Bishops and Clerks

The Bishops and Clerks, off St Davids Head on the north coast of Pembrokeshire, are not, as might be supposed, a bunch of clergymen cloistered on an offshore island.

They are in fact a treacherous archipelago of fang-like rocky islands encircling the coast like a sinister necklace waiting to choke unwary sailors.

The Elizabethan antiquary and writer George Owen of Henllys, near Nevern, described them in one of his books in 1595 as “The Bishop and these his Clerkes preache deadly doctrine to their winter audience, such poor seafaring men as are forcyd thether by tempest, onlie in one thing they are to be commended, they keepe residence better than the rest of the canons of that see are wont to do.”

George Owen miscounted when he mentioned the Bishop, for there are in fact two -  the North Bishop, some three miles due west of St Davids Head and the South Bishop, a similar distance due west of the southern tip of Ramsey Island. The two Bishops are about 9 miles apart and their retinue of clerks of various sizes amount to over 20 islets and rocks, protruding like canine teeth above the surface at low water, but most of them hidden treacherously beneath the surface when the tide is high. They have caught many an unwary sailor down the ages. One victim in February 1855 was the Packet steamer Morna, on voyage from Belfast to London carrying a contingent of Army recruits. Strong currents in the Irish Sea had pushed the vessel off course, and in dense fog she hit the North Bishop. Some of the recruits panicked and launched the boats, one of which overturned drowning all aboard her. The Captain, crew and remaining passengers managed to launch another lifeboat and reached Ramsey island and the mainland while the other survivors were picked up by a passing ship and landed at Milford Haven. In June 1872 the Liverpool schooner Mersey sank off the South Beach, all her crew being rescued, while In November 1906, the cargo steamer Langton Grange was wrecked on the North Bishop, where, In November 1915 the Norwegian barque Formosa, on voyage from Nova Scotia to Liverpool with a cargo of timber, also came to grief on the cruel rocks after running into one of the worst gales her Master, Captain Frederick Eriksen, had ever encountered. Hit by a freak squall of great violence. which ripped her sails away and left her drifting helplessly, she ended up wrecked on a submerged rock off the North Bishop. Her plight had been spotted from the shore and St Davids lifeboat, the General Farrell, under Coxswain Ivor Arnold, was launched, found the ship abandoned, and then spotted one of her boats with 11 men aboard, who were all rescued. Another boat with the captain and the remaining five crew aboard was swept into Whitesands Bay, where it capsized in the heavy surf, but the occupants, exhausted and soaked, managed to reach the shore safely.


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