Source: “A Circumstantial Narrative of the Loss of the Halsewell (East-Indiaman)” by Henry Meriton and John Rogers, 1786, in the Dorset County Museum
Extracts from an account written by Meriton & Rogers, two of the ship’s officers who survived the shipwreck.
Henry Meriton, the second mate, had a long and distinguished career with the East India Company. Between 1783 – 1810 he went on 13 voyages to India and China, far more than many other officers employed by the East India Company.
Only months after escaping from the Halsewell he transferred as first mate to the Bridgwater, which sailed for China on 14 th April 1786. He became commander of the Exeter in 1799 and made four voyages to China, during which he had several dramatic encounters with the French navy.
In their account of the wreck of the Halsewell, Meriton and Rogers describe how the ship struck the cliffs sideways and became wedged across the mouth of a large cavern. Some of the crew managed to reach a narrow ledge at the back of the cave, leaving nearly fifty people, including the Captain and passengers, taking refuge in the roundhouse, a large cabin at the rear of the ship.
“…Mr Meriton, having previously cut several wax candles into pieces, and stuck them up in various parts of the roundhouse, and lighted up all the glass lanthorns he could find, took his seat… but observing that the poor ladies appeared parched and exhausted, he fetched a basket of oranges from some part of the roundhouse, and prevailed on some of them to refresh themselves by sucking a little of the juice. At this time they were all tolerably composed, except Miss Mansell, who was in hysteric fits on the floor deck of the roundhouse.
But on his return to the company, he perceived a considerable alteration in the appearance of the ship, the sides were visibly giving way, the deck seemed to be lifting, and he discovered other strong symptoms that she could not hold together much longer…” [Mr Meriton decides to make his escape and with great difficulty finally reaches the ledge at the back of the cave.]
“Mr Rogers the third Mate, remained with the Captain, and the unfortunate ladies, and their companions, near twenty minutes after Mr Meriton had quitted the ship… At this time the sea was breaking in at the fore part of the ship, and reached as far as the main-mast , and Captain Pierce, gave Mr Rogers a nod, and they took a lamp, and went together into the stern gallery, and after viewing the rocks for some time, Captain Pierce asked Mr Rogers, if he thought there was any possibility of saving the girls, to which he replied, he feared there was not, for they could only discover the black face of the perpendicular rock, and not the cavern which afforded shelter to those who escaped; they then returned to the roundhouse, and Mr Rogers hung up the lamp, and Captain Pierce, with his great coat on, sat down between his two daughters, and struggled to suppress the parental tear which then burst into his eye…”
[Mr. Rogers also managed to escape, and joined Mr. Meriton on the ledge at the back of the cave.]
“They now found that a very considerable number of the crew, seamen, soldiers, and some petty officers were in the same situation with themselves, tho’ many who had reached the rocks below, had perished, in attempting to ascend; what that situation was they were still to learn; at present they had escaped immediate death, but they were yet to encounter cold, nakedness, wind, rain, and the perpetual beating of the spray of the sea, for a difficult, precarious, and doubtful chance of escape…
In a very few minutes after Mr Rogers had gained the rock, an universal shriek, which still vibrates in their ears, and, in which, the voice of female distress was lamentably distinguishable, announced the dreadful Catastrophe; in a few moments all was hushed, except the warring winds, and beating waves; the wreck was buried in the remorseless deep, and not an atom of her was ever afterwards discoverable.”