The Wreck of the Rothsay Castle
by Ross Davies
Rothsay Castle sinks off Penmon, Anglesey 1831
The island of Anglesey, jutting out the way it does, into the Irish Sea, has suffered numerous shipwrecks on its shores over the centuries.
The one most people remember is that of the Royal Charter, which sank in the Moelfre Sound on its way back to Liverpool from Australia. Four hundred and fifty poor souls lost their lives that night in a dreadful storm.
However, according to local records, there have also been a hundred and more other wrecks scattered around its rocky coastline. These may have been on a much smaller scale, comparatively speaking, but each one was just as tragic for those involved.
One such example was that of the Rothsay Castle in 1831, which had a connection with the town of Beaumaris.
This tale begins in the port of Liverpool. Ship owners there, always with an eye for profit, were keen to establish a popular sea run, from Merseyside to Beaumaris on Anglesey.
In 1831, Beaumaris was considered to be a very fashionable watering place for the well-heeled middle classes. It had imposing buildings overlooking the Menai Strait, a medieval castle in the town itself, other impressive mansions nearby and an attractive green bordering the sea front, which was ideal for strolling about admiring the views and displaying the very latest in dress fashions.
The only drawback was that Beaumaris had no purpose-built landing place, although it was the most used port on the island. Remember, Holyhead was only in its infancy at the time.
So, every visiting ship had to anchor at the mouth of the Menai Straits and offload its passengers into small boats. In rough weather, this could be quite an experience.
The Rothsay Castle had been purchased by a Liverpool business man called Watson. She was a steam driven paddle steamer of around 200 tons, and used, in the first place, to operate on the Clyde in Scotland between Glasgow and Inverary.
So, she was really a river boat and, therefore, not built to withstand the rigours of the Irish Sea at its worst. She was, also, over 19 years of age, which by the standards set by the Royal Navy, made her unfit for more active sea service.
Her 50 horse-power engine was well worn and some of her timbers only four inches thick in places, and riddled with woodworm. There was just one lifeboat which could hold 16 people.
It was, also said, that she carried no distress signal, no rocket, blue light, or even a lantern. She had just one distress gun aboard - an ancient fowling piece.
Yet, despite all this, Watson had already attempted to use her as a packet plying between Liverpool and Wexford in Ireland. However, things went from bad to worse, and most of the crew signed off in alarm.
That left just two experienced seamen when Watson decided to switch her on to the Liverpool to Beaumaris run. Inevitably, the scene seemed set for a disaster, and that she was destined to become a coffin ship.
On the morning of 17th August, 1831, eager passengers flocked aboard the Rothsay Castle at the quayside in Liverpool. A motley crew had been hurriedly recruited for the voyage, but very few of them had experience.
The Captain was a certain ex-Naval Lieutenant called Atkinson, who had not been long in the passenger ship service.
The ship had been scheduled to leave at precisely 10am in order to catch the tide, but Atkinson delayed the sailing, hoping to attract more customers, thus pleasing the ship owner.
It was not until nearly an hour later, when 93 passengers had boarded that he finally gave the order to depart.
By the time the paddle steamer emerged from the Mersey out into the open sea, the weather had changed and the wind was rapidly strengthening into a full force gale. The ship rolled and reeled as it was battered by the tremendous waves, alarming the passengers even at this early stage.
Almost as soon as they had left port, the Captain and the mate, William Vasnavour, had disappeared below to dine, and drink heavily. No one seemed to have been left in charge, and the crew appeared totally inefficient.
Sea sickness prevailed everywhere, and the ship limped along
at a very slow speed. At 3pm, the Captain did show his face briefly, above the deck, but when anxious passengers tried to accost him, in his drunken state, he was very insolent to them. It was another two hours before he reappeared again.
By now, conditions on board were becoming horrific. Leakage through the timbers and the paddle wheel was increasing steadily.
The bilge pumps were choked, the coals, in the hold, totally submerged and some of the ladies' cabins were awash with water. The stoker, with the assistance of a group of passengers, tried to keep the pumps going, but it was a useless task.
The 50 mile sea run from Liverpool to Beaumaris should have taken between six and seven hours, but it had already taken two solid hours to pass between the two Ormes at Llandudno, and by 10pm the ship was only past Conway.
An anchorage could have been found here to disembark the women and children, but the Captain refused even to consider the option and so the misery of the passengers continued.
A sickly moon arose against a wild and stormy sky. At around 11pm, they were still managing to keep the pumps going, but conditions on board had deteriorated.
Women passengers were becoming hysterical, and the children very frightened, and in need of comfort. The, a quarter of an hour later, land suddenly appeared off the starboard bow. It was Puffin Island.
By midnight, two fires in the engine room had been extinguished, and the pumps became choked with ashes. There were no buckets on board, so most of the male passengers used their top hats for bailing.
The ship had finally arrived at the mouth of the Menai Straits, with the tide running against her, and a head of steam so low that she could not keep on course.
Helplessly, she drifted towards the huge sandbank called The Dutchman's Bank. Ordinarily this bank, at low tide, could have been quite easily negotiated, but conditions were not normal.
There was help available at Port Penrhyn in Bangor, Penmon Point and even in the town of Beaumaris, but with no means of attracting attention by light, rocket or signal, no one was aware that a ship was in trouble. The old fowling piece had given up the ghost.
Inevitably, the Rothsay Castle was driven hard into the Dutchman's Bank by the gale force wind.
It was said that the ship struck the bank at least 50 times. At each impact, passengers were hurled into the sea. Many drowned.
The Captain, now thoroughly concerned, tried to assure everybody that they were only on a sandbank and it was only a matter of waiting for low tide, but the impact of the crashing waves, plus complete and utter panic, cost even more lives.
Sixteen passengers tried to launch the lifeboat but a huge wave swamped it, and it was washed up next day at Beaumaris, a total wreck.
Another tremendous wave carried the Captain and his mate, Vasnavour, and 15 more passengers overboard to their deaths. Nobody on the land was aware of the calamity until dawn broke.
Help was immediately launched, but of the original 93 passengers, only 23 survived. Their plight won much sympathy from the townspeople of Beaumaris.
The local MP and landowner, Sir Richard Williams Bulkeley, raised funds for the survivors and for the burying of the dead. He sent his workers to look for bodies washed up on the mainland of Conway, Penmaenmawr and Llanfairfechan.
An inquest was held on the tragedy, at which the owner of the Rothsay Castle, Watson, had a very rough reception, but he seemed totally unmoved.
He even charged £5 per corpse for transporting them back to Liverpool. The inquest report read as follows:
"From the evidence brought before them, the Jury must declare their firm conviction that had the Rothsay Castle been a seaworthy vessel and properly manned, this awful calamity might have been averted.
They, therefore, cannot control their indignation at the conduct of those who could place such a vessel on this station, and under the charge of of a Captain and Mate, who have been proved, by the evidence brought them, to have been in a state of intoxication."