Friday, October 25, 2013
Storm of the [Nineteenth] Century
An abrupt change in the direction and force of the wind mid-afternoon on October 25, 1859, heralded the arrival of the storm. It was soon howling along the coasts of Devon and Cornwall, with structures taking heavy hits before the storm rode north into Wales and finally Scotland. At their peak, the winds reached more than 100 mph. The storm sunk 133 ships and left 90 crippled. Many people were killed by falling rocks or stones from buildings.
Nearly half the deaths, however, came from one source, the source from which the storm took its name. The SS Royal Charter was a huge iron-clad steamship also capable of traveling under full sail. She'd gained fame by carrying passengers to the Australian gold rush and had indeed traveled home from there around the Cape of Good Hope and up the coast of Africa. When she reached England on that fateful day, she was carrying more than 400 passengers--men, women, and children--and over half a million pounds of gold bullion.
As the storm freshened, Captain Taylor ordered the sails up, the engines shuttered, and the two anchors dropped off the north coast of Anglesey, Wales. It is thought that he felt the chances of survival were greater riding out the storm there than continuing to the harbor in Liverpool. Unfortunately, he was wrong.
The storm broke both anchors free and drove the Royal Charter onto rocks only fifty yards from shore, breaking her into two pieces. The villagers of nearby Moelfre awoke to find a sinking ship the morning of October 26. Some of the passengers tried to swim for it but refused to leave their gold behind and sank to the bottom to drown. One of the sailors managed to reach shore with a rope around his waist, then used it to help 39 men reach shore. The villagers were also able to rescue about a dozen passengers before the Royal Charter was lost beneath the waves.
The nation went into mourning, with reports in every newspaper for months. One of those chronicling the sinking was Charles Dickens. But the Royal Charter Storm had one benefit. After seeing the devastating results, the British Meteorological Office developed the first gale warning service, which debuted in June 1860, to give people time to prepare and respond to such events, saving countless lives in the decades to follow.
Now there's a tale to tell as we approach Halloween.