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The Loss of the Halsewell

Rodney Legg documents the horror and heroism of a Purbeck tragedy that inspired Charles Dickens to write The Long Voyage

Purbeck’s worst shipwreck was the loss of the outward-bound East Indiaman Halsewell, which foundered on precipitous cliffs below East Man hillside, at Winspit, in a blizzard on 6 January 1786. The Gentleman’s Magazine reported: ‘The few men who escaped were most terribly bruised, and some had their limbs broken from being dashed on the rocks.’

A contemporary print of Halsewell on the rocks

A contemporary print of Halsewell on the rocks

Its premature end was recorded by Rev. M Jones, the vicar of Worth Matravers, in his parish register: ‘On the 4th, 5th and 6th day of January, a remarkable snow storm, sometimes a hurricane, with the wind at south. On the latter day, at two in the morning, the Halsewell East Indiaman, 758-tons burthen, commanded by Captain Richard Pierce, bound for Bengal, was lost in the rocks between Seacombe and Winspit quarries in this parish. Never did happen so complete a wreck. The ship long before day-break was shattered to pieces, and a very small part of her cargo saved. It proved fatal to 168 persons, among whom were the captain, two of his daughters, two nieces and three other young ladies. Eighty-two men, by the exertion and humanity of the inhabitants and neighbouring quarries, at the imminent hazard of their own lives, were saved.’

In 1967, three Swanage divers found a cannon from the wreck, and recovered coins, cannon balls, lead shot, tackle and glass. Further seabed finds included the ship’s pintle, which held the rudder. Contemporary salvage and loot comprised a green hourglass, a mirror, a cupboard and the captain’s private cabinet, with glazed doors and a semi-circular top (which ended up fitted in the bedroom of a house near the New Inn, Swanage).

The final moments for Captain Richard Pierce and ladies

The final moments for Captain Richard Pierce and ladies

While the story provided the inspiration for a novel by Charles Dickens, The Long Journey, locally the event lived on in folk memory. In the 1960s, William Jeremiah Bower (1886-1966) – known as Billy Winspit – who lived in isolated Winspit Cottage and worked in its otherwise abandoned quarry, told me to walk up the cliff path to what at the time was the first stile, squeeze through the blackthorn hedge, and look down more than 100 feet to the slanting Halsewell Rock. It was there that the survivors had climbed and clung, then took refuge in a cavern, until being rescued after daybreak.

Billy spoke with pride of the fact that his predecessors had taken such pains in a blizzard to rescue so many men. The quarrymen were marshalled by a Mr Garland, a stone merchant from Eastington, who sent for vital ropes and tackle. The decency and humanity of the Purbeck stone workers contrasted with the decadence of those from Portland and the Chesil Beach villages, who were notorious for looting, plunder and wrecking. ‘True-born Dorset men don’t shame their kind,’ Billy said, in a remark that paraphrased William Barnes.

The Halsewell wreck site

The Halsewell wreck site

Halsewell had sailed down the Thames at New Year, but problems began as she approached the Dover Strait on Monday 2 January. Snow and ice fouled the topsails and also rendered the mainsail virtually useless. On Tuesday, as the ship lay at anchor, a strong gale from the east-north-east was threatening to drive her into the Kentish cliffs. Cables were cut and the Halsewell made for open sea. The wind intensified and turned to the south during the evening; by now the gun-deck was awash. Things got worse on Wednesday– the water in the hold was now five feet deep, the hull was leaking, and ‘all the pumps were set to work’. The mizzenmast was cut down and further attempts were made ‘to wear the ship’. The coxswain, and four others drowned in a desperate bid to turn the ship from the wind.

By eight o’clock on Wednesday morning, the ship had been pointed eastwards and, for a few hours, the Halsewell laboured in heavy seas in Lyme Bay. Two feet of the water in the hold was pumped out and it was impossible to continue towards to India, but the crew bent another fore-sail, raised a ‘jury main-mast, and set a top-gallant-sail for a main-sail’ and aimed to limp into Portsmouth for repairs. Progress was painfully slow – twelve  hours later the ship successfully passed Portland Bill, but the immediate objective was to round the next treacherous trio of rocky headlands at Anvil Point, Durlston Head and Peveril Point with a view to anchoring in relative shelter in Studland Bay.

A mirror from the Halsewell in Worth Matravers church

A mirror from the Halsewell in Worth Matravers church

Instead, at eleven o’clock that night, the sky cleared and the great promontory of St Alban’s Head lay a mile and half to the leeward. Sails were drawn in immediately and the sheet-anchor dropped. Captain Pierce asked his chief officer, Henry Meriton, ‘his opinion as to the probability of saving their lives, to which he replied with equal calmness and candour, that he apprehended that there was very little hope, as they were then driving fast on the shore, and might expect every moment to strike’.

Cannon were fired to alert those onshore to their predicament. Captain Pierce put his efforts into trying to preserve his daughters and the other young ladies. At the moment of impact – at two o’clock in the morning of the Friday – those standing in the cuddy were propelled into the overhanging deck above, as ‘a shriek of horror… burst at one instant from every quarter of the ship’.

Captain Pierce hugged his daughters, praying that the stricken ship would hold together until dawn, when rescue might come and escape routes could be seen. The hull, however, was splitting apart. A seaman named Burmaster climbed through a skylight in the roundhouse and waved a lantern, by which Henry Meriton noticed that a spar from the side of the ship was resting on the rocks. Meriton attempted to escape but was carried off by a surging wave, although it then washed him up onto a shelf at the back of a cavern. The remaining officers took refuge on the upper quarter-gallery on the poop deck where they heard ‘the ladies shriek at intervals, as if the water had reached them, the noise of the sea at other times drowning their voices’.

A collection of wreck relics: brass protractor from the ship's chart room, apothecary's cup and 18th-century wine glasses

A collection of wreck relics: brass protractor from the ship's chart room, apothecary's cup and 18th-century wine glasses

Meanwhile, 27 men found refuge on what is now known as the Halsewell Rock. Because it was low tide, and they feared being washed away, the seamen struggled to escape from there to join Meriton in the cavern and several ‘perished in their efforts’. Those who found refuge had escaped immediate death but they had to endure the cold and perpetual dousing with icy spray. Their one stroke of luck was that Garland and his quarrymen were heading to the cliff-top with ropes; the problem, however, was that neither boats nor ropes could reach them. Their only escape was to crawl along an exposed ledge ‘scarcely as broad as a man’s hand’. Then they had to turn a corner and climb vertically.

Shipwrecked soldiers, newly recruited for the East India Company, were particularly saddened to lose their young drummer boy; washed seawards, he was then held in the same spot by counter-currents, until he succumbed. Likewise they could only watch as one Thomas Jeane was washed in and out by the sea for seven hours before he drowned.

The quarrymen carried on pulling up seamen and soldiers for the whole day and returned at dawn on Saturday 7 January, for the last man – William Trenton, a soldier – who had managed to withstand extreme hypothermia. The muster of men alive at Eastington Farm reached just 74 out of the 242 who had set sail. In all, 88 had been recovered but fourteen died in the process. All the ship’s documentation was lost and cargo and debris floated across a wide area, including the remains of a single sheep – the only sign of all the livestock that had been carried.

Looking down from the cliff edge it is amazing that there were any survivors at all. Not only is the sea at least 100 feet below, but also the cliffs are worse than vertical, with a ‘declivity’ of eight feet inwards to the crucial point from which the survivors were hauled to safety. That was overcome by two quarrymen risking their lives to lean out from the outcrop and lower a second rope with a noose, which the would-be survivor put around his waist, then was drawn up the jagged rock-face. Even today on a mild day, to pull up one person would be a tough task; 88 times rates as a miracle.

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