1859 storms hit Wales and the West

In October 1859 there occurred a storm that wreaked such havoc around the coasts of Britain that is probably unique in British maritime history. On Tuesday 25th October that year the weather, which had been moody for several days, took a turn for the worse.

As nightfall approached it became clear that there would be a severe storm, taking lives around all the coasts of Britain, with the West Country, Wales and Ireland taking the brunt of the damage.

Scrubbing grid, Cardiff, c. 1900
Scrubbing grid, Cardiff, c. 1900

25 October 1859

On the west coast it began raining heavily around 12 noon and the wind had picked up significantly by four o’clock. Those old experienced sailors knew that there was worse to come and ships began putting into harbour wherever they could. In Cardiff even the pilot cutters ran for shelter and ships already in dock put out extra mooring lines. By the evening the wind had reached severe storm force and overnight it whipped up the seas into such a fury it led to the loss of 133 ships around the coast of Britain with hundreds of others damaged. It also took the lives of more than 800 people.

Lying to the prevailing west wind, the West Country, Wales and Ireland usually took the brunt of storms and this night was no exception. By far the greatest loss of life involved the steam clipper ‘Royal Charter’ which was driven onto the rocks on a lee shore on the north west coast of Anglesey. She was nearly at the end of her long voyage from Melbourne, and almost within sight of her destination at Liverpool when the tragedy happened. Despite the best efforts of the ship’s company and of the local men on land, only 28 people survived the shipwreck and 454 passengers and crew were lost. No women or children nor any of the ships officers survived. It was a terrible tragedy made to seem worse because many of the passengers were returning home rich with gold dug from the Australian gold fields.

Between Penarth and Lavernock the schooner ‘John St Baube’, loaded with oats bound for Gloucester and another schooner loaded with pitwood were both driven ashore during the night and there were no survivors from either vessel. Other ships wrecked locally were the ‘Thomas’ of London (two crew lost), the ‘Kingston’ of Cork, the French brig ‘Louis Albert’ and the schooner ‘Four Brothers’ of London. A small vessel was driven ashore onto Penarth beach and the skipper was washed ashore exhausted but alive. But the ship’s boy, his son, was drowned along with the mate. The 74 ton Salcombe Schooner ‘Amelia’ was also lost in Penarth Roads during bad weather around this time.

26 October 1859

High water was at 7am that October morning and it was 15 feet above the expected high water mark. The top of the new lock gates of the East Dock were carried away by the vicious seas. And a particularly fine ship, the ‘Victoria’ of Shoreham, which was moored outside the lock gates, on the grid iron, for cleaning the bottom of her hull, broke loose of her mooring lines in the storm but could not get clear of the timbers on which she lay. As the tide receded, she toppled over and was badly damaged.

There are no accurate records of the number of sailors drowned in the Severn Estuary that night but it must have run into hundreds. Of the 133 ships lost in the storm, 114 of them succumbed around the coast of Wales.