CHRISTIAN’S FLEET

Aeolus, Golden Grove, Catherine, Piedmont, Venus, Hannah, Harmony, Pitt and the Thomas

Catherine

Depiction of the Loss of the Catharine, Mrs Burns seen in the doorway

In November 1795 the English fleet had left Spithead under the command of Rear Admiral Hugh Cloberry CHRISTIAN. The fleet consisted of about 200 heavily laden troops, ordnance transports and merchant ships destined for the West Indies where the French were threatening British supremacy. However, within 48 hours disaster struck when south westerly gales sprang up. The fleet was ordered to make for Torbay and shelter but regrettably some of the ships were dangerously close to the dangers of Portland and the Chesil Beach.

By now it was too late and the full force of the storm drove at least six of the fleet upon the menacing shingle of the Chesil bank. Two ordnance transports were lost out towards Wyke and Portland, whilst between Chickerell and Fleet three troop transports, the Piedmont, Catherine and Venus together with a merchantman were driven on the bank and smashed to pieces.

Wrecks and dead bodies were strewn everywhere over an extent of two miles of the beach. As was the wretched custom in those days of shipwreck plunder many of the inhabitants of the nearby villages of Chickerell, Langton and Fleet descended on the site paying scant attention to the needs of those that survived.

By chance, stationed in the area, on their tour of the south coast were the South Gloucestershire Militia who had become aware of the disaster. They were immediately despatched to the scene to commence rescue operations and give sustenance and comfort to the survivors. Apart from the other officers much of the rescue work was supervised by Lt WILLIAM FISHER SHRAPNELL who was the surgeon of the Regiment.

They had the thankless task of burying 215 soldiers and seamen in graves dug on the hollows of the beach on the landside of the Chesil Bank. 17 officers and 9 women were buried in shrouded coffins in Wyke Regis churchyard 5 miles distant on the outskirts of Weymouth. The whole Regiment attended the burials, which were given full military honours.

A memorial was erected in the Wyke Regis churchyard which cost seven pounds including a guinea for the Rector, also three guineas for lettering at three halfpence each!

WILLIAM distinguished himself by undertaking to write to many of the relatives of the victims which he did with a great deal of sympathy and aplomb. Many of the letters survived and are in a collection in Lancashire. I am fortunate to have copies of these which I acquired some thirty five years ago. It was these and a request ‘was I related to WILLIAM’ from a lady who was researching the disaster which started me on the family history quest. I said I didn’t know but would find out, which I have!

Several years ago I visited the area and tried to locate the gravestone commemorating the event but could not, though since then have been given a pointer to where it is to be found. For some days I stayed at the Moonfleet Manor Hotel which is right on the edge of the Chesil Bank at Fleet. Here I was able to soak up some of the atmosphere of where all this took place together with the awe inspiring thought of all those burials on the bank in front of me.


 

The wrecks of Admiral Christian’s Fleet 18th November 1795 Second Entry

The lawless behaviour of the local population when ships were wrecked led the Rector of Langton Herring together with the Vicar of Fleet, Thomas Franklyn to preach and later publish a sermon entitled ‘Serious Advice and Fair Warning to all that live upon the sea-coast of England and Wales’ which they addressed ‘particularly to those in the neighbourhood of Weymouth and Portland’, reminding his parishioners of the penalties which could be incurred by those who looted stranded vessels. Their words appear to have had little effect for when a West Indies-bound fleet was wrecked on Chesil in 1795 and some three hundred people were drowned ‘the Chesil Bank was strewn for about two miles with the dead bodies of men and animals, with pieces of wreck, and piles of plundered goods, which groups of people were at work to carry away, regardless of the sight of the drowned bodies that filled the newly arrived spectators with grief and amazement’. Battered and bruised survivors were callously disregarded as they pleaded for assistance and help to reach the mainland.

The fleet, consisting of some 200 heavily-laden troop and ordnance transports and merchant ships had left Spithead on 15th January 1795 under the command of Rear Admiral Hugh Cloberry Christian. They were destined for the West Indies where the French were threatening British supremacy but within 48 hours disaster struck. South westerly gales sprang up and Christian ordered his ships to make for Torbay, a poor decision since some of the fleet were already close to the dangers of Portland and the Chesil Beach. When a fresh order was given for the ships to stand out to sea it was too late and at daybreak on the 18th six were flung on the Chesil shingle. Two ordnance transports were lost between Wyke and Portland the ‘Aeolus’ and the ‘Golden Grove’. To the west, between Chickerell and Fleet, three troop transports, the ‘Piedmont’, the ‘Catherine’ and the ‘Venus’ and a merchantman the ‘Thomas’ were smashed to pieces.

Others of the fleet suffered similar fates along the south coast. Admiral Christian’s damaged flagship ‘Prince George’ returned to Spithead where he transferred his flag to the ‘Glory’ and set sail with his fleet once again on 9th December. The Admiral’s troubles were not over as he was forced back once again when gales scattered his ships in the Bay of Biscay. Admiral Christian finally reached Barbados in April 1796


 

References:

Christian’s Fleet A Dorset Shipping Tragedy by Edwina Boult :ISBN: 0-7524-2783-0. This is certainly the definitive historical reference on this subject.

From: The Island & Royal Manor of Portland Historic Sources by K. V. Saunders. AEOLUS, CATHARINE, GOLDEN GROVE, PIEDMONT, THOMAS & VENUS wrecked 18 November 1795. Transcript from HUTCHINS Vol. II p.853

In this (Wyke) churchyard were buried Nov. 24, 1795, Cornet Burns of the 26th regiment, and Lieutenant Ker of the 46th, with 26 others, lost in the storm of Nov, 18, which drove so many of the transports with troops for the West Indies on shore on this coast. 234 bodies were thrown on shore near Weymouth; and the beach thence to Abbotsbury for seven miles was covered with wreck. The Gloucestershire militia and country people were employed in burying them. Several of the vessels were driven to the summit of the beach. The following detail is extracted from the affecting narrative of this catastrophe, drawn up from information taken on the spot by Mrs. Charlotte Smith and published by subscription for the benefit of an unfortunate survivor from one of the wrecks and her infant child, 1796, 8vo.

“The fleet, under convoy of Admiral Christian’s squadron, sailed from St. Helen’s on Sunday, Nov. 15, 1795, and, with a favourable wind, proceeded down channel next day. On Tuesday the 17th the wind shifting and blowing a strong gale at south-south-west, the admiral made a signal to put into Torbay, then in sight of some of the fleet; but as they could not make the bay the gale increased, and a thick fog came on, he made another signal to stand out to sea.

“The PIEDMONT, CATHARINE, and VENUS, transports, the GOLDEN GROVE, THOMAS, and AEOLUS, merchant ships, beaten back to the eastward, attempted to return to St. Helen’s, or reach some intermediate port. The fog prevented their seeing the extreme danger they were in, so that, instead of having cleared the Isle of Portland, they were driven to the westward among the breakers which forced the pebbles on after a south-east wind had cleared then off the Chesil bank, a barrier gradually formed by the sea, and infamous for shipwrecks.

Not sever’d from the se, aloft where Chessell lifts
Her ridged snake-like sands in wrecks and smouldering drifts,
Which by the south wind raged are heaved as hills
Which, running on the Isle of Portland, pointeth out.

Drayton’s Poly-Olbion

“Early in the morning of the 18th several pilots and others were assembled on the look-out, on a promontory, of which one side forms the harbour of Weymouth, where pilots wait to observe signals from vessels; and a lieutenant of the navy residing at Weymouth applied to the major of the Gloucestershire militia for a guard, as a large ship, supposed a frigate, was on shore on the Chesil bank; the major immediately conducted a captain’s guard to the spot, and found it was the AEOLUS merchant ship, laden with timber on account of government, whose crew, had they understood the signals, would have remained on board, in expectation that the ship would, as actually happened, drive so high on the bank that they might leave her with less hazard, whereas a number of men, and Lieutenant Mason of the navy, agent for transports, and his brother, a midshipman, were drowned. A little after appeared obliquely over the stony barrier the GOLDEN GROVE merchant ship, which was stranded, in which perished Dr. Stevens of St. Kits, and Mr. Burrows; Lieutenant Ross escaped to shore. These two ships were stranded on a part of the beach not far from the passage house, almost on the very spot where the ZENOBIA, a French frigate, went to pieces 1763. Four miles to the westward, nearly opposite to the villages of Fleet and Chickerall, went on shore the PIEDMONT transport, containing 138 soldiers of the 63rd regiment, under command of Captain Barcroft (Aged 36, his body was known by his wounds), with Lieutenant Ash, and Mr. Kelly, surgeon of the same regiment. Only Serjeant Richardson, 11 private soldiers, and 4 seamen reached the shore alive. A veteran soldier of the regiment had his leg so dreadfully fractured that he died on the bank, and a fifer lost his life in recollecting to save his wife. On board the VENUS perished Major Ker, Military Commissioner of Hospitals in the Leeward Islands, his son Lieutenant James Ker of the 40th regiment, Lieutenant James Sutherland of Colonel Whyte’s West India regiment, Cornet Benjamin Graydon of the 3rd West India regiment, Mr. Kidd, the master, his wife and three other women, and 74 soldiers; and of 96 persons were saved only Mr. John Darley of the hospital staff, Sergeant-Major Hearne, 12 soldiers, 4 seamen, and a boy. Out of the 42 persons on board the CATHARINE were saved only one woman and a boy 15 years old. Among others perished Lieutenant Stains of Keppel’s West India regiment, Mr. Dodd of the hospital staff, Lieutenant Jenner, representative of an ancient and much respected family in Gloucestershire, many years lieutenant of marines, but then engaged in Colonel Whitelock’s regiment on the promise of a company, Cornet Burns, who having lost his all among the American loyalists obtained a cornetcy in the 26th regiment of dragoons, and was in his 24th year, and preferred taking his passage in this vessel to the FOWLER transport. His horse and those of the soldiers were all lost. In the THOMAS merchant ship, of London, bound to Oporto, perished the master (Mr. Brown) and his son, and all the crew, except the mate, three seamen, and a young gentleman 15 years old, named Smith, a passenger to Lisbon. On the morning of the 19th an officer of the South Gloucester militia and Mr. Bryer, surgeon, of Weymouth, accompanied by Mr. Darley, rode to the villages to enquire after the sufferers, and in a house at Chickerell found Sergeant Richardson and 11 privates of the 63rd regiment, and others in different cottages. The beach was strewn with dead bodies of men and animals, pieces of the wreck, and piles of plundered goods, which groups of people were at work to carry away, regardless of every other object. The whole number of dead found on the shore was 234, and after the difficulty of ascertaining some of them, and the preliminaries of leave to be obtained from a magistrate to bury them, only 25 were buried on the first day by the officer and 40 men, and it was not till the 23rd, after fatiguing duty, that all the 208 soldiers and sailors were deposited as decently as could be in graves dug on the Fleet side of the stony beach, beyond the reach of the sea, with a pile of stones raised on each. Mr. Warne, agent for the Sick and Hurt Office, sent 12 coffins for the women, but as only 9 were found the other three were used for supposed officers. The remains of Lieutenant Ker were delivered to his friends, who came down to attend his funeral. On the 23rd two wagons were sent to the side of the Fleet water to receive the officers, in which had been placed the shrouded bodies of 17 officers and 9 men. They were conveyed to a part of the hill near the church of Wyke, and left under a guard for that night. On the morning of the 24th the officers and soldiers of the South Gloucester attended the funeral. A captain, subaltern, and 50 men preceded the 17 coffins; Master Smith appeared as chief mourner. The body of Lieutenant Ker, attended by his friends, made part of the mournful procession, which was closed by the soldiers and officer of the South Gloucester following as is usual in military funerals. In a large grave, close by the north side of the tower of Wyke church, the officer were interred with military honours; Lieutenant Ker in a grave on the other side of the tower; near which at the south-west corner were committed to the earth the remains of the 9 women, whose coffins had been deposited in the church during the ceremony. Over the grave of the officers a stone was erected at the expense of the friends of Captain Barcroft and Lieutenant Jenner, on which is the following. inscription:

To the memory of
Capt. AMBROSE WILLIAM
BARCROFT,
Lieut. HARRY ASH, and
Mr. KELLY, surgeon,
of the 63rd regiment of infantry;
of Lieut. STEPHEN JENNER
of the 6th West India regiment;
Lieut. STAINS
of the 2nd West India reginent;
Lieut. JAMES SUTHERLAND
of Col. Whyte’s West India regiment;
Lieut. B. CHADWICK
of Col. Whyte’s West India regiment;
Cornet WILLIAM STUKELY BURNS
of the 26th light dragoons;
Cornet BENJ. GRAYDON
of the 3rd West India regiment;
215 soldiers and
seaman, and 9 women; who pe-
rished by shipwreck on Portland Beach,
opposite the villages of Langton, Fleet,
and Chickerell, on Wednesday, the
18th day of November, 1795.

A stone was also erected over the grave of Lieutenant Ker, bearing this inscription:

Sacred to the memory
of Major JOHN CHARLES KER
Military Commandant of Hospitals in the
Leeward Islands,
and to that of his son
Lieut. 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 un-
certainty of human affairs.
They were embarked in the VENUS transport,
and left Portsmouth the 15th of the
above-mentioned month, with a fleet full of
troops destined on an expedition to the
West Indies, under the command of General
Sir Ralph Abercrombie.
A storm having arisen on the l7th, which
lasted till the next day, many of the ships
were lost, and the VENUS wrecked on Port-
land Beach; Major Ker and his son were
both unfortunately drowned, with the greater
part of the soldiers and crew.
The Major’s body could not be found,
although it is possible that it may have been
among the many others which were driven ashore,
and buried in this churchyard.
His son’s corpse was ascertained, and lies
interred under this stone, which is raised at
the expense of John William Ker, esq.
brother of the Major,
in commemoration
of the affection he bore them.”

VICTORIA HISTORY OF DORSET p.223. 18 November 1795 AEOLUS, CATHARINE, GOLDEN GROVE, PIEDMONT, THOMAS & VENUS

The worst instance, within historic knowledge, both of wreck and wrecking on the Dorset coast occurred in 1795. Rear-Admiral Christian with a squadron of men-of-war and upwards of 200 transports with 16,000 troops on board left St. Helens for the West Indies on 16 November; on the 17th they were caught west of Portland in a terrible gale, and on the 18th six transports went to pieces on the Chesil beach where 234 dead bodies were immediately thrown up, a number increased to 1,600 by the 26th. The worst part of the story was the behaviour of the people ashore, mostly Portlanders, ‘who are always praying for wrecks on their coast and whose whole attention was devoted to plunder’ instead of the rescue of the drowning. They were soon reinforced by ‘a considerable mob from different parts solely intent on plunder,’ until soldiers brought on the scene dispersed them with volleys of musketry.

NOTE: The ships HANNAH & PITT were wrecked further along the coast.


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