Ships & Wrecks

The Story of the ‘Halsewell’  

The ‘Halsewell’ was a grand East Indiaman merchant ship. It had a rich cargo and the passengers included the Captain's two daughters and nieces. Thomas Burston, the First Mate, was also related to the Captain. It was to have been Captain Pierce's final voyage before he retired.

The Halsewell

The ship was sailing to India to trade. In January 1786, as it headed west down the Channel, a terrible storm developed.

For several days the ship fought against blizzards and hurricane force winds until finally it was driven onto the rocks at Seacombe, near Worth Matravers. The ship struck the cliffs sideways and became wedged across the mouth of a large cave. Some of the crew managed to reach a narrow ledge at the back of the cave.

The only way of escape was to scale the almost perpendicular cliff face, a dangerous undertaking even in calm conditions but in the middle of a cold winters night and surrounded by a raging storm it was nearly impossible. Two men did eventually scale the cliffs, and raise the alarm. A rescue was then started by the locals that went on well into the morning, unfortunately only a small number were rescued, the rest were either lost to the sea, overcome by the cold or fell from the cliffs.

More than 160 people lost their lives including the Captain's daughters and nieces. Captain Pierce and his nephew, Thomas Burston, could have saved themselves but chose instead to comfort the young women as best they could and drowned with them.  

Task One


The aim is to get the children to think about possible ways to get the people from the cave and cliffs to safety.

Tell the children it was not possible for the people to jump into the sea and swim; the sea was too rough. Nor could most of them just climb the cliffs; these were nearly sheer.

The rescue can be as fanciful as they wish but they must be able to explain what they have done.

Once the children have devised their ideas give them the opportunity to share their ideas.

Task Two


The aim is for the children to empathise, and to re consider solutions in the light of extra information.

Read the account of the wreck of the Halsewell.

Source One – ‘A Circumstantial Narrative of the Loss of the Halsewell’

Source Two – The Wreck of the Halsewell

Task Three


The aim is to pull together the ideas they have devised from their first rescue, the role play, and the storyboard for the second rescue description. Their ideas can be tested by using a selection of DT activities.

Framework ideas, equipment and diagrams

‘Pulley Systems’ ideas, equipment and diagrams

‘Breeches Buoy’ ideas, equipment and instructions