Sea Stories

Loss Of The Halsewell

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 jury-mizen-mast. 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 safe enough. It is difficult to convey a correct idea of the scene of this deplorable catastrophe, without describing the place where it happened. 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 retreat. 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 the summit. 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 his companions. 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 arrive. 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.

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