Loss of the Catharine, Venus and Piedmont  Transports; and Three Merchant Ships.

Naval Transport – (See ‘Christian’s Fleet by Edwina Boult, ISBN 0-7524-2783-0. Particularly p 117-119) (LARN) – Captain Lieutenant Stephen Jenner RN. Chesil Beach, off Fleet. (Dor. Mag: 1975 No. 48). “28 horses on board. The master Lieut. Jenner and Lieut. Staines, Cornet Burns, Surgeon Dodd, two women, 28 troops and all the crew lost. Only Mrs Burns and a boy saved.”


Narrative Author: Anonymous [1]

The miseries of war are in themselves great and terrible, but the consequences which arise indirectly from it, though seldom known and little adverted to, are no less deplorable.—The destruction of the sword sometimes bears only an inconsiderable proportion to the havoc of disease, and, in the pestilential climates of the western colonies, entire regiments, reared in succession, have as often fallen victims to their baneful influence.

To prosecute the war with alacrity, it had been judged expedient to transport a strong body of troops on foreign service, but their departure was delayed by repeated adversities, and at length the catastrophe which is about to be related ensued.

On the 15th of November 1795, the fleet, under convoy of Admiral Christian’s squadron, sailed from St. Helens. A more beautiful sight than it exhibited cannot be conceived; and those who had nothing to lament in leaving their native country, enjoyed the spectacle as the most magnificent produced by the art of man, and as that which the natives of this island contemplate with mingled pride and pleasure.

Next day, the wind continuing favorable, carried the fleet down channel; and as the Catharine  transport came within [Pg 289] sight of the isle of Purbeck, Lieutenant Jenner, an officer on board, pointed out to another person, the rocks where the Halsewell and so many unfortunate individuals had perished. He and Cornet Burns had been unable to reach Southampton until the Catharine  had sailed, therefore they hired a boy to overtake her, and on embarking at St. Helens the former expressed his satisfaction, in a letter to his mother, that he had been so fortunate as to do so.

On Tuesday the 17th, the fleet was off Portland, standing to the westward; but the wind shifting and blowing a strong gale at south-south-west, the admiral, dubious whether they could clear the channel, made a signal for putting into Torbay, which some of the transports were then in sight of.—However, they could not make the bay; the gale increased, and a thick fog came on; therefore the admiral thought it expedient to alter his design, and about five in afternoon made a signal for standing out to sea. Of the circumstances relative to the Catharine , a more detailed account has been preserved than respecting the other vessels of the fleet; and they are preserved by a female, with whose name we are unacquainted, in these words.

“The evening of the 17th was boisterous and threatening; the master said he was apprehensive that we should have bad weather; and when I was desired to go on deck and look at the appearance of the sky, I observed that it was troubled and red, with great heavy clouds flying in all directions, and with a sort of dull mist surrounding the moon. On repeating this to the other passengers, two of whom had been at sea before, they said we should certainly have a stormy night, and indeed it proved so very tempestuous that no rest was to be obtained. Nobody, however, seemed to think that there was any danger, though the fog was so thick that the master could see nothing by which to direct his course; but he thought that he had sufficient sea-room.

The fatigue I had suffered from the tossing of the ship, and the violence with which she continued to roll, had kept me in bed. It was about ten o’clock in the morning of the 18th, when the mate looked down into the cabin and cried, “save yourselves if you can!”

The consternation and terror of that moment cannot be described; I had on a loose dressing gown, and wrapping it round me I went up, not quite on deck, but to the top of the stairs, from whence I saw the sea break mountain high against the shore. The passengers and soldiers seemed thunderstruck [Pg 290] by the sense of immediate and inevitable danger, and the seamen, too conscious of the hopelessness of any exertion, stood in speechless agony, certain of meeting in a few moments that destruction which now menaced them.

While I thus surveyed the scene around me in a kind of dread which no words can figure, Mr. Burns, an officer of dragoons, who had come up in his shirt, called to Mr. Jenner and Mr. Stains for his cloak; nobody, however, could attend to any thing in such a moment but self-preservation.

Mr. Jenner, Mr. Stains and Mr. Dodd the surgeon, now passed me, their countenances sufficiently expressing their sense of the situation in which we all were. Mr. Burns spoke cheerfully to me; he bade me take good courage, and Mr. Jenner observed, there was a good shore near, and all would do well.

These gentlemen then went to the side of the ship, with the intention, as I believe, of seeing whether it was possible to get on shore. The master of the vessel alone remained near the companion; when suddenly a tremendous wave broke over the ship, and struck me with such violence, that I was stunned for a moment, and, before being able to recover myself, the ship struck with a force so great as to throw me from the stairs into the cabin, the master being thrown down near me. At the same instant, the cabin, with a dreadful crash, broke in upon us, and planks and beams threatened to bury us in ruins. The master, however, soon recovered himself; he left me to go again upon deck, and I saw him no more.

A sense of my condition lent me strength to disengage myself from the boards and fragments by which I was surrounded, and I once more got upon the stairs, I hardly know how. But what a scene did I behold! The masts were all lying across the shattered remains of the deck, and no living creature appeared on it; all was gone, though I knew not then that they were gone forever. I looked forward to the shore, but there I could see nothing except the dreadful surf that broke against it, while, behind the ship, immense black waves rose like tremendous ruins. I knew that they must overwhelm her, and thought that there could be no escape for me.

Believing, then, that death was immediate and unavoidable, my idea was to regain my bed in the cabin, and there, resigning myself to the will of God, await the approaching moment. However, I could not reach it, and for a while was insensible; then the violent striking and breaking up of the wreck again roused me to recollection; I found myself near the cabin-windows, [Pg 291] and the water was rising round me. It rapidly increased, and the horrors of drowning were present to my view; yet do I remember seeing the furniture of the cabin floating about. I sat almost enclosed by pieces of the wreck, and the water now reached my breast.

The bruises I had received made every exertion extremely difficult, and my loose gown was so entangled among the beams and fragments of the ship, that I could not disengage it. Still the desire of life, the hope of being welcomed on shore, whither I thought my friends had escaped, and the remembrance of my child, all united in inspiring me with courage to attempt saving myself. I again tried to loosen my gown, but found it impossible, and the wreck continued to strike so violently, and the ruins to close so much more around me, that I now expected to be crushed to death.

As the ship drifted higher on the stones, the water rather lessened as the waves went back, but on their return, continued to cover me, and I once or twice lost my breath, and, for a moment, my recollection. When I had power to think, the principle of self preservation still urged me to exertion.

The cabin now broke more and more, and through a large breach I saw the shore very near. Amidst the tumult of the raging waves I had a glimpse of the people, who were gathering up what the sea drove towards them; but I thought they could not see me, and from them I despaired of assistance.—Therefore I determined to make one effort to preserve my life. I disengaged my arms from the dressing gown, and, finding myself able to move, I quitted the wreck, and felt myself on the ground. I attempted to run, but was too feeble to save myself from a raging wave, which overtook and overwhelmed me. Then I believed myself gone; yet, half suffocated as I was, I struggled very much, and I remember that I thought I was very long dying. The wave left me; I breathed again, and made another attempt to get higher upon the bank, but, quite exhausted, I fell down and my senses forsook me.

By this time I was observed by some of the people on the bank, and two men came to my assistance. They lifted me up; I once more recovered some faint recollection; and, as they bore me along, I was sensible that one of them said the sea would overtake us; that he must let me go and take care of his own life. I only remember clinging to the other and imploring him not to abandon me to the merciless waves.—But I have a very confused idea of what passed, till I saw the boat, into which I was to be put to cross the Fleet water; [Pg 292] I had then just strength to say, “For God’s sake do not take me to sea again.”

I believe the apprehension of it, added to my other sufferings tended to deprive me of all further sensibility, for I have not the least recollection of any thing afterwards until roused by the remedies applied to restore me in a farm-house whither I was carried. There I heard a number of women around me, who asked a great number of questions which I was unable to answer. I remember hearing one say I was a French woman; another say that I was a negro, and indeed I was so bruised, and in such a disfigured condition, that the conjectures of these people are not surprising.

When recovering some degree of confused recollection, and able to speak, I begged that they would allow me to go to bed. This, however, I did not ask with any expectation of life, for I was now in such a state of suffering, that my only wish was to be allowed to lie down and die in peace.

Nothing could exceed the humanity of Mr. Abbot, the inhabitant of Fleet farm-house, nor the compassionate attention of his sister, Miss Abbot, who not only afforded me immediate assistance, but continued for some days to attend me with such kindness and humanity, as I shall always remember with the sincerest gratitude.”

The unfortunate sufferer who gives the preceding account, was tended with great humanity by Mr. Bryer, while a wound in her foot, and the dangerous bruises she had received, prevented her from quitting the shelter she first found under the roof of Mr. Abbot, at Fleet. As soon as she was in a condition to be removed to Weymouth, Mr. Bryer, a surgeon there, received her into his own house, where Mrs. Bryer assisted in administering to her recovery such benevolent offices of consolation as her deplorable situation admitted. Meantime the gentlemen of the south battalion of the Gloucester Militia, who had done every thing possible towards the preservation of those who were the victims of the tempest, now liberally contributed to alleviate the pecuniary distresses of the survivors. None seemed to have so forcible a claim on their pity as this forlorn and helpless stranger; and she alone, of forty souls, except a single ship-boy, survived the wreck of the Catharine . There perished, twelve seamen, two soldiers’ wives, twenty-two dragoons and four officers, Lieutenant Stains, Mr. Dodd of the hospital-staff, Lieutenant Jenner, the representative of an ancient and respectable family in Gloucestershire, aged thirty-one and Cornet Burns, the son of an American [Pg 293] loyalist of considerable property, who was deprived of every thing for his adherence to the British Government.—Having no dependence but on the promises of government to indemnify those who had suffered on that account he, after years of distress and difficulty, obtained a cornetcy in the 26th regiment of dragoons, then going to the West Indies, and was thus lost in his twenty-fourth year. This officer had intended embarking in another transport, and had actually sent his horse on board, when finding the Catharine  more commodious, he gave her the preference, while the other put back to Spithead in safety. The mangled remains of Lieutenant Jenner were two days afterwards found on the beach, and interred with military honors.

But the Catharine  was not the only vessel which suffered in the tempest. Those who on shore had listened to it raging on the preceding evening, could not avoid feeling the most lively alarm for the consequences; and early on the morning of the 18th of November, several pilots and other persons assembled on the promontory called the Look-out at Weymouth. Thence they too evidently discovered the distress and danger of many of the transports.

Soon after, a lieutenant of the navy, residing at Weymouth, applied to the major of a militia regiment, for a guard to be sent to the Chisell Bank, as a large ship, supposed to be a frigate, was on shore. This was immediately granted, and the major himself marched along with a captain’s guard.

The violence of the wind was so great, that the party could with difficulty reach the place of their destination. There they found a large merchantman, theÆolus, laden with timber for government, on shore. Lieutenant Mason of the navy, and his brother, a midshipman, perished in her, and a number of men who would probably have been saved had they understood the signals from shore. The men of Portland who crowded down to the scene of desolation, meant to express, by throwing small pebbles at them, that they should remain on board, to make them hear was impossible, because they foresaw the ship would drive high on the bank. Should that be the case, they might soon leave her without hazard; and accordingly those who continued on board were saved, though many of them were dreadfully bruised.

Not far from the same place, the Golden Grove, another merchantman, was stranded, and in her Dr. Stevens and Mr. Burrows of St. Kitts, were lost. Lieutenant Colonel Ross, who was also there escaped on shore. These two vessels [Pg 294] had struck against a part of the Passage-House, almost in the same spot where a French frigate, the Zenobia, had gone to pieces in 1763.

But the scene of distress was infinitely greater about four miles to the westward, where, as already related, the Catharine  was wrecked. Along with her, nearly opposite to the villages of Fleet and Chickerell, the Piedmont  and Venus , two transports, and soon after the Thomas, a merchantman, shared the same fate.

One hundred and thirty-eight soldiers of the 63d regiment, under the command of Captain Barcroft, were on board the Piedmont ; also Lieutenant Ash and Mr. Kelly, surgeon of the same regiment. Of all these, only Serjeant Richardson, eleven privates, and four seamen, survived the catastrophe; all the rest perished.

Captain Barcroft’s life had passed in the service. While yet a very young man, he served in America during the war between England and her colonies; and being then taken prisoner, was severely treated. On commencement of the war which has so many years desolated Europe, he raised a company in his native country, and served with it on the Continent during the campaign of 1794. Under a heavy fire of the enemy, he was one of the last men who retreated with it along a single plank, knee-deep in water, from the siege of Nimeguen. In a few months after the disastrous retreat on the Continent, in the winter 1794, he was ordered to the West Indies, and, in the outset of his voyage, perished in the tempest.

Of the few who reached the shore from the Piedmont , there was scarce one who was not dreadfully bruised, and some had their limbs broken. An unfortunate veteran of the 63d, though his leg was shockingly fractured, had sufficient resolution to creep for shelter under a fishing boat which lay inverted on the further side of the bank. There his groans were unheard until a young gentleman, Mr. Smith, a passenger in the Thomas, who had himself been wrecked, and was now wandering along the shore, discovered him. In this ship, the Thomas, bound to Oporto, the master, Mr. Brown, his son, and all the crew, except the mate, three seamen and Mr. Smith, were lost. The last was on his way to Lisbon; but his preservation was chiefly in consequence of his remaining on board after all the rest had left the ship, or were washed away by the waves. She had then drifted high on the bank, when he leaped out of her and reached the ground.

[Pg 295] Though weak and encumbered by his wet clothes, he gained the opposite side of the bank, but on gazing on the dreary beach around him, he considered himself cast away on an uninhabited coast. At length he observed a fishing-boat, and approaching it, heard the groans of the unfortunate old soldier, whom he attempted to relieve. But alone he found himself unable to fulfil his intention, and it was a considerable time before he observed any means of assistance near. At last, perceiving a man at some distance, he hastened to him, eagerly inquiring whether a surgeon could be procured for a poor creature with a broken limb, who lay under the boat. Probably the man showed little alacrity, for Mr. Smith found it necessary to purchase his good offices by a gift of half a-guinea, which he imagined would induce him to seek what was so much required. But the man, pocketing the half-guinea with the greatest composure, said he was a king’s officer, and must see what bales of goods were driven on shore; then telling Mr. Smith there was a ferry about four miles off, by which he might get to Weymouth. The youth was thus disappointed of his humane design, and the soldier died in that deplorable condition before any other aid attained him.

In the Thomas, the vessel to which Mr. Smith belonged, he witnessed scenes not less distressing. Mr. Brown, the master of the vessel, was carried away by an immense wave just as he was stripping off his clothes to endeavor to save himself. His son exclaiming, “Oh my father, my father! my poor father!” instantly followed. The bodies of both were afterwards found and interred at Wyke.

Of ninety-six persons on board the Venus , only Mr. John Darley of the hospital staff, Serjeant-Major Hearne, twelve soldiers, four seamen and a boy were saved. Mr. Darley escaped by throwing himself from the wreck at a moment when it drifted high on the stones; he reached them without broken limbs, but, overtaken by the furious sea, he was carried back, not so far, however, that he was incapable of regaining the ground. Notwithstanding the weight of his clothes and his exhausted state, he got to the top of the bank, but there the power of farther exertion failed, and he fell. While lying in this situation, trying to recover breath and strength, a great many people from the neighboring villages passed him; they had crossed the Fleet water in the hopes of sharing the plunder of the vessels which the lower inhabitants of the coast are too much accustomed to consider their right.

Mr. Darley seems to have been so far from meeting with [Pg 296] assistance from those who were plundering the dead, without thinking of the living, that although he saw many boats passing and repassing the Fleet water, he found great difficulty in procuring a passage for himself and two or three fellow-sufferers who had now joined him. But having passed it he soon met with Mr. Bryer, to whose active humanity all the sufferers were eminently indebted.

Before the full extent of this dreadful calamity was known at Weymouth, the officers of the South Gloucester Militia, with equal humanity, were devising how they might best succour the survivors, and perform the last duties to the remains of those who had perished. On the morning of the 19th of November, one of them, accompanied by Mr. Bryer of Weymouth, rode to the villages where those who had escaped from the various wrecks had found a temporary shelter. In a house at Chickerell, they found Serjeant Richardson and eleven privates of the 63d regiment; two of the latter had fractured limbs, and almost all the rest either wounds or bruises. In other houses the sufferers had been received, and were as comfortably accommodated as circumstances would admit.

The gentlemen then crossed the Fleet water to the beach, and there, whatever idea was previously formed of it, the horror of the scene infinitely surpassed expectation; no celebrated field of carnage ever presented, in proportion to its size, a more awful sight than the Chisell Bank now exhibited. For about two miles it was strewed with the dead bodies of men and animals, with pieces of wreck and piles of plundered goods, which groups of people were carrying away, regardless of the sight of drowned bodies that filled the new spectators with sorrow and amazement.

On the mangled remains of the unfortunate victims, death appeared in all its hideous forms. Either the sea or the people who had first gone down to the shore, had stripped the bodies of the clothes which the sufferers had wore at the fatal moment. The remnants of the military stock; the wristbands, or color of a shirt, or a piece of blue pantaloons, were all the fragments left behind.

The only means of distinguishing the officers was the different appearance of their hands from those of men accustomed to hard labor; but some were known by the description given of them by their friends or by persons who were in the vessels along with them. The remains of Captain Barcroft were recognised by the honorable scars he had received in the service of his country; and the friends and [Pg 297] relatives of him, and several more, had the satisfaction of learning that their bodies were rescued from the sea, and interred with military honors.

Early in the morning of the 20th of November, a lieutenant of the militia regiment who had been appointed to superintend the melancholy office of interment, repaired to the scene of destruction. But from the necessary preliminaries of obtaining the authority of a magistrate to remove the bodies, not more than twenty-five were buried that day. The bodies of Captain Barcroft, Lieutenant Sutherland, Cornet Graydon, Lieutenant Ker and two women, were then selected to be put into coffins. Next day, those of Lieutenant Jenner and Cornet Burns, being found, were distinguished in the like manner.

The whole number of dead found on the beach, amounted to two hundred and thirty-four; so that the duty of interment was so heavy and fatiguing, that it was not until the twenty-third that all the soldiers and sailors were deposited. Of these there were two hundred and eight, and they were committed to the earth as decently as circumstances would admit, in graves dug on the Fleet side of the beach, beyond the reach of the sea, where a pile of stones was raised on each, to mark where they lay. Twelve coffins were sent to receive the bodies of the women, but nine only being found, the supernumerary ones were appointed to receive the remains of the officers.

Two waggons were next sent to the Fleet water to receive the coffins, in which the shrouded bodies of seventeen officers and nine women had been placed, and on the 24th were carried to the church-yard at Wyke, preceded by a captain, subaltern and fifty men of the Gloucester Militia, and attended by the young gentleman before mentioned, Mr. Smith as chief mourner. The officers were interred in a large grave, north of the church-tower, with military honors, and Lieutenant Ker in a grave on the other side of the tower. The remains of the nine women, which had been deposited in the church during the ceremony, were next committed to the earth.

Two monuments have been erected in commemoration of the unfortunate sufferers, the first bearing the following inscription:

To the memory of Captain Ambrose William Barcroft, Lieutenant Harry Ash and Mr. Kelly, surgeon of the 63d regiment of Light Infantry; of Lieutenant Stephen Jenner, of the 6th West India regiment; Lieutenant Stains of the 2d [Pg 298] West India Regiment and two hundred and fifteen soldiers and seamen and nine women, who perished by shipwreck on Portland Beach, opposite the villages of Langton, Fleet and Chickerell, on Wednesday the eighteenth day of November, 1795.

On the second monument is inscribed,

Sacred to the memory of Major John Charles Ker, Military Commandant of Hospitals in the Leeward Islands, and to that of his son, Lieutenant James Ker, of the 40th regiment of foot, who both departed this life on the 18th of November 1795, the first aged 40 and the latter 14 years.

The fate of both was truly deplorable, and is a melancholy example of the uncertainty of human affairs.

They were embarked in the Venus  transport, and left Portsmouth the 15th of November, with a fleet full of troops, destined to the West Indies, under the command of General Sir Ralph Abercrombe.

A storm having arisen on the 17th which lasted till the next day, many of the ships were lost, and the Venus  wrecked on Portland Beach.

The major’s body could not be found, although it is possible it may have been among the many others which were driven ashore and buried in this church-yard.

His son’s corpse was ascertained, and lies interred under this stone, which was raised by his brother, John William Ker, Esq



Day of Loss: 18

Month of Loss: 11

Year of Loss: 1795



Approximate Depth: