J D Davies

The Cruel Sea

I spent last week in my home town of Llanelli in west Wales, visiting family, taking in some rugby, and meeting with the project team at Llanelly House. I had an update on progress – the plans for the house, which will open this summer, are really exciting – and provided them with some information from my 15 years of research into the history of the Stepney family, who owned the house; more on all this in future posts. But I also took the opportunity to go down to the local seashore, which has exerted an irresistible pull on me for as long as I can remember. On previous occasions in this blog, I’ve mentioned how dangerous this particular stretch of coast has always been. The Bristol Channel has the second biggest tidal range in the world, and in the Burry Inlet, on which Llanelli stands, this phenomenon is particularly marked. The inlet, formed of the estuary of the River Loughor, is about eight miles long and three miles broad at its widest point, but the tidal range on spring tides can be nearly eight metres. At high tide, therefore, the inlet is a broad stretch of water with a depth of perhaps six fathoms in the deepest channel, but at low tide, vast areas of the inlet are exposed as sandbanks. These contain valuable cockle beds, and the sands are so firm and extensive that professional pickers can drive their vans out several miles onto the sands. (The inlet’s other claim to fame is that it was where Amelia Earhart landed at the end of her ground-breaking Transatlantic flight; a modern memorial at Burry Port harbour, west of Llanelli, commemorates the event.)

Looking from Llanelli towards the north Gower coast at low tide

The navigable channels shift constantly, and Victorian efforts to construct a training wall for the deep water channel only accelerated the silting process. At the mouth of the inlet is the Burry bar, which has always constituted a difficult obstacle for shipping. Llanelli still managed to become a busy port, ultimately possessing four docks and surviving for over 150 years; it even experienced a brief resurgence in the 1970s. At its peak, it was visited by ships of up to 5,000 tons, but the navigation of the inlet was always treacherous. Inevitably, tragedies occurred, and the most terrible of these took place on 22 January 1868. The disaster that took place on that day deserves to be better known – indeed, it’s almost forgotten in the area itself, and no memorial to it can be found anywhere on the coast of the inlet. The following contemporary newspaper report provides a harrowing account of the tragedy, and serves as a reminder of the dangers faced by seafarers of all eras.

Dreadful loss of life on Burry Bar — Llanelly.

On Wednesday night, one of the most fearful shipping casualties occurred on the Gower Coast.

Nineteen or 20 vessels left Llanelly with the evening tide on Wednesday, towed by steam tugs. On nearing the bar, the tow-ropes snapped. Sail was made with all speed, but the wind having lulled, and the breakers on the bar being heavy, in consequence of the recent gale, the vessels were not able to get clear of the heavy sea then rolling in upon the shore. Night closed upon the scene and those who had witnessed the departure of the vessels hoped they would get clear of the dangerous breakers. This hope was not realised; the ships could not beat out to sea and finally they drifted upon the sands.

The survivors say that a more fearful night they never passed. Although the wind had gone down, the waves roared and rolled with fearful violence. Some of the ships got into collision and the result was that great destruction of life and property occurred, not however, through the collision, but for want of wind. They were left to the mercy of the waves which rolled tremendously high and, on receding, the vessels thumped heavily upon the sands.

The ‘Tamar Queen’, of Plymouth, and another were brought into Llanelly in the morning, leaking badly, but of the others the following were totally wrecked: the ‘Rocius’, ‘Water Lilly’, ‘Onward’, and ‘Brothers’, all of Llanelly; ‘Mary Fanny’, of Amlwch, ‘Ann’, of Bideford, ‘Huntress’, of Workington, and ‘St Catherine’, of Fowey. The crews of the ‘Rocius’, ‘Water Lilly’, and ‘Brothers’, and five men from the ‘Onward’ were saved; but the Captain (Clement), and his son, the Pilot (Christopher Lewis), and an apprentice were lost. The body of the captain has been recovered frightfully mutilated, as well as the body of the pilot. One boy only was saved from the ‘Mary Fanny’, who jumped to the boat when the pilot was leaving her. The Captain (Williams) was heard by parties on shore requesting them to throw something to him, which they did, but being dark they were not able to see him, and in a short time he was found on shore, but life was extinct.

It is not certain how many vessels and lives have been lost; a French vessel supposed to have been lost succeeded in making her way to a French port, and took with her the pilot (Daniel Rees). We trust we shall hear of others again. We need scarcely say that this disastrous catastrophe has created a mournful sensation throughout the entire district. Many of the unfortunate mariners belonged to the port of Llanelly, and their being wrecked within sight of their homes, and within an hour or two after leaving, renders it still more distressing. A correspondent who was present at the inquest says that Captain Roberts, of the ‘Brothers’, Llanelly, stated that he believed if there had been a lifeboat on board the light-ship, all the crews of the other ships might have been saved. He heard the cries of the drowning men, but could not render them any assistance, for nothing but a lifeboat could have ventured in such a sea.

After hearing evidence of one of the pilots and one of the men belonging to the ‘Ann’, the coroner summed up, and the usual verdict on such cases was returned.The jury requested the coroner to inform the authorities at Llanelly that they consider it necessary that the lifeboat be replaced on board the light-ship, and that signals should be placed on a high point of land at Cwm Ivy Toi.

The town’s first historian, John Innes (father of the famous artist, James Dickson Innes), provides some additional detail on the strange combination of conditions which led to the doomed ships encountering a huge swell, but having insufficient wind to give them the momentum to get over the Burry bar:

The greatest and most wholesale calamity to Llanelly shipping occurred in practically a dead calm, and in consequence of too little and not too much wind. In 1868 all the docks were full of wind-bound vessels long ready for sea…they went out into the channel in threes and fours, escorted by our tugs. One tug returning warned the outgoing strings of vessels to return, but this was regarded as a joke. Once over the bar a whole fleet of craft found themselves in Broughton Bay [north Gower] in an increasing ground swell of great violence. The sails simply flapped and did not fill. The vessels collided, went ashore, and bumped on the sands. The light air died away and they were helpless. Next morning the town was a town of grief and desolation. 

At least fifty-two lives were lost, and the remains of the wrecked ships littered the north coast of Gower for a long time thereafter.

Google Earth’s view of the Burry Inlet, showing clearly the treacherous sandbanks and channels