Chesil Beach Viewed from Portland Bill. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
It is one of the curious features of the passage to India that the coast of Southern England proved to be the most treacherous part of the whole voyage to India. The area of Portland and Weymouth saw a disproportionate number of wrecks, because the prevailing south-westerly wind naturally pushes ships towards the shore. Often ships would try and get to the safety of Weymouth Bay with its natural harbour. But failure to do so would often lead to tragedy, often on the Shambles, a lethal sandbank just a few feet beneath the water’s surface, even at low tide.
Left: All Saints, Wyke Regis. Right: The East India Company grave at Wyke Regis. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
One such terrible wreck occurred in 1815 when an East Indiaman, the HCS (Honourable Company’s Ship) Alexander went down with a loss of many lives, having sailed all the way from Bombay to the coast of England. On the outside of the parish church of Wyke Regis in Dorset (now a suburb of Weymouth) is a remarkable memorial plaque — a very rare example of a monument to those who lost their lives aboard an East Indiaman:
TO RECORD THE MELANCHOLY WRECK
THIS STONE IS ERECTED BY CHARLES FORBES ESQR
OF LONDON M.P. AND THE OTHER OWNER OF
THE SAID SHIP WHICH ON HER VOYAGE FROM
BOMBAY TO LONDON, WAS TOTALLY LOST IN THE WEST BAY ON THE NIGHT OF 26TH OF
MARCH 1815 WHEN ALL OF THE CREW AND PASSENGERS
CONSISTING OF MORE THAN 140 SOULS UNHAPPILY
PERISHED WITH THE EXCEPTION OF FIVE LASCARS.
THE FOLLOWING ARE THE NAMES OF THE PERSONS
WHOSE BODIES WERE FOUND AND BURIED IMMEDIATE- LY ADJOINING THIS SPOT:
LEWIS AULDJO, COMMANDER,
MR BROWN, CHIEF OFFICER, MAJOR JACKSON,
CAPT. CAMPBELL, LIEUT. WADE, MRS AULDJO,
MRS DUNBAR, MISS TORIANO, TWO MISS DEVERELS,
MISS JACKSON, MASTER AND MISS ELPHINSON – THE REMAINS OF MISS DUNBAR WERE FOUND SUBSEQUENT TO THE
INTERNMENT OF THE ABOVE MENTIONED AND BURIED IN PORTLAND – THE BODY OF MRS
JACKSON WAS TAKEN UP NEAR LYME IN THIS COUNTY AND THERE BURIED – THE UNDER-MENTIONED ALSO PERISHED ON THIS MELANCHOLY OCCASION BUT THEIR BODIES HAVE NEVER BEEN FOUND:
MAJOR RAMSEY, LIEUT BENNETT, LIEUT. BAKER, MRS DEVEREL, MISS JACKSON, MASTER DEVEREL, MR BOWMAN, 2ND MATE, THE 3RD AND 4THMATE, A EUROPEAN SERVANT, AND AN INVALID OF ARTILLERY.
LAMENTED SHADES! ‘TWAS YOURS, ALAS TO DRAIN,
MISFORTUNE’S BITTER CHALICE: – WHILST IN VAIN
FOND HOPE AND JOY REGARDLESS OF CONTROL
PROMPTED EACH MOVEMENT OF THE WILLING SOUL.
SUDDEN DESTRUCTION REARED HIS GIANT FORM
BLACK WITH THE HORRORS OF THE MIDNIGHT STORM:
AND ALL CONVULSED WITH ELEMENTARY STRIFE,
DISSOLVED THE THROBBING NERVES OF HOPE AND LIFE.
DEATH’S TRIUMPHS PAST, MAY ANGELS GUIDE YOUR WAY
TO THE BLEST REGIONS OF ETERNAL DAY!
WHERE NO RUDE BLASTS PROVOKE THE BILLOWING ROAR,
WHERE VIRTUE’S KINDRED MEET TO PART NO MORE.
J HAMILTON, ARCHT.
RESTORED BY PUBLIC SUBSCRIPTIONS 1896
The Sherborne Mercury reported on April 4th 1815.
Weymouth March 30th: It is with great concern we have to announce that a violent gale of wind at SW on Monday Morning [27th March] caused the total loss of the Alexander, homeward bound East Indiaman, Captain Auldjo, on Portland Beach, with a cargo of cotton, coffee and sugar from Bombay. She struck on the tremendous ridge of pebbles opposite Wyke at two o’clock in the morning; at four she was a complete wreck and every soul on board, 150 in number, passengers included (except four Malays and one Persian) were consigned to a watery grave. The whole line of coast from Portland to Abbotsbury has been completely strewed with vestiges of the hull, dead bodies etc., a very small part only of the cargo has been saved. We are happy in paying tribute to E. Henning Esq., banker, for his humanity in providing the survivors with wearing apparel and every refreshment that could in any way add to their comfort and relief, which were sent to them at the Passage House whither they were conveyed almost lifeless.
Left: The Hamlet of Wyke Regis today. Right: The Memorial to the “Alexander”.
The church of Wyke Regis remains much as it was in 1815. The churchyard contains the mass grave, but its exact location is no longer known. There is one gravestone which is no longer legible except for the inscription EIC (East India Company) and the date 1815. The little village centre is sufficiently old for one to imagine the chaos on that appalling night. As well as some humanitarian work that evening there was also the usual temptation to salvage some of the valuable cargo washed up on the beach.
Most of the Indiamen were built at yards on the Thames although some were built of teak at Bombay. Each would make one return voyage to the East every year. Their log-books are still available at the British Library, meticulously kept in copper-plate script; detailing crew, passengers, cargo and every detail of each voyage. The average later Indiaman would last for 6 return voyages before the toll of the heavy seas and fierce winds and shipworm took their toll on hull, masts and rigging. The occasional Indiaman would last longer. The Scaleby Castle managed 14 return trips.
The loss of an East Indiaman was reported in the UK press with similar horror as the modern loss of an airliner. Just as we can recall perhaps half a dozen plane crashed the early Victorian would have been able to recite the famous tragedies on the voyage to and from India. The big ones to impinge on the public consciousness were
The Doddington wrecked on the Mozambique coast in 1755. 23 of the 270 aboard survived. Fortunately one of the survivors was the ship’s carpenter, who built a boat which took them to safety,
The Grosvenor wrecked on the coast of South Africa in 1782. A small number of survivors succeeded in reaching Cape Town.
The Halsewell was swept onto the coast of Dorset in 1786. Only 74 out of 240 survived. Survivors then faced a terrifying ascent of vertical cliffs in pitch darkness.
The Earl of Abergavenny was wrecked off Weymouth in 1805. Her captain, the bother of the poet William Wordsworth, died along with 263 of the 402 aboard.
The Kent was destroyed by fire in the Bay of Biscay in 1825. 90 of those on board perished. The remainder were saved by a passing ship.
According to the Company’s own calculations (quoted by Bowen p.116) 1,038 Indiaman sailed for Asia between 1760 and 1796 and only 51 failed to return; a survival rate of 95%. By contrast the survival rate of modern aviation is only very slightly less than 100%.
- Those who died in the wreck of the Wreck of the Alexander on the English Coast (1815)
- The Twilight of the East Indiamen
- New Passages to India
Bowen, H.V. et al. Monsoon Traders. London: Scala, 2011.
Cuming, Ed. A compendium of incidents incurred by the major Ships of the East India Company. Nautical Archaeology Society. 2016. Web. 10 August 2020.
“[H.C.S.] Alexander.” Deeper Dorset. Web. 10 August 2020.
“Shipwrecks and the East India Company’s Immaterial Material Culture.” Warwick University. 2012.
Sutton, Jean. Lords of the East. London; Conway, 1981.
Last modified 10 August 2020