Historic Pembrokeshire Shipwrecks

By Simon Hancock Shipwreck

It is hardly surprising how the Pembrokeshire coastline with its sandy beaches, rugged cliffs and islands was designated a national park in 1952. The stunning landscape is internationally famous as a tourist destination which visitors to Bluestone National Park resort will be well aware. 

Nevertheless, the coastline is full of dangers and perils and the power of the sea deserves as much awareness and respect today as it received from the mariners and sailors of old. Beauty and danger can often go together. 

Literally hundreds of shipwrecks lie off the Pembrokeshire coast representing every kind of sailing vessel from ancient times to the present day. A complete record will never be known but the craft which sank succumbed to storms, rocks and reefs as well as a considerable number which sank as a result of torpedo and mines during the two World Wars. 

There was a continual loss of ships during great storms, as a result of those in November 1703 and October 1859, hundreds of ships were lost around the country. There were at least 30 local casualties of the latter storm. Each shipwreck was obviously traumatic for those involved and there are fascinating stories behind each wreck. This blog on Historic Pembrokeshire Shipwrecks remind us of the power of nature.

Royal Navy Frigate HMS Leda

Milford Haven has always been a refuge for ships but getting into its safe anchorage was never without danger. On 31 January 1808 the 38-gun Royal Navy frigate HMS Leda became a total wreck when she struck rocks at West Angle Bay. The pilot mistook Thorn Island for Stack Rocks but at least all the crew, cannon and stores were saved before the seas broke her up. 

Nimrod

For ships at sea a sudden change of weather could spell disaster as they approached the coast. All 600 tonnes of The Cork Steamship Company’s iron paddle steamer Nimrod were dashed to pieces off St. David’s Head on 28 February 1860 with the loss of all 45 passengers and crew. Not long before had the captain refused the offer of help from another vessel since the weather was moderate. A storm blew up and as the ship broke into three pieces her general cargo, including beer and soap was washed up on local beaches, today a solitary cannon from the wreck stands in a garden in Lower Solva as a sad reminder of the tragedy.

Shipwreck
The loss of a paddle steamer, similar to the Nimrod which was dashed to pieces off St. David’s Head in 1860.

Freshwater West

Freshwater West, backed at Broomhill Burrows is one of the most popular beaches in Pembrokeshire, a surfer’s paradise and the scene for the shooting of two feature films, Robin Hood and one of the Harry Potter franchise. It was not always so idyllic. Some 155 years ago it presented a terrible picture following the striking of rocks off Linney Head by the steamer Mars on 1 April 1862. The ship was travelling to Bristol from Waterford with 45 passengers, crew plus horses, pigs and cattle. Only six men survived. For weeks bodies and animal carcasses were washed up on the beach as a deadly harvest of the sea. It remains one of the worst-known shipwrecks to have occurred off the Pembrokeshire coast.

Lifeboats

Today sailors are very aware just how much is owed to the volunteers who man the lifeboats of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. These volunteers risk all, to save those in distress and are a true example of courage, bravery and selflessness. There are lifeboat stations at St. David’s, Angle, Little Haven and Tenby and the number of sailors and others who they have rescued would undoubtedly number into the thousands over the years. Each call out represents danger and very occasionally tragedy has struck the would-be rescuers. In October 1910 the coxswain and two crew members of the St. David’s lifeboat Gem were washed overboard and the lifeboat wrecked when they went to the aid of the ketch Democrat.

Lifeboat
The St. David’s lifeboat Gem which was lost in 1910 and resulted in the death of the coxswain and two crew members. Heroes all.

Jack Sound

One place where many ships have come to grief is Jack Sound, a 2,600 metre stretch of water between Skomer Island and the Pembrokeshire mainland. The strong currents and submerged rocks have proved to be a lethal combination for scores of ships over the centuries. In April 1837 the paddle steamer Albion hit a submerged rock and although the passengers and crew were saved, the ship was not. At low tide two iron shafts from the wreck can be seen protruding as a reminder of the sinking. Much later another noted shipwreck was the sinking of the 450-ton Dutch coaster Lucy in 1967. Today she lies off Skomer Island. 

Wartime

The seas off Pembrokeshire have been a warzone over the centuries especially during the two World Wars and the activities of U-boats and later the Luftwaffe. Torpedoes, mines and strafing took a fearful toll of ships and lives during 1914-18 and 1939-45 and it comes as no surprise why Milford Haven became a very important naval base.  Local salvage and ship repairing firms were kept very busy during wartime. In October 1917 when the armed merchant ship SS Ionian hit a mine off St Govan’s Head among the items recovered was a solid silver dinner service which the salvager’s family used to dine off for decades later. 

Magnetic mines dropped by the German air force in 1940 claimed a number of victims. Perhaps the most well-known sinking was the 6,400 tonne Dakotian which sank in Dale Roads. It was during the Second World War that a truly terrible incident occurred when two landing craft, LC 15 and LC 16 were swamped in rough seas on 25 April 1943 with the loss of 78 men including 6 from a rescue boat. There were only three survivors and many of the victims were buried in a mass grave at Milford Haven. 

Dakotian
The SS Dakotian which was lost to a magnetic mine off Milford Haven in 1940.

The Oil Industry

With the advent of the oil industry at Milford Haven from 1960 shipwrecks and groundings posed greater environmental dangers like never before. The grounding of the Christos Bitas (October 1978) and the Sea Empress (February 1996) saw very extensive pollution and desperately sad impact on wildlife. Thanks to very hard work from pollution control teams and the amazing capacity of nature to regenerate visitors today would not be aware of these awful events by sight alone. Important lessons were learned, Pembrokeshire remains pristine and its beaches as beautiful and alluring as ever. 

Mysteries

The seas around Pembrokeshire contain many mysteries. Between the villages of St. Bride’s and St. Ishmaels lies a farm named Anchor Hoaten. Here lies a huge anchor, 17 feet in length which came from an unknown shipwreck in St. Bride’s Bay. It was taken by cart to its resting place in 1890 but nothing is known of the eighteenth century vessel it once belonged to. The anchor and many other relics of the sea remind us of the richness and diversity of the countless shipwrecks around the coast and the bravery of those who go down into the sea in ships.

Anchor
The huge anchor at Great Hoaten (also known as Anchor Hoaten) between St. Bride’s and St. Ishmaels, found in the bay.

Categories:Pembrokeshire

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