Sea – Ship – drowned – Shipwreck – so it came,
The meek, the brave, the good, was gone:
He who had been our living John
Was nothing but a name. – William Wordsworth
In 1805, John Wordsworth, a captain employed by the East India Company and younger brother of the poet William Wordsworth, died along with 2/3 of his crew on board the Earl of Abergavenny only 1 1/2 miles off the shoreline of Weymouth in shallow waters. John was anxious to sail from Portsmouth, for he had invested a large sum of his own money in this trip, intending to make a fortune for himself and his family, including his brother William.
The ship, headed for India and China, carried valuable goods such as books, lace, perfume and silver for trade, and was worth an estimated £270,000. (John’s investment represented only a tiny portion of the whole.) The Earl of Abergavenny encountered bad weather and hit an underwater shingle bank off Portland, and was “badly holed.” Taking in water, the ship was unable to reach a safe haven. Most of those who died, did so from drowning or the cold. It was surmised that John Wordsworth did not try to save himself, but clung to the ropes and drowned with his ship.
Rescuing those in distress was a perilous venture, for storm conditions made it extremely dangerous for rescuers to set out. While sea rescues were dangerous, there was a cost benefit for the local citizens, for many of the ships carried precious cargo. Once the crew had been saved, the locals could plunder the bounty after the storm had subsided, which many did. A breed of dog known as the Portland Newfoundland Sea Dog or Rescue Dog (which died out in the 19th century), was trained to rescue people in danger of drowning.
Jane Austen would most likely have heard of the loss of The Abergavenny, as well as the story of another famous tragedy, that of the Halsewell, which foundered in Weymouth Bay in 1786. This wreck was especially poignant, for the captain died along with his two daughters.
Over a hundred perished in the wreck, including the Captain, his two daughters and nieces, and the First Officer, his nephew. Another 60 seamen and soldiers, who managed to reach the cliffs, died of cold or were washed into the sea. About 70 were rescued from the cliffs. – The British Library
The tragedy, with the deaths of so many, including the women (who had joined the voyage probably in search of marriage), excited the keen interest of the public. Two ship’ officers wrote an account, which sits in the British Library. Read portions of the account in this link.
The waters off East Sussex were known for their treacherous conditions, and over 1,000 ships have wrecked in the area. Strong undertows and currents, shingle banks, and unexpected storms combine to make the area deadly.
As John Meade Faulkner wrote in his classic tale “Moonfleet” in 1898, “And once on the beach, the sea has little mercy, for the water is deep right in, and the waves curl over full on the pebbles with a weight no timbers can withstand. Then if the poor fellows try to save themselves, there is a deadly undertow or rush-back of the water, which sucks them off their legs, and carries them again under the thundering waves. It is that back-suck of the pebbles that you may hear for miles inland, even at Dorchester, on still nights long after the winds that caused it have sunk, and which makes people turn in their beds, and thank God they are not fighting with the sea on Moonfleet Beach”
Hurricane and storm surges make the area dangerous for the citizenry as well. In 1824, a storm surge swept over the shingle spit on which a Georgian housing development (pictured above) sat, and swept away parts of villages. There was extensive damage as is indicated in the image below.*
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