nothing they could do against such seas other than try to help anyone who the massive waves washed onto the slippery rock shelves. Some of the villagers formed human chains to reach the human jetsam; others made teams with one man tied to a rope running out onto the rocks between waves to grab a survivor and hold him while the men ashore hauled them out of the maelstrom. All morning 28 men from Moelfre worked at great personal risk rescuing the few people who came within their reach.
Meanwhile on the “Royal Charter” all was chaos and terror; the hopelessness of the situation became even more desperate as the 100 meter long ship snapped in two. Then a brave Maltese sailor, Joseph Rogers, volunteered to swim ashore with a line so that a rope could be fastened to the rocks for a bosun’s chair by which the people aboard could be hauled ashore. The men of Moelfre saw the attempt and waited on shore to aid Rogers who amazingly survived the swim. Unfortunately it was too little, too late and of the 460 aboard only 41 survived the day, despite shore and safety being less than 50 meters from the decks of the doomed ship.
By mid-afternoon the 2,719 ton ship had been smashed to pieces; even its strongroom, filled with gold bullion and sovereigns, could not survive the power of the storm. For days and weeks afterward bodies, wreckage and a steady stream of gold sovereigns and bars were thrown ashore by the sea. Many of the bloated corpses carried large quantities of gold. One body had over 100 ounces of gold in two pouches tied around his neck which no doubt drowned him.
No one knows for certain how much of the gold was recovered in those days; it was not something the finders broadcast. We do know that only a small portion of the total fortune was found amongst the slippery, kelp covered rocks shelves and shingle beaches around the wreck site. Several later salvage efforts were rewarded with significant quantities of gold but I was convinced that there was still more gold scattered along Anglesey’s shore.
On our way to Hollyhead to catch the ferry to Ireland we had to pass within a few miles of Moelfre so I pleaded with my Beloved for a detour to inspect the wreck site and swing the detector over the rocks. Dispensation was granted and we swung off the A5 motorway into the narrow lanes of Anglesey Island.
By a fluke of fortune we arrived at Moelfre on the new moon so the tides were very low and the long Welsh summer days meant that I could take advantage of a morning low tide and still have ample light at the next low tide at 9 or 10 in the evening. On top of that the wind was light and blowing offshore. Everything was perfect.
We drove into Moelfre not knowing where we would stay, perhaps by the road-side or at the pub but as we drove into town we saw a sign indicating a caravan park so we turned a little lane and at the end found one of the prettiest caravan parks in Wales situated in a large sheltered paddock, with ocean views, attached to a functioning sheep and grain farm.
Not only ocean views but direct access to the rugged coastal walking paths and just a short walk to the Moelfre pub as well!
The Wreck of the
Prior to arriving in Moelfre we had been camping rough in the Welsh mountains for a while trying to get a photo of a dragon but with no luck; a full port-a-loo, smelly feet and no clean socks Herself and I both were ready for a few days of hot showers, a laundry and other luxuries.
Once the van was parked and showers had it took the rest of the day to find the exact location of the wreck on the rocks directly beneath a hilltop monument to those who lost their lives in the wreck. Conveniently a public walking track goes to the monument and on to the pebbled beach which lies only 60 meters east of where the ship ran aground and which, if it had hit instead of the rocks, would have saved the lives of all on board. Such are the flukes of fate!
I walked a few meters from the monument to the top a cliff that looked down at the wreck site, 150 years had passed and nothing in the scene around me had changed. Moelfre, off to my right was still a tiny village; the fields running down to the cliffs were still dotted with wiry Welsh sheep and the rock shelves below were still covered with sea weed and kelp. The only difference was that today the sea was calm and flat as a pond.
“Surely,” I thought “In amongst the cracks and crevices there are a few bits of gold waiting to be found by someone equipped with the latest 21st century gold detecting technology?”
I knew from my reading that even as recently as the 1980’s people had found gold sovereigns, nuggets and even ingots. I was sure there would be something still there that my Minelab Sovereign would find that others had missed. Find a sovereign with a Sovereign!
The tide was on the ebb with about an hour to low by the time I reached the pebbled beach so I took my Sovereign to the water’s edge and began working parallel to the lapping waves, not on the rocks where the ship ran aground but out from the pebble beach. I would do the rocks at extreme low tide but I reasoned that with the currents and wave action it was possible that some gold might have moved along to the little embayment that created the beach caught as the pebbles were caught.
Well the theory seemed sound and, with the discriminate set to almost full I was soon rewarded with a high pitched squeal from the detector. (I don’t use headphones as I dislike being cut off from the sounds of the environment.)
It took a bit of digging; the target was buried between two large boulders and beneath a sandy gravel of pebbles, rocks and weed. I only had my little metal hand trowel and my numb fingers so it took a while to dig out my first Moelfre sinker. Yes lead does sound a bit like gold and when you are lifting it out of a muddy hole it also feels like gold. Its only when you clean it off you realise what its not and your pulse recedes to normal levels.
Now I have to tell you about Pommy fishermen; they love big sinkers! The bigger the better, I never found a sinker in the U.K. that weighed less than two ounces. So you can imagine how the Sovereign went off; and of course you can not screen them out. So soon I had quite a few ounces of lead but the tide was going out and in half an hour I was out of reach of even the best caster and the sinker problem ceased; to be replaced by the aluminium can problem. It seems that all the aluminium cans in Moelfre buried themselves under the rocks at the low tide mark of this little beach, all in a perfect line. I don’t understand the physics of it but I swear that they are all lined up in a band about a meter wide only along the extreme low tide mark. I didn’t find a single can anywhere else on the beach or rocks. After 5 can I gave up on the beach and moved to the rock shelves. It was close to dead low so I clambered down onto the kelp at the water’s edge and started waving the Sovereign around amidst the crevices and ponds and rocks. Of course the beauty of Sovereign is that you can totally submerge the coil and shaft so I was able to detect the bottoms of the deepest ponds and soon had an arm frozen to the shoulder and a wet shirt as well while I fished more sinkers out of meter deep rock ponds. Still all the sinkers were a good sign as some of the sinkers were obviously very old so this told me no-one had been through here with a metal detector in quite some time, if ever. Uncertain of exactly where the wreck had hit the rocks I moved along the shore fairly quickly until I crawled into deep narrow crevice where I found myself face to face with a huge chunk of the Royal Charter’s iron hull, wedged tightly into the crevice still holding memories of the terror and power of the storm. It was a potent reminder that not so long ago more than 400 men, women and children had been pounded to death on these very rocks over which I was now scrambling. In the sand that had built up around the section of hull I saw a piece of pottery, a shard from a ceramic jug. I picked it up and put it in my pocket, certain was from the Royal Charter. (I had a pictorial inventory of material salvaged from the wreck I could compare it with and did confirm this.)
These two pieces of the past caused me to pause and ponder the morality of my scavenging amid the relics of such an enormous tragedy so I climbed out of the crevice and sat on the rocks to look out over the water. The tide had turned and begun to rise as the sun slowly sank. It was time to go back to the warmth of my wife and our little mobile home, next low tide was at 9 a.m. and the morning light and finding some more antique sinkers would certainly dispel my melancholy.
Looking west from Moelfre over the rock shelves where the Royal Charter met her doom
The stone shingle beach at Moelfre; only 100 meters east of where the Royal Charter struck the rocks. If the Royal Charter had run aground here it is likely no lives would have been lost. "So near and yet so far!"
An ingot of pig iron ballast from the Royal Charter. At first I thought it was a gold bar :(