Shipwrecks and treasures of Pembrokeshire
The coastline of Pembrokeshire is famous for its spectacular beauty and for the rich variety of its wildlife.
Craggy headlands and rocky coves, as well as the offshore islands, provide sanctuaries for puffins, choughs, fulmars and cormorants, whilst it’s not unusual to spot seals and dolphins frisking through the waves below. And there is a fascination in watching the waves surge over the rocks to burst in gouts of white foam.
Many of these rocks and cliffs however have a darker tale to tell. The coast of Pembrokeshire was regarded in the past with some trepidation by mariners, especially in the days of sailing ships. To be caught in strong winds that drove a helpless vessel in towards the shore must have been terrifying… and it wasn’t always the weather that had to be feared.
On January 6th 1791, the 150 ton Scarborough merchantman Increase was spotted off Pembrokeshire. The ship was on charter to the British Ordnance Transport Service and had sailed from the West Indies in August 1790 carrying a cargo of condemned gunpowder from the British garrison on St Kitts. The Increase quickly began to show signs of distress and within hours had been driven ashore at Druidston.
From the first moment it was realised that she was in trouble, crowds of people had gathered on the cliffs of St Bride’s Bay and had followed her progress as she approached the coast. Luckily the Increase struck at high tide, on a sandy part of the beach and as the waters receded she was left sitting high and dry. On board were the master, Francis Pawson, the storekeeper Joseph Anthony, eight crewmen and a lady passenger.
All were helped ashore by the watching crowd, which also assisted them in removing their possessions. By this time it was dark and, as nothing more could be done until daylight, the Increase was left where she was. By the following morning a huge crowd had assembled around the wreck. Some were there to help unload the cargo into waiting carts, but many more had scented the opportunity for plunder.
Someone discovered the ship’s supply of rum and soon items of the cargo were being thrown recklessly over the side to the waiting mob below. Amongst the plunder were barrels of gunpowder, which were smashed open for the copper hoops that bound them. It wasn’t long before the sands and the nearby rocks were smothered in powder.
A contemporary letter describes what followed: In this scene of general confusion one of the pillagers on the vessel either irritated at the eagerness of those on shore, and at the waste which it occasioned, or out of mere unthinking wantoness, swore a dreadful oath, that he would presently give them enough to satisfy them all. He then snatched up a musket and dashed it with great violence against a rock.
A single spark was the result, which set off a chain of three explosions. One young woman was killed immediately and seven other people died later from their injuries. More than sixty others were badly hurt. The Reverend Moses Grant, Rector of Nolton, wrote that: "The cliffs resounded with the groans of the sufferers, with the lamentations and eager inquiries of fathers for their children, of husbands for their wives, of brothers for sisters, of children for their parents…"
The looters however were not deterred by either the disaster or the Reverend Grant’s words. Plundering continued until late the next day, when the arrival of the local militia put a stop to it. By then, only the rigging and the hull of the ship remained. Everything else had disappeared! A number of people were arrested for looting, but when they were put on trial a few months later, all were acquitted.
A lady named Mary Morgan, who visited the scene of the disaster a few months later, was shocked by the tales of greed and plunder related to her. Would I could with truth add that this melancholy catastrophe has produced a thorough change in the conduct of the inhabitants…Indeed, there is too much reason to believe that they experience nearly the same sensation at the sight of a ship labouring in a storm, as arises in the mind of an undertaker when he contemplates the declining health of a wealthy citizen.
In this, Mrs Morgan was wrong. When, on Christmas Day 1810 the Linen Hall, outward bound from Dublin to the West Indies, ran aground without loss of life at Nolton Haven, not far from Druidston, little was taken from the wreck. The ship was eventually broken up where she sat on the shingle and the timber and rigging was sold to the locals. It might be thought that the waters of Milford Haven, the great sheltered anchorage that Lord Nelson famously described as, next to Trincomalee, the finest harbour he had ever seen, might be a safer refuge than the wild stretches of the coast. Not so. There are many recorded shipwrecks up and down the length of the harbour.
On one dreadful night in November 1866 a southerly gale blew up, forcing two vessels, the Alfred Eliza and the Commodore onto the rocks just inside St Ann’s Head.
Five other ships followed, perhaps drawn in by the lights of the first two, which they believed to be the lights of Dale Roads, a safe anchorage. One by one, the King of the Forest, the schooners Isabella and Hope, the Eliza and Mary, and the Eglantine were all smashed on the rocks of Mill Bay. Sadly there were few survivors.
Milford Haven Waterway
The most famous of Pembrokeshire’s shipwreck stories is surely that of the Loch Shiel.
This full rigged sailing ship built of iron, sailing from Glasgow to Melbourne and Adelaide and carrying a general cargo, which included many cases of whisky, was driven into the Haven during a fierce storm on 30th January 1894. The ship crashed onto the rocks of Thorne Island, at the south side of the entrance to Milford Haven and began to sink by the stern. A mattress was set alight as a distress signal and the Angle lifeboat set out on a rescue mission. Luckily, all the passengers and crew were taken to safety.
By dawn the next day, wreckage and cargo was coming ashore on the nearby beaches. Customs officials were quickly on the spot and recovered sixty cases of whisky, but many more had already disappeared. The wily locals had concealed bottles in attics, wall spaces or even buried them in fields and in the sand dunes at Freshwater West. Some were so well hidden by people too drunk to remember that they remain undiscovered to this day.
Several people were in an alcoholic haze for weeks afterwards and one young man died from drinking too much. There were some humorous stories, too. A ten year old girl brought home from the beach what she thought was a barrel of butter. It turned out to be gunpowder, which for years afterwards was used to fire a salute whenever there was a wedding in Angle. Another young girl aged seven was said to have found two bottles on the beach and returned home, past a watching policeman with them hidden in her bloomers.