|Memorial to the Earl of Abergavenny|
on the stone pier, Weymouth
|The Earl of Abergavenny by T Lury|
As was the custom, as she neared Portland, the Abergavenny took on board a pilot to help navigate around Portland Bill and the shoal of coarse sand and shingle beyond it, known as the Shambles. The pilot proved to be disastrously inept. In the failing light and strong waves, he failed to sail far enough out to sea and the ship was grounded on the Shambles.
The shock of the impact threw the Abergavenny on her side and water poured in down the hatchways and companionways. She righted herself but she could not break free of the Shambles. Men immediately manned the pumps to eject the water whilst the waves continued to pound at her until the hull planking gave way immediately below the pumps.
Thomas Gilpin, fourth mate, later recorded what happened. “During the time she was on the Shambles, had from three to four feet water; kept the water at this height about 15 minutes, during the whole time the pumps constantly going. Finding she gained on us, it was determined to run her on the nearest shore.”
Recent research has suggested that the iron knees that held the deck to the hull and kept the ship secure were attached to the deck and hull by copper nails. This dangerous combination, which may have arisen from a cheap refit, would have caused severe rusting which may have led to the hull disintegrating more readily.
A water-logged ship
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.
“The ship would not bear up – kept the helm hard a starboard, she being water-logged; but still had a hope she could be kept up till we got her on Weymouth Sands.”
|Portland Roads - now known as Portland Harbour|
Desperate to rally some assistance, the ship’s cutter was launched with the purser, CH Stewart, Joseph Wordsworth and six seamen on board. The other boats were cut free so that they would float freely when the ship went down, but why no attempt was made to launch them is not clear.
Perhaps they thought that the dangers of trying to navigate the ferocious waves in an open boat far outweighed those of staying on board and trying to sail the ship onto land. Perhaps the manpower required to launch the boats would have prevented the pumps from working and the whole ship would have sunk much sooner.
According to Gilpin: “Cut the lashings of the boats – could not get the long boat out, without laying the main-top-sail aback, by which our progress would have been so delayed, that no hope would have been left us of running her aground.”
“She will sink in a moment”
“We have done all we can, Sir – she will sink in a moment,” declared the first mate, Samuel Baggot, to his captain.
“It cannot be helped. God’s will be done,” John Wordsworth replied.
When the passengers realised that the ship was sinking, some seized planks and bits of hen coop and threw themselves into the sea. Others were swept overboard by giant waves. Some piled into a boat that had been cut loose before the ship sank but there were so many that the boat overturned. Those that were able climbed up the rigging, trying to stay above water.
Around 11pm on the 5 February, the ship went down. When she first settled, part of the main and mizzen masts remained above water and about 200 people desperately clung onto their only hope of staying out of the icy water.
|Frontispiece of one of several pamphlets issued about the sinking|
of the Earl of Abergavenny
This one contains some of Thomas Gilpin'stestimony
According to Gilpin, the ship fired her guns “from the time she struck till she went down” but very little assistance was rendered by nearby ships. Five passengers were rescued by a boat from a sloop, but the waves were too dangerous for them to attempt to rescue anyone else. Why no one else responded to the cries of distress or the gun fire is not known. Ships later claimed that they did not hear the cries in the noise of the storm. Maybe this was true, or maybe they were motivated by self-preservation in the hazardous conditions or even a desire to plunder the wreck.
It was not until the early hours of the following morning that rescue came. A sloop called the Three Brothers came alongside and rescued the survivors, who climbed down the rigging in an orderly fashion. Many had lost their grip in the dark hours of the night and were drowned; others died afterwards due to hypothermia and exhaustion.
An appalling loss of life
|Part of the return of the ship's company|
from An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the Earl of Abergavenny East Indiaman (1805)
The death of John Wordsworth
William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, were devastated at the loss of their brother John. Their grief, in turn, affected their literary circle, especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
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.
John Wordsworth was buried in All Saints Churchyard in the Parish of Wyke Regis on 21 March 1805. No gravestone now exists to indicate where the remains of the last captain of the Earl of Abergavenny are buried.
|All Saints Churchyard|
Wyke Regis, Weymouth
Sources used include:
A gentleman in the East-India House, An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the Earl of Abergavenny East Indiaman (1805)
Boddy, Maureen and West, Jack, Weymouth – an illustrated history (1983)
Chedzoy, Alan, Seaside Sovereign (2003)
Hayter, Alicia, The Wreck of the Abergavenny (2002)
Photographs by Andrew Knowles - www.flickr.com/photos/dragontomato