At least 800 lives were lost in the seas around the shores of Britain in the violent storms on the night of 25-26 October 1859. 223 vessels were wrecked: the biggest disaster of all was the loss of the Royal Charter off the coast of Wales, in which almost 450 people died. The ship was returning from Australia and the passengers included many gold miners, some of who had struck it rich at the diggings in Australia and were carrying large sums of gold about their persons. A consignment of gold was also being carried as cargo; it was insured for over £300,000 - about half a billion pounds in todays money. Many of the passengers were killed by being dashed against the rocks by the waves rather than drowned. Others were said to have drowned, weighed down by the belts of gold they were wearing around their bodies. The survivors, 21 passengers and 18 crew members, were all men, with no women or children saved. This poem on one side of a small card was probably sold for a halfpenny or farthing just after the disaster. The address 'Trafalgar, Neyland' is nearby in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire. Of Maria Roberts nothing is known…
We also have a more accomplished poem about a gold ring washed up on the beach (to follow) but this poem was probably composed very shortly after the fateful night:
'Lines on the Loss of the Royal Charter.' Inscribed to Messrs Gibbs, Bright & Co., Liverpool
The mornings breeze came rushing o'er the bay,
Marshalling the sea-weed into proud array;
The towering billows, capped with shining foam
Like snow-clad summits on a Highland home.
The noble Charter – like a bird she flew;
Our sea-girt isle she made and kept in view;
Nearing the coast, from whence there came no sound,
But the high raging waves on ocean's bound.
She ploughed the surge, she combatted the wind
Her foaming furrows stretching far behind;
The spray though cordage, and o'er the boat,
Leapt like a charger to the trump's high note.
No moon lit the waters to smile on their scorn,
Nor triumphal arch the sea to adorn;
The tear fell unseen, the sigh fell unheard,
And the cries of the Seamew extended abroad.
But alas! wave the banners with Jack union down,
And cries of distress on the ocean abound;
The husband and wife clasping each to their breast,
In life they had loved, and in death they are blest.
The anchor of hope was the joy of their heart,
Till the foaming tornadoes the Charter did part;
Hundreds then sunk 'neath the sea's faithless breast,
O! shun not the place with the Emigrants rest.
Together they lie in the oceans caress,
Together they'll rise their Saviour to bless;
The gold from the mines, or the banners that wave,
Will be lightly esteemed when they rise from the grave.
Trafalgar, Neyland. Maria Roberts.
There are many legends about the gold on the ship. It is claimed that many Welsh locals became rich from finds on the beach. The aftermath of the disaster is described by Charles Dickens in The Uncommercial Traveller. He had visited the scene and writes of the sheer force of the storm:
So tremendous had the force of the sea been when it broke the ship, that it had beaten one great ingot of gold, deep into a strong and heavy piece of her solid iron-work: in which also several loose sovereigns that the ingot had swept in before it, had been found, as firmly embedded as though the iron had been liquid when they were forced there.
One member of the crew, Joseph Rogers, managed to swim ashore with a line, enabling a few people to be rescued. This scene is depicted in the 1860 painting A Volunteer by the painter Henry O'Neil. Wikipedia covers the whole Royal Charter disaster in excellent detail (many thanks.) A book on the Royal Charter appeared in the 1980s appropriately titled The Golden Wreck...