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The wreck of the Rothsay Castle

Phil Carradice

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The Welsh coast is a treacherous place and, over the years, hundreds – even thousands – of ships have been lost on its rocks and sand shoals.

None of these disasters, however, is more tragic or more poignant than the wreck of the Rothsay Castle, which was battered to pieces on Dutchman's Bank at the eastern end of the Menai Straits on 18 August 1831.

The Rothsay Castle was a 2,000 ton paddle steamer, one of the country's first steam-driven ships. She had been launched from the yards of William Denny at Dumbarton outside Glasgow in 1816 and intended for passenger service on the River Clyde.

For several years she ploughed happily up and down the Clyde, taking passengers to otherwise inaccessible places like Rothsay and Dunoon.

Such was the demand for her services that in 1820 the Rothsay Castle was brought to the yards of James Lang in Dumbarton and her length was extended. Driven by just one 50 horsepower engine, she was always somewhat under powered, however, and by 1830 she was worn out, nearing the end of her useful working life.

Nevertheless, the next year the Rothsay Castle was bought by a Liverpool business man, Thomas Watson, and brought south to start a new career running along the north Wales coast. Operated by the Liverpool and North Wales Steam Paddle Company, it was also thought that she would make trips across the Irish Sea.

Right from the start things did not go smoothly. When the newly purchased paddler reached Liverpool three of the crew promptly paid themselves off. The ship was, they declared, unseaworthy and there was no way they were going to further risk their lives.

Despite this, the Rothsay Castle was immediately put to work. Under a seaman called Captain Atkinson she began to make cruises along the coast.

On 17 August 1831 she left Liverpool at midday with 150 passengers on board. The original departure time had been 10am but poor weather and the late arrival of one passenger, a Mr Forster whose transport was inadvertently delayed, the time of sailing was put back two hours. Loading Mr Forster's coach onto the deck of the ship simply slowed the departure even more.

On the face of it a two hour wait was not too serious a delay but it meant that when the Rothsay Castle eventually reached the mouth of the Menai Straits, both the tide and the elements were against her. It was to be a crucial factor in what later occurred.

It was a rough and unpleasant cruise. With the wind from the north west and the sea rising every hour, progress was slow. Apparently one passenger even approached Captain Atkinson, asking him to turn back. The captain, he later said, was drunk and refused to even consider returning to Liverpool.

By 10pm the Rothsay Castle was battling the elements and had reached no further west than the Great Orme. But again Atkinson refused to put into Llandudno to allow passengers to disembark. Other vessels reported that she was steering an erratic and sometimes dangerous course.

By now the ship was leaking like a sieve. She had two feet of water in her stokehold and the pumps were barely working. There was only one lifeboat on board and that was holed – and, anyway, it had no oars. Yet Atkinson refused to run for cover and ploughed onwards.

Just after midnight, early on 18 August, the Rothsay Castle ran onto the rocks of Dutchman's Bank at the mouth of the Menai Straits. Due to the water she had shipped, her head of steam was so low that she could not keep course against the tide. There was no lantern on board and no way of alerting other ships or those on shore to what was about to happen.

The Rothsay Castle was slammed into the bank many times, each time passengers and crew being hurled over the side where they were quickly lost in the swirling waves.

Captain Atkinson and his mate were also lost overboard when the funnel fell. When the ship's lifeboat was launched it was immediately overturned and swept away.

It took just one and a half hours for the Rothsay Castle to be battered to bits. In the morning, when help did eventually arrive, just 23 survivors were found. Over the next few days the bodies of the drowned were washed up on the north Wales coast.

As a result of the disaster a lifeboat station was established at Penmon on the tip of Anglesey and, a few years afterwards a lighthouse was built in the same area.

An inquest was held at Beaumaris, when the crew and the condition of the ship were rightly condemned: "Had the Rothsay Castle been a seaworthy vessel and properly manned, this awful calamity might have been averted."

The wreck of the Rothsay Castle was a tragic and totally avoidable disaster. Nearly 130 men, women and children lost their lives – all because the Captain refused to turn back to port.

It was, and is, a salutary reminder of the dangerous nature of the Welsh coast.

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