The catastrophe which is now about to be related made a deep
impression on the public mind. The circumstances attending it were too
aggravating not to excite the highest degree of commiseration, whether
from the flattering prospects held forth in the outset of the voyage,
or from a peculiar feeling towards the condition of the sufferers.
The Halsewell East Indiaman, of 758 tons burthen, commanded by Captain
Richard Pierce, was taken up by the directors of the East India
Company to make her third voyage to Coast and Bay. On the 16th of
November 1785, she fell down to Gravesend, where she completed her
lading. Ladies and other passengers being taken on board at the Hope,
she sailed through the Downs on Sunday the 1st of January 1786; and,
when abreast of Dunnose next morning, the weather fell calm.
This was one of the finest ships in the service, and judged to be in
the most perfect condition for her voyage. Her commander was of
distinguished ability and exemplary character; his officers of
approved fidelity and unquestionable knowledge in their profession,
and the crew not only as numerous as the East India establishment
admits, but the best seamen that could be collected. To these were
added a considerable body of soldiers, destined to recruit the forces
of the East India Company in Asia.
The passengers were seven ladies, two of whom were daughters to the
captain, and other two his relations. Miss Elizabeth Blackburne,
daughter of Captain Blackburne; Miss Mary Haggard, sister to an
officer on the Madras establishment, and Miss Anne Mansel, a child of
European parents residing in Madras, returning from her education in
England. There was also Mr. John George Schutz, returning to collect
part of his fortune, which he had left behind him in India.
The ladies were equally distinguished by their beauty and
accomplishments; the gentlemen of amiable manners, and of a highly
respectable character. Mr. Burston, the chief mate, was also related
to Captain Pierce's lady, and the whole formed a happy society united
in friendship. Nothing could be more pleasing or encouraging than the
outset of the voyage.
On Monday the 2d of January, a breeze from the south sprung up at
three in the afternoon, when the ship ran in shore to land the pilot.
Very thick weather coming on in the evening, and the wind baffling,
she was obliged to anchor, at nine o'clock, in eighteen fathom water.
The topsails were furled, but the people could not furl the courses,
the snow falling thick and freezing as it fell.
Next morning at four a strong gale came on from east-north-east, and
the ship shivering, they were obliged to cut the cables and run out to
sea. At noon they spoke with a brig bound to Dublin, and, having put
the pilot on board of her, immediately bore down channel. The wind
freshening at eight in the evening, and coming round to the southward,
such sails were reefed as were judged necessary. It blew a violent
gale at ten o'clock from the south, whence they were obliged to carry
a press of sail to keep the ship off shore.--In doing this, the
hawse-plugs, which according to a late improvement, were put inside,
were washed in, and the hawse-bags washed away, in consequence of
which the vessel shipped a large quantity of water on the gun-deck.
On sounding the well, and finding the ship had sprung a leak, and now
had five feet water in the hold, the people clewed up the
main-topsail, hauled up the mainsail, and immediately endeavored to
furl both, but could not effect it. On discovering the leak all the
pumps were set to work.
At two in the morning of Wednesday the fourth, they tried to wear the
ship, but without success, and judging it necessary to cut away the
mizen-mast, this was immediately done, when another attempt made to
wear her was equally fruitless as the former. The ship had now seven
feet water in the hold which was gaining fast on the pumps, therefore,
for her preservation it was considered expedient to cut away the
mainmast, as she appeared to be in immediate danger of foundering.
In the fall of the mast, Jonathan Moreton, coxswain, and four men,
were either drawn along with the wreck, or fell overboard and were
drowned. By eight in the morning the wreck was cleared, and the ship
got before the wind, in which position she was kept two hours.
Meantime the pumps reduced the water in the hold two feet, and the
ship's head was brought to the eastward with the foresail only.
At ten in the morning the wind abated considerably, but the ship
labouring extremely, rolled the fore-topmast over on the larboard
side, and, in the fall, the wreck went through the foresail, tearing
it to pieces. At eleven the wind came to the westward, and the weather
clearing up, the Berryhead was distinguishable, bearing north and by
east, distant four or five leagues. Another foresail was now
immediately bent, a jury-mainmast erected and a top-gallantsail set
for a mainsail, under which sail Captain Pierce bore up for
Portsmouth, and employed the remainder of the day in getting up a
At two next morning, the wind came to the southward, blowing fresh,
the weather being very thick. Portland was seen at noon, bearing north
and by east, distant two or three leagues. At night, it blew a strong
gale at south, at which time the Portland lights were then seen,
bearing north-west, distant four or five leagues. The ship was then
wore, and her head got round to the westward; but finding she lost
ground on that tack, the captain wore her again, and kept stretching
on to the eastward, in hopes to have weathered Peverel Point, in which
case he intended to have anchored in Studland Bay. It cleared at
eleven at night, and St. Alban's Head was seen a mile and a half to
the leeward, on which, sail was instantly taken in, and the small
bower anchor let go, which brought up the ship at a whole cable. She
rode for about an hour, but then drove; the sheet anchor was now let
go, and a whole cable wore away, and the ship rode for about two hours
longer, when she drove again.
While in this situation, the captain sent for Mr. Henry Meriton, the
second mate, and asked his opinion as to the probability of saving the
lives of those on board; to which he replied with equal calmness and
candor, that he apprehended there was very little hope of it, as the
ship was driving fast on shore, and might every moment be expected to
strike. The boats were then mentioned, but it was agreed, that
although at that time they could be of very little use, yet in case an
opportunity of making them serviceable should present itself, it was
proposed that the officers should be confidentially requested to
reserve the long boat for the ladies and themselves; and this
precaution was immediately taken.
About two in the morning of Friday the sixth of January, the ship
still driving, and approaching very fast to the shore, the same
officer went again into the cuddy, where the captain then was. Another
conversation taking place, Captain Pierce expressed extreme anxiety
for the preservation of his beloved daughters, and earnestly asked the
officer if he could devise any method of saving them. On his answering
with great concern, that he feared it would be impossible, but that
their only chance would be to wait for morning, the captain lifted up
his hands in silent and distressful ejaculation.
At this dreadful moment, the ship struck, with such violence as to
dash the heads of those standing in the cuddy against the deck above
them, and the shock was accompanied by a shriek of horror that burst
at one instant from every quarter of the ship.
Many of the seamen, who had been remarkably inattentive and remiss in
their duty during a great part of the storm, now poured upon deck,
where no exertions of the officers could keep them, while their
assistance might have been useful.--They had actually skulked in their
hammocks, leaving the working of the pumps and other necessary labours
to the officers of the ship, and the soldiers, who had made uncommon
exertions. Roused by a sense of their danger, the same seamen, at this
moment, in frantic exclamations, demanded of heaven and their fellow
sufferers, that succour which their own efforts timely made might
possibly have procured.
The ship continued to beat on the rocks, and soon bilging, fell with
her broadside towards the shore. When she struck, a number of men
climbed up the ensign-staff, under an apprehension of her immediately
going to pieces.
Mr. Meriton, the second mate, at this crisis offered to these unhappy
beings the best advice which could be given; he recommended that all
should come to the side of the ship lying lowest on the rocks, and
singly to take the opportunities which might then offer, of escaping
to the shore.
Having thus provided to the utmost of his power, for the safety of the
desponding crew, he returned to the round-house, where, by this time,
all the passengers, and most of the officers had assembled. The latter
were employed in offering consolation to the unfortunate ladies, and
with unparalleled magnanimity, suffering their compassion for the fair
and amiable companions of their misfortunes, to prevail over the sense
of their own danger.
In this charitable work of comfort, Mr. Meriton now joined, by
assurances of his opinion, that the ship would hold together till the
morning, when all would be safe. Captain Pierce observing one of the
young gentlemen loud in his exclamations of terror, and frequently cry
that the ship was parting, cheerfully bid him be quiet, remarking,
that though the ship should go to pieces, he would not, but would be
It is difficult to convey a correct idea of the scene of this
deplorable catastrophe, without describing the place where it
The Halsewell struck on the rocks near Seacombe, on the island of
Purbeck, between Peverel Point and St. Alban's Head, at a part of the
shore where the cliff is of vast height, and rises almost
perpendicular from its base. But at this particular spot, the foot of
the cliff is excavated into a cavern of ten or twelve yards in depth,
and of breadth equal to the length of a large ship. The sides of the
cavern are so nearly upright as to be of extremely difficult access;
and the bottom is strewed with sharp and uneven rocks, which seem, by
some convulsion of the earth, to have been detached from its roof.
The ship lay with her broadside opposite to the mouth of this cavern,
with her whole length stretched almost from side to side of it. But
when she struck, it was too dark for the unfortunate persons on board
to discover the real magnitude of their danger, and the extreme horror
of such a situation.--Even Mr. Meriton entertained a hope that she
might keep together till day-light; and endeavored to cheer his
drooping friends, and in particular the unhappy ladies, with this
comfortable expectation, as an answer to the captain's inquiries what
he thought of their condition.
In addition to the company already in the round-house, they had
admitted three black women and two soldier's wives, who, with the
husband of one of them, had been allowed to come in, though the
seamen, who had tumultuously demanded entrance to get the lights, had
been opposed and kept out by Mr. Rogers and Mr. Brimer, the third and
fifth mates. The numbers there were therefore now increased to near
fifty. Capt. Pierce sat on a chair, a cot or some other moveable, with
a daughter on each side, whom he alternately pressed to his
affectionate breast. The rest of the melancholy assembly were seated
on the deck, which was strewed with musical instruments, and the wreck
of furniture and other articles.
Here also Mr. Meriton, after having cut several wax candles in pieces
and stuck them up in various parts of the round-house, and lighted up
all the glass lanthorns he could find, took his seat, intending to
wait the approach of dawn; and then assist the partners of his danger
to escape. But observing that the poor ladies appeared parched and
exhausted, he brought a basket of oranges and prevailed on some of
them to refresh themselves by sucking a little of the juice. At this
time they were all tolerably composed, except Miss Mansel, who was in
hysteric fits, on the floor of the deck of the round-house.
But on Mr. Meriton's return to the company, he perceived a
considerable alteration in the appearance of the ship; the sides were
visibly giving way; the deck seemed to be lifting and he discovered
other strong indications that she could not hold much longer together.
On this account, he attempted to go forward to look out, but
immediately saw that the ship had separated in the middle, and that
the fore-part having changed its position, lay further towards the
sea. In such an emergency, when the next moment might plunge him into
eternity, he determined to seize the present opportunity, and follow
the example of the crew and the soldiers, who were now quitting the
ship in numbers, and making their way to the shore, though quite
ignorant of its nature and description.
Among other expedients, the ensign-staff had been unshipped, and
attempted to be laid between the ship's side and some of the rocks,
but without success, for it snapped assunder before it reached them.
However, by the light of a lanthorn which a seaman handed through a
sky-light of the round-house to the deck, Mr. Meriton discovered a
spar which appeared to be laid from the ship's side to the rocks, and
on this spar he resolved to attempt his escape.
Accordingly lying down upon it, he thrust himself forward; however, he
soon found that it had no communication with the rock; he reached the
end of it and then slipped off, receiving a very violent bruise in his
fall, and before he could recover his legs, he was washed off by the
surge. He now supported himself by swimming, until a returning wave
dashed him against the back part of the cavern. Here he laid hold of a
small projection in the rock, but was so much benumbed that he was on
the point of quitting it, when a seaman, who had already gained a
footing, extended his hand, and assisted him until he could secure
himself a little on the rock; from which he clambered on a shelf still
higher, and out of the reach of the surf.
Mr. Rogers, the third mate, remained with the captain, and the
unfortunate ladies and their companions, nearly twenty minutes after
Mr. Meriton had quitted the ship. Soon after the latter left the
round-house, the captain asked what was become of him, to which Mr.
Rogers replied, that he was gone on deck to see what could be done.
After this, a heavy sea breaking over the ship, the ladies exclaimed,
"O poor Meriton! he is drowned! had he staid with us he would have
been safe!" and they all, particularly Miss Mary Pierce, expressed
great concern at the apprehension of his loss. On this occasion Mr.
Rogers offered to go and call in Mr. Meriton, but it was opposed by
the ladies, from an apprehension that he might share the same fate.
The sea was now breaking in at the fore-part of the ship, and reached
as far as the mainmast. Captain Pierce gave Mr. Rogers a nod, and they
took a lamp and went together into the stern-gallery, where, after
viewing the rocks for some time, Captain Pierce asked Mr. Rogers if he
thought there was any possibility of saving the girls; to which he
replied, he feared there was none; for they could only discover the
black face of the perpendicular rock, and not the cavern which
afforded shelter to those who escaped. They then returned to the
round-house, where Mr. Rogers hung up the lamp, and Captain Pierce sat
down between his two daughters, struggling to suppress the parental
tears which burst into his eyes.
The sea continuing to break in very fast, Mr. Macmanus, a midshipman,
and Mr. Schutz, asked Mr. Rogers what they could do to escape. "Follow
me," he replied, and they all went into the stern gallery, and from
thence to the upper-quarter-gallery on the poop. While there, a very
heavy sea fell on board and the round-house gave way; Mr. Rogers heard
the ladies shriek at intervals, as if the water reached them; the
noise of the sea, at other times, drowning their voices.
Mr. Brimer had followed him to the poop, where they remained together
about five minutes; when on the breaking of this heavy sea, they
jointly seized a hen-coop. The same wave which proved fatal to some of
those below, carried him and his companion to the rock, on which they
were violently dashed and miserably bruised.
Here on the rock were twenty-seven, but it now being low water, and as
they were convinced that on the flowing of the tide all must be washed
off, many tried to get to the back or the sides of the cavern, beyond
the reach of the returning sea. Scarcely more than six, besides Mr.
Rogers and Mr. Brimer, succeeded; of the others, some shared the fate
which they had apprehended, and others perished in their efforts to
get into the cavern. Mr. Rogers and Mr. Brimer both reached it,
however, and scrambled up the rock, on narrow shelves of which they
fixed themselves. Mr. Rogers got so near his friend, Mr. Meriton, as
to exchange mutual congratulations with him. A warm friendship,
indeed, subsisted between these two gentlemen; they had made a long
and painful voyage together, in another Indiaman, where they survived
an uncommon mortality by which the crew were visited. They returned to
England, and an interval of only twenty-five days elapsed, before they
again embarked in the Halsewell.
Mr. Rogers on gaining this station, was so nearly exhausted, that had
his exertions been protracted only a few minutes longer, he must have
sunk under them. He was now prevented from joining Mr. Meriton, by at
least twenty men between them, none of whom could move without the
imminent peril of his life.
They found that a very considerable number of the crew, seamen, and
soldiers, and some petty officers, were in the same situation as
themselves, though many who had reached the rocks below, perished in
attempting to ascend. They could yet discern some part of the ship,
and in their dreary station solaced themselves with the hope of its
remaining entire until day-break; for in the midst of their own
distress, the sufferings of the females on board affected them with
the most poignant anguish; and every sea that broke, inspired them
with terror for their safety.
But, alas, their apprehensions were too soon realized!--Within a very
few minutes of the time that Mr. Rogers gained the rock, an universal
shriek, which long vibrated in their ears, in which the voice of
female distress was lamentably distinguished, announced the dreadful
catastrophe. In a few moments all was hushed, except the roaring of
the winds and the dashing of the waves; the wreck was buried in the
deep, and not an atom of it was ever afterwards seen.
The shock which this gave to the trembling wretches in the cavern was
awful. Though themselves hardly rescued from the sea, and still
surrounded by impending dangers, they wept for the destiny of their
unhappy companions. But this was not all. Many who had gained a
precarious station, weakened with injuries, benumbed and battered by
the tempest, forsook their hold-fasts, and, tumbling on the rocks
below, perished beneath the feet of their miserable companions. Their
dying groans and exclamations for pity, only tended to awaken more
painful apprehensions, and increase the terror of the survivors.
At length after three hours, which appeared so many ages, day broke,
but instead of bringing relief to the sufferers, it only served to
disclose the horrors of their situation. They now found, that had the
country been alarmed by the guns of distress which they had continued
to fire for many hours before the ship struck, but which were not
heard, owing to the violence of the storm, they could neither be
observed by the people from above, nor could any boat live below. They
were completely overhung by the cliff, so that no ropes let down could
reach them; nor did any part of the wreck remain as a guide to their
The only prospect of saving themselves, was to creep along the side of
the cavern to its outward extremity, and on a ledge scarcely as broad
as a man's hand, to turn the corner, and endeavor to clamber up the
precipice, almost perpendicular, and nearly 200 feet high from the
bottom.--And in this desperate effort some did succeed, while others,
trembling with fear, and exhausted by the preceding conflict, lost
their footing and perished in the attempt.
The first who gained the top, were the cook and James Thompson, a
quarter-master; the moment they reached it, they hastened to the
nearest house and made known the condition of their comrades. This was
Eastington, the habitation of Mr. Garland, steward to the proprietors
of the Purbeck quarries. He immediately collected the workmen, and
procuring ropes with all possible despatch, made the most humane and
zealous exertions for the relief of the surviving people.
Mr. Meriton made a similar attempt to that of the two others, and
almost reached the edge of the precipice. A soldier who preceded him
had his feet on a small projecting rock or stone on which also Meriton
had fastened his hands to aid his progress. At this critical moment
the quarrymen arrived, and seeing a man so nearly within their reach,
they dropped a rope to him, of which he immediately laid hold; and in
a vigorous effort to avail himself of this advantage, loosened the
stone on which he stood, and which supported Mr. Meriton. It giving
way, Mr. Meriton must have been precipitated to the bottom, had not a
rope at that instant providentially been lowered to him, which he
seized, when absolutely in the act of falling, and was safely drawn to
But the fate of Mr. Brimer was peculiarly severe. Only nine days
before the ship sailed, he had been married to a beautiful young lady,
the daughter of Captain Norman of the royal navy, in which service he
was a lieutenant, and now on a visit to an uncle at Madras; after
getting ashore with Mr. Rogers and up the side of the cavern, he
remained until morning, when he crawled out. A rope being thrown to
him, he was either so benumbed with cold as to fasten it insecurely
about his body, or from some other cause or agitation, to neglect
doing it completely; at the moment when about to be rescued from his
perilous stand, he fell and was dashed to pieces in the presence of
More assistance was obtained as the day advanced; and as the efforts
of the survivors permitted, they crawled to the extremities of the
cavern and presented themselves to their preservers above, who stood
prepared to assist them. The means of doing so, was by two men boldly
approaching the very brink of the precipice, a rope being tied round
them and fastened to a strong iron bar fixed in the ground; behind
them were two more, the like number further back and so on. A strong
rope also properly secured, passed round them, by which they might
hold, and preserve themselves from falling. They then let down a rope
with a noose ready made, below to the cavern, and the wind blowing
hard, it was in some instances forced under the projecting rock,
sufficiently for the sufferers to reach it, without creeping out.
Whoever caught it, put the noose round his body, and was drawn up. The
distance from the top of the rock to the cavern, was at least an
hundred feet, and the rock projected about eight; ten feet formed a
declivity to the edge, and the rest was perpendicular.
Many, however, in attempting to secure themselves, shared the fate of
Mr. Brimer, and, unable, from weakness or perturbation, to benefit by
the assistance offered from above, they were at last precipitated from
the cliff, and were either dashed to pieces on the rocks below, or
perished in the waves.--Among those unhappy sufferers was one who
being washed off the rock, or falling into the sea, was carried out by
the return of the waves beyond the breakers, within which his utmost
efforts could never again bring him, but he was always further
withdrawn by the sea. He swam remarkably well, and continued to
struggle in sight of his companions, until his strength being
exhausted, he sunk to rise no more.
It was late in the day before all the survivors gained the land; one
indeed a soldier, remained in this precarious station until the
morning of Saturday the 7th of January; exposed to the utmost danger
and distress. When the officers, seamen and soldiers, were mustered
at the house of Mr. Garland, they were found to amount to
seventy-four; and these were the only persons saved out of rather more
than two hundred and forty that were on board when the ship sailed
through the Downs, including the passengers. It was supposed that
above fifty of the remainder reached the rocks, but were then washed
off or fell from the cliffs; and that fifty, or more, sunk with the
captain and the ladies in the round-house, when the after-part went to
pieces. An accurate account of the whole numbers in the ship could
never be obtained, as the last returns dispatched from her did not
The whole who reached the summit of the rock survived, excepting two
or three who were supposed to have expired while drawing up, and a
black who died soon afterwards; though many were severely bruised.
Mr. Meriton and Mr. Rogers having been supplied with the necessary
means of making their journey by Mr. Garland, set off for London to
carry the tidings of this disaster to the India House, where they
arrived at noon, on Sunday the 8th. On the way they acquainted the
magistrates of the towns through which they passed, that a number of
shipwrecked seamen would soon be on the road to the metropolis. This
they did to avert any suspicions of their travelling for some other
intent. It is truly deserving of communication, that the master of the
Crown-Inn at Blandford, Dorsetshire, not only sent for all the
distressed seamen to his house, where he liberally refreshed them, but
presented each with half a crown on his departure.
By this unfortunate shipwreck, all the passengers perished. The ladies
were peculiarly endowed with beauty and accomplishments. The captain
was a man of distinguished worth; humane and generous. (He left,
besides those two daughters who suffered along with him, six other
children and a widow to deplore his loss.) Most of the officers also
perished; one of them, Mr. Thomas Jeane, a midshipman, who was under
the immediate care of Captain Pierce, after gaining the rock was swept
off by the waves. Swimming well he again reached it; but unable to
support the weakness which assailed him, and the beating of the storm,
he yielded his hold and perished in the sea.