|Large barrels or Jerkins of butter appear to have been a regular cargo for auction in Australia for both the Royal Charter and the Great Britain – Merseyside Maritime Museum, National Museums Liverpool.|
Over the winter months, the Royal Commission has been working with Cadw and the People’s Collection Wales to develop an educational resource for the Royal Charter shipwreck off the Anglesey coast. The tragedy that unfolded during the night of 25-26 October 1859 resonated across the nation, and subsequently the world, as news reached Melbourne, Australia, from whence the ship was returning with some 450 passengers and crew onboard.
‘Even today, no one is sure how many people were onboard, but only 17 survivors were recorded in contemporary newspaper accounts’, said the Royal Commission’s Maritime Officer, Deanna Groom. ‘We’ve been searching out some of the original archive material relating to the wreck and making it digitally available for teachers and students for project work. The two most interesting finds so far have been at Chester Archives and Merseyside Maritime Museum. Kind colleagues at Chester Archives retrieved a collection of papers relating to the bankruptcy of the ship’s builder, George Cram. These included a complete inventory of all the tools and machinery that were in use at the Sandycroft Ironworks on the Dee Estuary when the ship was being first laid down. At Merseyside Maritime Museum, archives staff made available a cargo book from the Gibbs Bright & Co, in which Cotswold rams are recorded being sent to Australia to improve breeding stock. On one of the pages, under an entry for the Royal Charter, is an entry for Brunel’s steamship, the Great Britain which is now preserved at Bristol. The Great Britain was also part of the fleet of the Liverpool and Australia Navigation Company.’
Steve Donnachie, a PhD student from Swansea University on a placement at the Royal Commission, has been actively involved searching out and loading material onto the People’s Collection Wales website.
‘It was one of the worst civil maritime disasters in British history, and the loss of life caused a sensation in the British press. It has been quite a different experience for me, having to research and come to grips with entirely new areas of history. Nineteenth-century shipping, ship building on the River Dee, and migration to Australia are far removed from my usual field of study, the medieval Mediterranean. The chance to get away from my safety zone and explore something new, as well as a chance to use skills gained at university to produce something quite practical has been very rewarding’.
The inventory marking the end of George Cram’s dreams of a ship building enterprise is particular poignant as it makes clear that all his creditors will leave him with are the clothes that he and his family members possess – Chester Archives.
The resources have already been taken into three schools on Anglesey by Erin Robinson, Cadw’s Lifelong Learning Manager for North Wales. The children have visited the graveyard of Llanallgo to record the gravestones. They have also produced artworks of the weather phenomenon - this is the aspect of the story which has intrigued Helen Rowe, from People’s Collection Wales team, the most:
‘Scientists continue to debate the effect of solar activity on our weather, but just before the Royal Charter gale a large solar storm was report by astronomers. The UK’s October hurricane is mirrored in severe storm damage along the eastern seaboard of America. There are other oddities, for example, in its summary of the weather for October 1859 reported in the Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, the Llandudno Weather Observatory noted that the aura borealis had been seen. This must be quite unusual for our latitude? We are going to try and keep looking at this part of the story over the coming months as the Royal Charter Gale Shipwrecks Project expands to include more of the recorded losses around the Welsh coast during the hurricane. It is going to be helped greatly by the National Library of Wales’ initiative to make more Welsh newspapers available online (a service launched on the 13 March).’
The People’s Collection Wales ‘Great Storm of 1859’ collection can be accessed via this link (the collection continues to be added to and edited):
We would like to extend special thanks to colleagues from Cadw (especially Caroline Pudney and Polly Groom); the county archives network - Anglesey, Ceredigion, Chester, Gwnydd and Pembrokeshire; to the Archives team at Merseyside Maritime Museum, National Museums Liverpool; the Met Office; and to the East Melbourne Historical Society down under.
One of several gravestones associated with the Royal Charter Wreck at Llanallgo Church - this a recent tribute placed by descendants.
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