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The 1859 Storm


The beach at Penarth where a man and a boy drowned


The mooring dolphins of the scrubbing grid still in Cardiff Bay


Scrubbing Grid c. 1900

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 been moody for several days, took a turn for the worse. 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 new 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 twenty-eight 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.

Coincidentally, one hundred years and one day later, on the 27th October 1959, a small freighter, the motor vessel Hindlea also dragged her anchors in a storm and ran aground on the same stretch of coast as the Royal Charter. The crew of the Hindlea, a regular visitor in Cardiff, were more fortunate than that of the clipper though. Dic Evans, the coxswain, put the Moelfre lifeboat alongside the stricken ship in horrendous seas on no less than nine occasions to take off her crew of eight one at a time. It was an extraordinary feat of seamanship that won Coxswain Evans the first of his two RNLI gold medals.

At first light in Cardiff the following morning, Wednesday 26th October1859, it was high water and the masts of the Bideford brig Susan were seen sticking out of the water at a place known locally as the Orchards, to the east of the cutaway for the new East Dock. A boat was launched but there were no signs of any survivors. There is no record of whether or not she was refloated though it is quite possible she may have been. But either she or a replacement vessel, also a brig named Susan, left Cardiff a little less than five years later and headed across the Atlantic bound for America loaded with coal. But she was intercepted by the Confederate ship Shenandoah, was captured and burned. The Susan was clearly not a lucky ship.

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.

High water was at 7am that October morning and it was fifteen 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.