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The great storm of 1859

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 11:50 UK time, Monday, 12 March 2012

Thousands of storms have pounded the Welsh coast over the years, but none of them was wilder, more magnificent or more deadly than the great storm of 1859.

holyhead breakwater

Holyhead Breakwater (Photo: Al Preston)

In late October that year the weather had been unsettled, the skies grey and brooding. Old men working at their lobster pots or fishing nets would look up at the heavens and declare that there was bad weather on the way. Then, at around midday on 25 October it began to rain, first in Pembrokeshire and Ceridigion on the west coast of Wales.

In the middle of the afternoon there was a sudden increase in wind speed and structural damage began to be reported in the western counties of England.

By tea time the wind had gathered even more strength and soon wild waves were lashing at the beaches and cliffs of the Welsh coast. Out at sea, sailors quickly realised what was to come and began to run for shelter or, wherever possible, get into port. Even the pilot cutters of the Bristol Channel, well used to bad weather, headed for shelter.

Throughout the night of 25/26 October waves and wind battered with unrelenting fury against the coast. By midnight the storm had assumed near-hurricane proportions, wind speeds of well over 100 mph being reported.

Wales, along with Cornwall and Devon, took the brunt of the storm but few parts of Britain escaped unscathed. Nearly 150 ships were wrecked that night, most of them caught against an unforgiving coast, while dozens more were so severely damaged that their owners had little option other than to scrap them.

Well over 800 people died in the storm, 465 of them on the steamer Royal Charter which was driven onto the rocks at Point Lynas near Moelfre on the west coast of Ynys Môn. The ship was returning from Australia, many of the passengers being prospectors from the recently discovered gold fields in Australia.

Tragically, the Royal Charter was lost within sight and sound of rescuers on land. The villagers of Moelfre could do little more than watch as 60 foot waves pounded the ship to pieces before their eyes. There are stories of passengers leaping into the sea, their pockets full of gold and coins and, as a consequence, being dragged down by the weight of the wealth they had earned. Whether or not that is true, divers are still recovering artifacts from the wreck of the ship.

The enormity of the Royal Charter disaster has never gone away. Charles Dickens came to report on the incident and write about it in his book The Uncommercial Traveller while Stephen Hughes, the Rector of St Gallgo Church, wrote over 1,000 letters of sympathy and condolence to relatives of the drowned. In many circles, particularly in Wales, the storm is still known as the Royal Charter gale.

There were dozens of other shipwrecks that night. Included amongst them were the Bideford brig Susan, lost with all hands at Cardiff, and the schooner John St Baube, bound for Gloucester docks. The tiny trading ship went ashore at Lavernock Point, again with the loss of all hands.

At Pembroke Dockyard, the only Royal Naval yard to exist in Wales, the 50-gun Immortalite had been launched only that day and there were very real fears for the safety of what was, at that stage, little more than the shell of a ship. Extra lines were fixed and, to the relief of everyone, the ship swung easily at her moorings all night long. The town of Pembroke Dock was not so lucky, however, as three of the residents lost their lives in the gale.

Clearly, then, it was not just ships that suffered. There were dozens of casualties, injuries and deaths right across Wales. Many of these were caused by falling rocks and masonry as the wind surged inland. Houses were damaged, slates ripped off roofs as if they were just pieces of paper and nobody ventured outside unless it was vital.

Trees were uprooted and, in the minds and opinions of many, the topography of the coastal area drastically changed. It is alleged - although unproven - that the huge pebble bank at the back of Newgale beach in Pembrokeshire was created by the storm, when the pebbles and rocks were thrown up there during the course of the long and dreadful night.

As dawn broke on the morning of 26 October the storm began to abate and people were able to begin counting the cost - but only in some parts of the country. The wind did not reach maximum force on the River Mersey until midday on 26 October and by then many, if not most, of the deaths had already occurred.

In the wake of the storm Captain Robert Fitzroy of the Meteorological Office knew that something had to be done to prevent such a disaster happening again. In 1860 he duly brought in a gale warning service. It would not prevent storms and gales battering the Welsh coast but it did at least warn people to take shelter and, as sailors say, "batten down the hatches".


  • Comment number 1.

    As a Welsh surfer I often look at the sea and imagine how overwhelming and intimidating it must have been for sailors and others fighting for survival in turbulent coastal waters. It can be scary enough in relatively small surf when you have a board - I would't like to imagine being in the water during a storm of that ferocity. Especially not with a pocket full of Gold...

  • Comment number 2.

    I mentioned this storm in a talk I gave recently, Phil. In north Pembrokeshire at the eastern end of ‘Dinas Island’ where it meets the mainland, in the little village of Cwm-yr-Eglwys, is the little church of St Brynach, or rather, what remains of it thanks to the Royal Charter storm.
    Dating from the 12th century this church had been built close to the shore, just a few feet above sea level. In 1827 the Rector complained to the church authorities that part of the graveyard had been washed away by the sea and a print dating from about 1830 shows the lovely little church still intact and there has been some attempt to protect it by placing slabs of rock and tree trunks to seaward, but these attempts at sea defences were to prove in vain.
    By 1849 it is recorded that the walls of the church were being washed by the sea on high spring tides. Then in 1859 the Royal Charter storm was its undoing. The church and graveyard were totally inundated by the sea and the church demolished during this storm, leaving just the gable end and belfry standing. Subsequently, proper sea defences were constructed and the ruin of the church and what remains of the graveyard can be seen to this day.


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