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The Montague on Lundy

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:02 UK time, Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Lundy Island, that knotted fist of rock set in the Bristol Channel, is not really a Welsh island at all. It actually belongs - postally at least - to Devon. But so many Welsh men and women, boys and girls, took trips there in the days when the White Funnel Fleet regularly patrolled up and down the Channel that most people along the south Wales coast view it as a Welsh outpost.

Standing, at its highest point, at 400 feet above sea level, the island is three miles long and just half a mile wide.

At one time it was a noted base for pirates - until Henry III decided he had had enough and hanged the island's owner, William de Marisco for piracy.

The island boasts over 400 species of birds and large numbers of grey seals and soay sheep.

Perhaps more famously, however, in May 1906 Lundy was the scene of a dramatic shipwreck and doomed rescue attempt.

Engaged in wireless trials with receivers on the Scilly Isles, on the evening of 29 May 1906, the Duncan Class battleship HMS "Montague" was ploughing steadily up the Channel. Then, as often happens in the Bristol Channel, a dense fog suddenly enveloped the ship.

Soon she was off course and at 2.12am on the morning of 30 May she smashed onto the rocks of Lundy Island. Soundings had been taken regularly and moments before the impact they had shown 19 fathoms below "Montague's" hull.

Several crew members were injured, most of them by being knocked off their feet on impact. Luckily, however, there were no fatalities.

The ship had actually hit Shutter Rock off the south west corner of Lundy, ploughing bows-first onto sharp pinacles of rock. When Captain Adair ordered full astern, the ship simply refused to move. The rising tide then swung her broadside on to the island, both propellers were lost and a huge hole was ripped in the ship's bottom.

Distress flares were fired (with no result) and two officers were sent off in a gig, heading towards the lighthouse at the northern tip of the island.

It was a hard pull, over two miles, and then the men were faced with a perilous climb up the sheer cliffs to the lighthouse. The two officers actually thought they had hit Hartland Point on the Somerset coast and had to be enlightened by the keeper who told them, in no uncertain terms, that he most certainly knew which light he had charge of! Once the alarm was given ships came from all over to help in the rescue operations.

At first it was hoped that the "Montague" might be refloated and there were even plans to bring a floating dock across the Atlantic from Bermuda. It all came to nothing.

The ship was caught on the giant spikes of rock and the force of the wind and sea simply ripped her bottom to shreds. On 20 August the ship was paid off and salvage companies moved in.

Previously, dockyard maties from Pembroke Dock had been brought to the island, working in a futile attempt to save her and braving the arctic conditions of the island, living in temporary shacks for many weeks. When the news came that professional salvage companies were to be brought in and that they could now go home, the dockyard men celebrated by breaking into the island canteen and stealing all the liquor they could find.

Several of the workers were so drunk they fell down the sheer cliffs of the island. Their state of inebriation probably helped them as there were several broken limbs but, being relaxed as they fell, no deaths.

Stranded on Shutter Rock, the "Montague" soon became something of a tourist location. Campbell's steamers ran regular trips out to see the ship, leaving from ports such as Tenby, Swansea and Porthcawl.

The owners of smaller craft, fishing boats and the like from harbours all along the Welsh coast, also cashed in, happily taking paying customers to see the battleship in her last days. Some of the smaller craft were so overloaded that it was a miracle nobody was drowned or injured.

In the autumn of 1906, salvage operations on the "Montague" switched to rescuing items like the propellers and the ship's guns. These 12 inch weapons were exceptionally valuable, costing well over £12,000 each. Meanwhile the ship lay on the rocks and with winter fast approaching it was clear to everyone that the end could not be far away.

In October heavy seas battered the vessel and, inevitably, her back broke. The salvage men - who had made a daily trip out to the wreck over a swaying aerial walkway - withdrew and the ship was left to the elements. A proposal to use her as target practice was vetoed by the island's owner, the appropriately named Reverend Heaven.

Further gales in December caused more damage before the remains of the wreck was finally sold to "A Syndicate of South Wales Adventurers" for £4,000 - a far cry from the millions that the ship had cost to build and run.

The Admiralty might have lost a fortune in the disaster but the syndicate made another one through the selling of rescued armoured plate and the ship's fittings.

Salvage work continued throughout 1907 but within a few years the wreck of the "Montague" had totally disappeared, consumed by the ocean on which she was supposed to earn great honours.

Despite her tragedy, for a few short months she had provided great entertainment for the people of south Wales, a grim reminder for these wind-blown, salt-battered residents of places like Glamorgan and Pembrokeshire- as if they needed it - of the immense and awesome power of the sea.


  • Comment number 1.

    Something I should have put in the original article - there is a school of thought which says that the Admiralty was not too worried when the Montague went aground on Lundy. The Dreadnought was already on the stocks and when she entered service in 1906 she immediately made all other battleships obsolete - so Montague, a pre-Dreadnought of the old sort, was nigh on doomed anyway. It's an interesting thought.

  • Comment number 2.

    I really think you should be more careful with your research, not that you should have to research what county Lundy comes under, every schoolchild in the West Country and South Wales knows Lundy belongs to Devon, as does Hartland. And when did Lundy ever experience "arctic" conditions?


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