Ships & Wrecks

Adelaide Wreck 28.11.1872


A terrible calamity occurred in the West Bay on Monday, resulting in the total destruction of a very fine ship, and, worst of all, accompanied with loss of life under the most distressing and melancholy circumstances. Throughout the day the weather was exceedingly rough, the wind blowing a gale from the south-west, although neither were so violent on Saturday, when the schooner Jane Catherine drove on the Chesil bank and became a complete wreck. Seawards there was a very dense fog, which prevented the shore being seen from a very short distance. Somewhere about two o’clock a full rigged ship was observed by the coastguard on the beach to approach the shore to within about a thousand yards ( 1,000m), when, the fog having lifted, the captain saw his danger and succeeded in wearing the ship and ran down channel. The coastguard and fishermen who were assembled on the beach, considered the position of the vessel so critical that they had the rocket apparatus ready for use, as they were of the opinion she would not be able to make the ( Portland) Bill. It seemed that the ship had tried to get into Portland Harbour in the morning, but as the wind would not allow of her doing so, she had been beating about in the West Bay all the day. She could not succeed in getting out of land the coastguard was on the lookout as they thought that with the wind and tide against her the vessel would not be able to get out to sea.

After the ship had got clear of the beach at Portland she got lost to sight in the fog for two hours, seen after the fog lifted. From that time the local fishermen considered it certain that the craft must come on shore. Her captain, however, handled her in a most seamanlike manner, and for more than two hours did all he could to keep her off at seas. He unfortunately failed in doing so and gradually the doomed ship came nearer and nearer to Chesil beach and dashed with great force on the great barrier. It was then evident that the captain had abandoned all hope of being able to avert the awful calamity of having to drive his ship on shore, and signals and rockets (flares) were sent up for assistance.

By this time, hundreds of persons had congregated on the beach, and the coastguard, who were waiting with the rocket apparatus, decided to let those on board know that assistance was on the beach. A rocket was accordingly dispatched and this was answered by a signal light being burnt from the ship. After this blue lights continued to be burnt near Chesil Cove, in order to show the place where the ship could run in with the least danger. Night, by this time, was rapidly setting in, the wind howling fearfully, and the sea rising to a tremendous extent; but still the unfortunate ship came visible as she neared the dreaded shore, where the surf was dashed mountains high.

The ship came broadside to the beach, the waves hurling her only about 20 yards (20m) from the feet of the people who were assembled to render assistance. The poop of the craft was then seen to be covered with people, and the utmost anxiety was manifested by those on shore for their safety. The Wyke coastguard were on the spot with their rocket apparatus, but for some reason or other, this was not used until some time afterwards. The scene was one of great excitement. The ship rolled considerably, whilst the waves at times dashed against her side with such terrific force as to threaten to sweep off every soul from the deck. At times the sea would break and completely envelop the vessel, the spray as high as her topmasts. At times, after the sea had receded, the vessel was almost dry on the shore side, but this did not last a second for the immense volumes of water again broke over and around her, so that it was unsafe for anyone to venture near.

The coastguard and Portland fishermen took precaution to have lifelines around their bodies to prevent them from being swept away. The people behind them held these. These brave fellows watched every wave and eventually successfully threw a lifeline on board amidst the great ring of cheers from the great crowd of people who had gathered on the beach. The brilliant blue lights now showed the people on deck. The sailors could be seen with lanterns in hand, whilst two poor fellows were observed hanging on a rope from the vessel’s side. The men on the beach shouted for them to refrain from this, but it is not likely that they were heard. They had been clinging for several minutes when a huge wave caused the ship to roll towards the sea, and they had to let go, and, sad to say, before they could reach the shore, the vessel lurched towards the beach, and, it seems went over them and they were seen no more.

After the line had been got on board it was fastened to the stern of the ship, and whilst a cradle was being rigged out, the coastguard had their apparatus ready, and the first rocket sped on its errand of mercy. It was splendidly aimed. The flaming missile, with cord attached, going between the mizzen and main masts of the ship. The crew had a problem making the rope fast to the mast and failed to do so. In the meantime a life saving apparatus had been rigged up consisting of a life buoy and a kind of bag in which the person about to be saved had to sit (Breeches buoy). This was drawn on board, and the first person who got in was a negro, who was safely landed amidst the cheers of the spectators. The work of rescue was one of great risk to the men engaged as well as the person who was in the cradle. As soon as the cradle left the ship’s side numbers of men rushed up the beach with it pulling the conveyance after them. The men with the lifelines rushed into the surf to rescue the occupant.

The first man to come ashore in safety was much exhausted, but there were plenty of persons present to render assistance to those who needed it. When the sailor could speak, he informed the coastguard that the ship was an emigrant vessel, having 30 or 40 passengers on board, some of whom were women and children, and that the crew consisted of 16 all told. He also stated that she was the barque Royal Adelaide, of Liverpool, and had sailed from London on Saturday week with emigrants and cargo for Sydney, New South Wales, and that she was commanded by Captain Martin. When it became known that women and children were aboard the wildest excitement prevailed on the beach. The first female who made the attempt in the cradle was unhappily drowned, she having let go of the life buoy. The scene indeed must have been harrowing on board, as the poor souls who were huddled together on the poop could not help seeing the empty cradle, and the sight was enough to deter the stoutest heart. Another female, however, was the next to make the attempt, and she was fortunately landed safely, although when placed on the beach, the poor creature was completely prostrate, and at one time it really seemed as if she had been drowned in her progress through the surf. The next person to come to shore was the captain of the ship – a most unusual circumstance in such a time of danger, and especially as there were a number of children who ought to have come before him, and opinion was expressed pretty freely on his conduct. After this the work of relief proceeded rapidly, the cradle coming ashore with its cargo every five minutes or so. In one instance a man got into the cradle with a little child, a mere infant, but sad to say the little one was washed away and drowned.

During the whole time the sea was dashing with the wildest fury against the vessel, threatening to sweep away the people on deck. The spars creaked, the yards snapped, and one by one the masts fell with a terrific crash. The sea began to pour through the sides of the ship in great quantities, and it was evident she could not stand the strain much longer. As far as could be seen by the glimmering torches and light of the tar barrels, there were yet five or six people, and these seemed to be afraid to leave. Then the vessel’s back was rent asunder with a noise that can be compared to a volley of musketry, and in a few minutes the beach was strewn with bales, boxes and packing cases of all descriptions. One brave fellow brought a little boy, who was almost frightened to death at the terrible ordeal. The man wished to return to the ship to render further assistance, but the coastguard would not allow him. The last to leave were two men and a child who all got in the cradle together, but unfortunately as the conveyance touched the surf, an immense wave caught it, snapping the rope as easily as a thread of cotton and all three were drowned. Sad to say there was still one human being left on board, an aged female, who would not go into the cradle. As the rope was broken there was no one left to fix another one and she has to be left on board to await an awful death.

As the passengers and crew were landed strong and loving arms embraced them and they were conveyed in carriages and omnibuses to Weymouth and Portland, where they were carefully looked after. Medical assistance was rendered to those who needed it and, and all did their utmost to alleviate the sorrows and sufferings of the shipwrecked people.


Throughout the night the gale continued with increasing severity, causing the ship to break into smaller fragments. The beach was covered with goods of all descriptions and a detachment of the 77 th regiment and coastguard patrolled the beach all night to protect the property washed ashore.

Up to Tuesday night we were unable to ascertain how many persons were drowned, as the rescued persons were taken to Weymouth, Portland and Wyke, where the inhabitants had done everything to alleviate their destitute condition. The people have thrown open their houses to receive them and beds, blankets and clothing have been sent in abundance.

Amongst the passengers was a son of the Rev. Gordon Cumming, who was amongst the saved. A little girl named Bunyan is missing. She was taken from the ship by a passenger in the cradle, but on touching the surf a wave struck it with such terrific force that he let go of his little charge, who was washed away and drowned. One lady, it is said, and a family of seven children were all saved, whilst others mourn the loss of either husbands or children.

Within an hour of the ship’s back being broken she began to break up, and the beach was covered with goods of all kinds. Thousands of people were assembled. Large quantities of spirits were washed on shore, and the scene that then ensured was really dreadful. The casks were stove in and the men and boys drank until they had lost their senses. Scores of people were found as day dawned on the beach dead drunk, some almost to the point of death. As the sea washed up the cargo men rushed in after it, and a considerable amount, though partially damaged, was saved. The soldiers and preventative officers frequently stopped people on the high road in order to see if they had anything from the wreck about them. In spite of the precautions, however, a large quantity of property was stolen. In the ship was a racehorse, which, it is stated, bruised itself so dreadfully whilst the vessel was being tossed to and fro. This was washed ashore dead. A pig, strange to say, reached the shore alive and was marched off by a man who, in turn, was “marched off” to the police station with the pig on his shoulders

The aspect of the beach as daylight dawned baffles all description. For miles the coast was strewn with portions of the ship and fragments of the cargo. Clothing was scattered in all directions, whilst every wave washed in some fresh object. Men were drinking liquor as if it were water and pillaging and carrying off anything they could get their hands on. It was impossible to keep some men, even women and children, from the spirit casks. Persons were so eager to pillage that several of them had the most narrow escapes of their lives. Sometimes a wave more powerful than the others would rush without the slightest warning high up on the beach, knocking persons off their feet. One man, not so active as his neighbours, was completely stunned by a wave and needed the prompt assistance of the bystanders.

The sea was rough and the shore lined with broken wood, boxes and tin cases, pipes, soap, cheese, sardines and many articles of clothing. Wagons were engaged to remove these to the Custom House at Weymouth. The drinking went on all day. On Tuesday evening two men were brought to the Victoria Inn completely insensible from the effects of drink. One died shortly after. It is said that a boy and a man from Weymouth died from the effect of the amount of drink.

Several persons are in custody for pillaging. A respectable tradesman from Wyke was caught with a quantity of money washed ashore and has been bailed out. We saw four men actively engaged in burying a cask of spirits containing 18 gallons under the shingle.