The Terrible Loss Of The “Rothsay Castle”

Today only historians of the sea have heard of the horrific loss of the steam packet Rothsay Castle in 1831.  Yet in its day, the tragedy aroused considerable public indignation and mourning in England; and it remains one of the most unsettling of the nineteenth century’s long list of maritime calamities.  We will retell the tale. 

The Rothsay Castle left Liverpool on August 17, 1831, bound for Beaumaris, Wales.  The distance to be traveled was, more or less, about fifty miles.  It was not a ship constructed for long voyages; most of her passengers were vacationers seeking what they assumed would be a pleasurable excursion.  In 1831 the ship was already fourteen years old; its wooden frame had endured hundreds of hours of shaking and rattling from the fifty horsepower steam engine it carried.  A Royal Navy lieutenant named Morrison, in his account of the tragedy, noted that:

[H]er upper timbers measured only four inches, which, for a vessel of about two hundred tons, is altogether below that which would entitle her to be entrusted in a difficult navigation.  It is known that many vessels in his Majesty’s navy, although built of the very best materials, and constructed with first rate skill, are considered unfit to go to sea after ten or twelve years; it is not too much to assume, then, that the Rothsay Castle was in a state to be condemned, and that she was sold because she was, in plain English, worn out.

The ship was not equipped, as it should have been, with any means of signaling distress or emergency.  There were no guns, signal lanterns, or rockets aboard—not even an oil lamp.  Worse still, the vessel that day was entrusted to a captain later described as “inveterately obstinate, as well as grossly deficient in professional skill…[and] reduced to a miserable state of intoxication.”  As we will see, the shocking negligence and ineptitude of the Rothsay Castle’s captain was directly responsible for the grievous loss of life that was about to occur.

A chart from a contemporary account showing the route of the “Rothsay Castle”

Once the ship got underway, the weather quickly grew foul and boisterous.  By noon, the Rothsay Castle had moved past the lighthouse at Liverpool, but the violence of wind and wave would not cease.  In fact conditions became worse.  An American ship in the vicinity considered the waves so bad that it felt compelled to return to port.  One account of the disaster, published in 1833, describes the scene faced by all aboard:

[The ship] now laboured heavily; and the frequent shock of opposing waves, which her structure seemed quite unequal to sustain, created serious alarm in the minds of many of the passengers, even at this early period of the voyage.  The enlivening tones of music were no longer heard. The dash of waves, and the heavy throbbing of the engine, which had been heretofore unheeded, became painfully audible; and a gloom, like that which was gathering around, weighed upon the dejected spirits of most present.

The passengers became more and more nervous as the ship steamed westward towards Beaumaris, but hesitated to raise their concerns with the captain.  Finally one Mr. Tarrey of Bury—whose wife, five children, and maid were aboard—approached the captain, whose name was Atkinson, and implored him to turn back.  But the obdurate skipper would have none of it.  “There’s a great deal of fear aboard, but no danger,” he hissed at Tarrey.  It was also clear that Captain Atkinson was intoxicated and incapable of performing the most basic functions entrusted to his care.  The first mate, William Vavasour, was apparently even more drunk than his superior.  Tarrey now began to grasp the full horror of the situation.

By now the seas were so rough that the ship could make very little progress.  Every passenger was seasick; for three hours the Rothsay Castle remained in sight of the Liverpool light.  As the ship’s timbers strained and creaked, gaps between them opened up, and seawater poured into the hold.  The engine room was becoming flooded and, despite the best efforts of the crewmen, the pumps could not keep pace with the incoming flood.  Passengers and some of the crew implored Atkinson to send out a distress signal, but there was no equipment aboard to do this; and even if there had been, it is unlikely that the captain would have permitted such an action to be taken. 

Inevitably, the vessel drifted aimlessly in the seething waves.  By midnight, the ship ran aground; as the waves battered her hull, terrified passengers were hurled to their deaths in the cauldron-like waters.  One writer in 1833 describes the ghastly scene, in the florid prose of the time:

Some of the females rushed into each other’s arms, and remained for a time locked in an embrace of painful vehemence; some madly tore their garments, and threw away and bonnets; and some dashed themselves upon the deck, reckless of injury.  Others hugged their children, with passionate exclamations of endearment and of anticipated separation; while husbands and wives, with affecting earnestness, were taking leave of each other, and mutually avowing their determination to die together: and those who were latest in swelling the number so situated—those who were called up from the cabins by the anxious solicitude of a husband, brother, or friend, and by an awful summons to prepare for the worst—were compelled, in their agony for self-preservation, to trample upon the prostrate bodies of the many that encumbered the deck, either in the helplessness of insensibility or the more fearful apathy of despair.  

An illustration from a contemporary account of the shipwreck

Sisters clung to brothers, daughters to parents; and the loud sob, and groan, and wail of heart-rending sorrow, which were audible amidst the raving of the storm and the clamour of many anxious voices, seemed to afford all the completion to which a scene of accumulated misery could attain: but it was not yet complete.  Horror had yet to achieve its “great masterpiece” of the night, and the work of death was to be done.   

Captain Atkinson ordered the passengers aft, and finally began to discuss a plan of evacuation with his crew.  But it was too late for such talk.  In any case, the sea took its own measure of justice on the drunken captain.  As he walked the deck, shouting and gesticulating wildly, an immense wave carried him overboard to his death.  But the surviving passengers, fighting for their lives, had little time to waste on sympathy for the man who had put them in their predicament.  Early in the morning on August 18, the ship began to break up, consigning more and more passengers to watery graves.  Nine people were killed when the chimney and main mast crashed to the deck; twelve others were disgorged into the sea, where they drowned almost immediately. 

Some passengers thought they might be able to swim for shore, which was not very distant; but the extreme violence of the waves simply could not be overcome.  The rudder and the bulwarks washed away and sank, taking many lives with them.  Forty survivors clung to the paddle-box, hoping that its frame would shelter them from the pitiless sea; but it too was carried away in the early morning hours, and none survived.  The quarterdeck broke free from the ship’s hull at around two o’clock.  The remaining passengers frantically tried to secure themselves to various pieces of wreckage, in the belief that their odds of survival would thereby be increased.  One man, a Mr. Duckworth of Bury, managed to swim to shore after stripping off his clothing, and floating for a time on a piece of wreckage.  Another man, Edward Jones of Bangor, managed an equally remarkable escape.  He was able to climb on to a large piece of wood and clung to it for six horrifying hours.  At eight o’clock in the morning of August 18, he saw himself drifting close to the treacherous breakers at Great Orme’s Head.  As luck would have it, the schooner Campadora was also close by; Jones shouted to it, and was eventually rescued.  Duckworth later wrote these somber words:

As the waves came the people kept decreasing, until all were gone except myself. First they were swept from the paddle boxes and the plank; those at the shrouds dropped off with every wave; those at the bottom of the mast swarmed some ropes, and got a little higher; a young man was then washed from the bowsprit; those at the bottom of the mast next went, and there were none left but the three men at the top of the mast and myself.  I began to think the tide would rise so high I could not live in that situation, and I begged those on the top of the mast to throw me a rope, but they refused, and in less than five minutes a tremendous wave swept them and the mast into the sea, but it was held to the wreck by a rope.  I remained on the wreck until I saw a boat coming, on which I called to the three men to keep up their spirits; the boat then took me on board, also rescued those on the mast, and afterwards picked up a young gentleman from Liverpool, who was floating on a raft. We were then taken to Beaumaris, and treated with the greatest hospitality and kindness.  

The body of my dear wife was found that day, at the foot of Penmaenmawr, and was interred at Beaumaris on the Sunday following.  On leaving Liverpool, I took a pint of wine with me, and when we had concluded we should be lost, I begged Mr. Tarrey would accept a little of the wine. He took my hand, and said, “John, I told you all day we should be lost, and that this captain would lose us.”  He then took some of the wine, after which he went below to his family, and brought them to us on the deck.  The cabin was then above a foot deep in the water.  I did not see Mr. Tarrey or his family afterwards, to the best of my recollection.

On the morning of August 18, ten survivors were still trapped on the wreckage, but were within sight of shore.  They hung out a woman’s shawl as a sign of distress; soon it was noticed, a lifeboat from shore was launched, and they were rescued.  The handful of survivors were taken to Beaumaris and cared for until they recovered.  The bodies of the dead were buried in the Beaumaris Church Yard.  But the disaster had terrible in its scope:  one hundred and eighty passengers had died as a direct and preventable result of Atkinson’s dereliction.  Had he survived the calamity, there can be little doubt that the British admiralty courts would have found a place for him, either in a dungeon or at the end of a hangman’s rope.

In 1868, one Rev. John Cooke published “The Rothsay Castle:  A Dramatic Poem In Five Acts.”  Its prologue contained these lines:

There was a steamer once upon the Clyde

Whose yacht-like form showed grace in every line,

But she for fifteen years indeed had plied

To Inverary over calm Loch Fyne…

He took her all the way to Liverpool,

And bade rude tipplers over her preside

Such as would stalwart men-of-war befool

Much more our antique beauty from smooth Clyde.

To please them she contended with the gale

And agonized to leakage her poor self;

Oh!  Shame and horror!  Could such blind guides fail

To dash their charge upon a sandy shelf?

There by the breakers was that “fair defect,”

To point a moral for all ages, wrecked.                  




Read more tales of tragedy and survival in the essay collection Digest:

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