Today marks the 162nd anniversary of the Royal Charter Storm, a 19th century extreme weather event off the coast of Ynys Môn that brought down a ship carrying gold to Liverpool.

In the aftermath of the storm, gold was said to wash up on the island’s shores.

The Royal Charter was a steam clipper - a merchant sailing ship specially designed to deliver passengers and prized cargo (often tea leaves and gold) quickly to their destination. These ships, smaller and more narrow than other merchant vessels, utilised both wind and coal-fired steam engines to achieve their speed – and the Royal Charter was thought to be among the fastest in the world.

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The ship - which had been built in Sandycroft, Flintshire - set sail from Melbourne, Australia on 25th August 1859.

The National Wales: Millions in gold bullion were onboard the ship when it sankMillions in gold bullion were onboard the ship when it sank

The region was in the middle of a gold rush that would last until the 1860s, with output from the nearby Victoria goldfields among the highest in the world – and many passengers on the Royal Charter were successful mining families, bringing their wealth back to England. Boxes full of gold were stored in the ship’s hold, and passengers carried pieces in their pockets, their luggage and sewn into their clothes.

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The morning before the storm, the ship had made its way thousands of miles to Cobh (then called Queenstown), a town in the Republic of Ireland, where it had stopped briefly. Interestingly, Cobh is connected with another famously catastrophic shipwreck – the harbour town was the last port of call for the Titanic before it sank in the Atlantic.

Royal Charter Captain Thomas Taylor, apparently keen to preserve the Royal Charter’s reputation for speed, decided to make the remainder of the journey to Liverpool within 24 hours.

The National Wales: Stormy seas off the cost of Moelfre (Photo: Airwolfhound licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)Stormy seas off the cost of Moelfre (Photo: Airwolfhound licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

By early afternoon on 25th October, as the ship came within sight of Holyhead, winds had picked up significantly – but the vessel pushed ahead regardless.

An essay by Welsh archaeologist Erin Lloyd Jones explains: “At this time we didn’t have a weather-forecasting system.

“The Meteorological Office had been set up just 5 years previously, but it was believed that the weather was truly unpredictable.

“So, when the winds picked up, the ship sailed on.”

The National Wales:

Unfortunately, the storm approaching carried hurricane-force winds. By the time the Royal Charter began to make its way around Ynys Môn, it was pummelled by winds of more than 100mph; attempts to anchor the ship, to stop it drifting towards the rocks, failed when the anchor’s cables snapped.

Eventually the ship was driven onto a sandbank near the village of Moelfre. When locals spotted the temporarily grounded Royal Charter as the sun rose on 26th October, an effort was made to rescue its passengers – but the tide soon rose, lifting the ship and throwing it towards the jagged rocks, where it broke in two.

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Just forty of the vessel’s approximately 490 crew and passengers survived, with the rest drowned or battered by the rocks.

John Wheatley, a retired plumbing teacher based in the north of England, had been visiting Moelfre for years with his wife when he learned about the Royal Charter Storm.

He became so fascinated by the story that he started researching and writing about the people involved, eventually writing a novel, A Golden Mist, from the perspective of a young woman who traces her ancestry to passengers on the ship.

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“I knew of the story, and all the rumours of gold, you know – stories about poor peasants who suddenly became rich, which I think are probably largely apocryphal,” he said.

Wheatley, who is also a former English teacher, eventually came across a book on the storm written by legendary historian Alexander McKee, The Golden Wreck, and from there he was hooked.

“I became absolutely fascinated, to the point of obsession,” Wheatley added.

He says he used to visit Porth Helaeth, the site of the wreck, on a small boat – and says that one day, during a very low tide, he came across a metal plate from the ship.

He and his wife travelled the length and breadth of Ynys Môn, visiting churches to find the resting places of the storm’s victims.

The National Wales: St Gallgo's Church, Llanallgo, where many Royal Charter victims rest (Photo: Keith Williamson, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)St Gallgo's Church, Llanallgo, where many Royal Charter victims rest (Photo: Keith Williamson, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Wheatley wrote of one visit: “In St Gallgo's churchyard, some of them stand now mere blackened and pitted stumps, like carious teeth, unnamed.

“The most ornamental, tombs raised by families, in stone, bear inscriptions  now so weathered and made obscure by lichen that in another generation or two they will be lost entirely.”

He believes the story of Reverend Stephen Rhoose Hughes, a local church rector, should be remembered.

“He was the one who made it his business to recover the bodies, and he took extraordinary care,” Wheatley says.

“It was a horrendous job to do, because the church is just full of dead bodies, but he recorded every mark that might help to identify them.

“Because of the heroic work of this minor clergyman, people were able to find their loved ones and bury them where they wanted them buried.”

The writer Charles Dickens spent time with Rhoose Hughes during the aftermath of the shipwreck, documenting it in his book The Uncommercial Traveller.

The National Wales: Writer and novelist Charles Dickens visited Moelfre following the stormWriter and novelist Charles Dickens visited Moelfre following the storm

One touching paragraph reads:

“It was the kind and wholesome face I have made mention of as being then beside me… when I left home for Wales.

“I had heard of that clergyman, as having buried many scores of the shipwrecked people; of his having opened his house and heart to their agonised friends; of his having used a most sweet and patient diligence for weeks and weeks, in the performance of the forlornest offices that Man can render to his kind; of his having most tenderly and thoroughly devoted himself to the dead, and to those who were sorrowing for the dead.

“I had said to myself, ‘In the Christmas season of the year, I should like to see that man!’”

The National Wales: A calm scene off the Ynys Môn coastline near Moelfre. Photo: Siriol GriffithsA calm scene off the Ynys Môn coastline near Moelfre. Photo: Siriol Griffiths

Another inspired by the Royal Charter wreck was the scientist Robert Fitzroy, who had recently founded the Meteorological Society. As he pored over reports of the storm, he became convinced that it could have been predicted – his work led to the very first formal weather forecasting service.

Today you can see artefacts recovered from the Royal Charter wreck through the People’s Collection Wales, our online museum.

You can read more about the incident, and other episodes in Ynys Môn’s rich history, here.

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