Today, 5th February 2016, is the 211th anniversary of the sinking of the Earl of Abergavenny, after it struck the notorious Shambles bank, just south of Portland Bill.
Built by Thomas Pitcher at his shipping yard in Kent in 1797, she was one of the largest class of merchant ships (1440 tons) chartered to the Honourable East India Company.
Her fifth, and last, voyage was commanded by John Wordsworth, brother of the famous poet William. It was to be an eighteen month-long voyage, first to Bengal and then to China, with a very diverse cargo, brought with money from the Wordsworth family, who were hoping that the vast profit to be made would enable William to concentrate on his poetry.
The voyage began on the 1st of February 1805, when the Earl of Abergavenny sailed with four other Indiaman from Portsmouth. It was not plain sailing from the start. Firstly, two boats of the convoy collided which resulted with one of the vessels returning to Portsmouth. Then after several days of poor weather the remaining convoy dispersed and became separated from its escort vessel, HMS Weymouth.
The convoy decided to return to Portland Roads to wait for better weather.
As she neared Portland, the Abergavenny took on board a local pilot, called Thomas James, to help navigate around Portland Bill and the Shambles. The pilot proved to be disastrously inept. Within 2 hours of him setting foot on deck he grounded Abergavenny on the Shambles Bank. She floundered on her side and water poured in down the hatches. She righted herself but she could not break free of the Shambles. Crew immediately manned the pumps to eject the water.
Captain Wordsworth was appalled. He realised that the damage to his ship would prevent her from joining the convoy and therefore he would lose out on the profitable trading he had depended upon to make his fortune. He cried out in despair: “Oh pilot! Pilot! You have ruined me!”
But for the majority of the passengers and crew there was only modest concern and no guns were fired or life boats hoisted out. They assumed that the boat would sail clear of the Shambles when high tide arrived.
At last, after about two and a half hours, the ship floated off the Shambles, but by this time it was so full of water that the sails were unable to carry the ship onto Weymouth Sands. Panic set in. Guns were fired but no other boats came to the rescue.
Some passengers and crew, in their desperation, attempted to loot the large stocks of liquor but were turned back by armed officers with muskets who stated that they should “die like men”.
At 11.00 pm the leak overwhelmed the pumps. First mate Samuel Basset reported to Commander Wordsworth “We have done all we can Sir, she will sink in a moment.” Wordsworth’s remained calm and is quoted as saying “it cannot be helped, Gods will be done.” The ship then gave a great lurch and sank. Wordsworth was last seen clinging to the ropes of the sinking ship, allowing himself to be pulled under.
Many people below deck drowned immediately. Some passengers were able to throw planks into the sea and float on them, but eventually the powerful waves swept them away. Some people piled into a boat that had been cut loose but it soon overturned. The luckiest were those who managed to climb the rigging that was still above the freezing water.
It was not until the early hours of the following morning that rescue came. A ship called the Three Brothers came alongside and rescued the survivors, who were still clinging to the rigging.
In total 263 lives were lost out of the 402 people on board. Many of the victims were buried in Wyke Regis church including John Wordsworth. Wordsworth body was not found for six weeks after the sinking, and was buried the next day on the 21st March. Only twelve people attended his funeral and there is no record that any family attended. Today there is no headstone to mark his final resting place.
The financial loss to the East India Company was enormous; £74,000 in silver dollars, metals, haberdashery, glass, Wedgwood ware, liquors, military items and countless other items.
The Coastguard Service and Customs Officers maintained close watch on the wreck to avoid any plundering and a salvage operation was begun that took over two years to complete.
The story caught the publics imagination and was in all the papers for weeks. The wreck became a top tourist attraction, King George III visited with his family on the Royal Freight.
William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, were devastated at the loss of their brother John.
Initially it was rumoured that John had been negligent and had not tried to save either the ship or himself after realising his own financial ruin, but the Court of Enquiry at East India House fully acquitted him of any negligence or misconduct. William considered his brother a hero stating “my brother was seen standing on the hen-coop the moment he went down, dying as he had lived, in the very place and point where his duty stationed him.” The poet also penned To the Daisy as a heart-felt ode to his beloved brother.
Today, the wreck lies in 18 metres of water 1.5 miles out in Weymouth Bay. It is still considered one of the worst commercial maritime accidents in British history.
Alicia Hayter: The wreck of the Abergavenny
Michael David Raymond: Wordsworth