On 1st January 1786 the Halsewell, a fine East Indiaman of 758 tons, left the Downs on the start of its third voyage to Bengal under the command of Captain Richard Pierce, one of the most senior captains in the Company. Already he had made what was then described as 'a competent fortune' and this was his last trip, as he planned to retire to his large estate at Kingston in Surrey.
On this voyage there were eight passengers on board; one gentleman and seven young ladies - of whom two were the Captain's own daughters. Amongst the crew were seven midshipmen and five young boys of about twelve years old, taking their first steps towards a career in the East India Company. Also there were an unknown number of troops going to serve in the various East India garrisons. The total number on board the vessel was reportedly about 240 persons.
The second day out in the Channel found the vessel becalmed off Dunnose Head, the most southerly point of the Isle of Wight, but this was just the lull before the storm. By the evening the wind had freshened with more than a hint of snow in the air. The next day saw a strong gale blow from the north-east; the Halsewell made good speed down the Channel but at the same time took in rather a lot of water. During the night the wind strengthened and it was then realised that some damage had been done to the ship, apparently she had sprung a leak and the crew were set to work at the pumps.
On the 4th of January the ship had at least seven feet of water in the holds, she was rolling dangerously and the situation appeared serious. Captain Pierce ordered that the mizzen (third after) mast should be cut down to make the ship lighter, and a few hours later the main mast was also cut away. In the process five seamen were carried overboard in the mass of rigging; their bodies were never recovered.
By mid-morning Berry Head was sighted, this is the most southerly point of Torbay and as the weather had got better, the captain decided to turn back and head for Portsmouth. He ordered temporary masts to be set up with only enough sails for the weather. It seemed no doubt that the vessel could safely make Portsmouth.
But after a day of slow progress in worsening weather Portland Bill was sighted to the north-east. The Captain knew that he could not make for the shelter of Portland Roads so he attempted to guide the vessel to Studland Bay. Now the Halsewell was at the mercy of the tides and the howling gale.
Just before midnight St Aldhelm's Head was sighted about a mile and a half to the leeward. All the sails were reduced and a small anchor was dropped over the side in the hope it would slow down the ship, but in less than an hour this failed. The sheet anchor was dropped which again failed to stop the ship as she was being driven towards the rocky shore.
About two in the morning of 6th the Halsewell struck the rocks just below Winspit near Seacombe. A more horrible spot could not have been imagined – huge cliffs almost rising straight up from the rock-strewn seas. The ship went on to the rocks with 'such violence as to dash the heads of those who were standing in the cuddy [a small cabin at the aft usually reserved for the Captain and passengers] against the deck above them...A shriek of horror burst at one instant from every quarter of the ship...'
Utter terror must have struck the passengers as the ship creaked and groaned as she was ground upon the rocks before turning sideways to the cliffs. The Halsewell was effectively lying in the mouth of a large cavern hollowed out of the cliffs, making it completely invisible to any person on the cliffs high above - if indeed anybody was about on such a night!
Several reports suggest that the crew refused to obey orders and were only concerned in making their own escape. Mr. Meriton, the second mate, was amongst the first to get ashore on to the rocks in an attempt to raise the alarm but even in the pitch darkness he quickly realised that the sheer cliff-face seemed unclimable. Other members of the crew had managed to escape, crowding on to the rocks and the floor of the cave, which was continually flooded by heavy waves. Shortly before dawn, just as two officers were washed off the ship, with a final horrendous crash 'She [Halsewell] disappeared into a terrible cavern'
Many of those that had escaped from the vessel did not survive until morning, some had been dragged off the rocks by the force of the sea and others died from cold and fatigue. Then, when morning came two brave men - the cook and the quartermaster - managed with great skill to climb the cliff face. They staggered to the nearest house, the home of a Mr. Garland, who was the steward of a nearby quarry. He quickly gathered together a party of quarrymen well acquainted with the cliffs and very experienced with ropes and stakes. Ropes were dropped over the cliff into the mouth of the cavern and slowly and perilously the survivors were hauled to safety; some were so numb with cold that they experienced problems just tying the ropes around their bodies.
One report suggests that the rescue lasted for almost 24 hours. One of the last persons to be rescued was Meriton, the second mate, who later wrote about the wrecking and the rescue. In total 74 persons were rescued by these methods although it was thought that almost the same number had escaped from the vessel but had died during the night. The death toll of the Halsewell was at least 160 persons - a terrible shipping tragedy. The Captain, his two daughters and the other passengers all went down with the ship.
Near the site of the wreck on the cliffs above there are still traces of four long graves, though it is not known how many bodies they contain. The nearby church of Worth Matravers records only one burial from the Halsewell; that of a body washed ashore almost one month later. The vicar recorded in his Parish Register, 'On 4, 5, 6 Jan - a remarkable snow storm sometimes a hurricane with the wind at south, on the latter day Halsewell - Never did happen so complete a wreck. The ship long before day break was shattered to pieces and very small part of the cargo survived.'
In recognition of the brave and daring rescues by the quarrymen, the East India Company awarded them with 100 guineas to share amongst themselves; later their quarry was renamed the Halsewell.
A few items from the Halsewell have survived; one of which is an hour-glass that runs for four hours. Washed ashore with the green glass intact, it is now in the Dorset County Museum. The mirror, thought to belong to the captain’s daughters is in Worth Matravers Church.