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Friday 3 February 2012

The wreck of the Abergavenny

On 5 February 1805, the Earl of Abergavenny sank off the coast of Portland with the tragic loss of 260 lives. The wreck is remembered not only for the horrific death toll, but also for the loss of its captain, John Wordsworth, the brother of the poet, William Wordsworth.

Memorial to the Earl of Abergavenny  on the stone pier, Weymouth
Memorial to the Earl of Abergavenny
on the stone pier, Weymouth (2012)
The last voyage of the Abergavenny

The Earl of Abergavenny by T Lury
The Earl of Abergavenny by T Lury
The Earl of Abergavenny was part of a convoy of East Indiamen ships heading for China, on the lucrative route via Bengal. The convoy had already suffered two collisions when it became separated from its escort vessel, HMS Weymouth. Abandoning its attempts to sail westwards against the wind, the convoy decided to return to Portland Roads to wait for fairer weather.

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.

Portland Bill
Portland Bill (2012)
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.1
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.

Gilpin recorded:
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.2
Portland Roads - now known as Portland Harbour
 Portland Roads - now known as Portland Harbour
The cutter goes for help

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.3
“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.4
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
Frontispiece of one of several pamphlets issued about the sinking
of the Earl of Abergavenny 
Help at last

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 the Earl of Abergavenny
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 total number of dead was around 260 including the captain, John Wordsworth, Samuel Baggot, who drowned trying to rescue a woman passenger, and Ensign Whitlow, who had made such efforts along with Baggot and Joseph Wordsworth to re-join the ship. The fourth mate, Thomas Gilpin, was applauded for his bravery in trying to save as many as possible.

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
All Saints Churchyard
Wyke Regis, Weymouth(2012)

A memorial to John Wordsworth was erected inside the church in 2005 to mark the 200th anniversary of the tragedy.
Memorial to John Wordsworth in All Saints Church, Wyke Regis, Dorset
Memorial to John Wordsworth in All Saints Church,
Wyke Regis, Dorset (2014)
You can find more detail about the events leading up to the wreck in The last voyage of the Earl of Abergavenny 
Post updated 19/7/22

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian Regency era romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

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  1. A gentleman in the East-India House, An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the Earl of Abergavenny East Indiaman (1805).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Hayter, Alicia, The Wreck of the Abergavenny (2002).
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 © RegencyHistory


  1. Thank you for putting this on, I found this extremely moving as I am distant relative to both John , Dorothy and William Wordsworth through their mother Anne Cookson

    1. I am glad that you found my blog and found it moving. It was tragic that they were so near the shore and yet so many people died.

  2. Wonderful account of such a sad story - how much we now owe to radio, GPS and the RNLI. Have sailed from Weymouth and am all too aware of the Shambles… Nasty, even in nice weather - let alone in a storm. Never realised that Captain Wordsworth was buried at All Saints, Wyke Regis. I met my wife, Ann, at the nearby Wyke House Hotel (long gone and replaced with houses) and we were married at All Saints (57 years ago)

    1. Thank you for your kind comments. It was a terrible tragedy. There is a memorial to John Wordsworth in All Saints Church which was erected to mark the 200th anniversary of his death.