Thursday, 18 June 2015

A Tale of Two Heroes (The Sinking of the Royal Charter)

(This is a longer version of a post I wrote for Suze Likes, Loves, Finds and Dreams, which you can read if you click here.)

As a writer, I try to create a hero who will fit a reader’s idea of being a hero, yet flawed enough to be considered realistic. So what does make a real hero? Someone who is willing to risk his own life for others – or someone who works quietly in the background, getting on with whatever needs to be done? I came across two such heroes while researching the story of the Royal Charter, which sank off the coast of Anglesey one hundred and fifty years ago.

Memorial to those who died in the wreck of
the Royal Charter (above the cliffs at Moelfre)
The Royal Charter was a steam clipper, which set sail to Liverpool from Australia in 1859. On board were over four hundred passengers and crew, as well as a fortune in gold bullion being shipped from the Australian gold fields (worth around £14 million in today’s money). Many of the passengers were British miners returning with their own gold packed into their luggage, worn in money belts about their person and sewn into their clothes. They had gone to Australia to seek their fortune and were now returning home with the equivalent of their life’s savings.

As the Royal Charter reached Anglesey it headed straight into the worst storm of the century, with 60ft waves and wind speeds reaching 100 mph. The Captain gave the order to drop anchor and cut the masts to prevent the ship from being smashed against the rocks, but the anchor cables snapped and the ship was blown onto a sandbank, close to the little fishing village of Moelfre.

Land lay tantalisingly close. A lifeboat was launched from the ship but sank almost immediately. A Maltese seaman by the name of Guże Ruggier volunteered to swim from the ship with a rope tied around his waist, to enable a bosun’s chair to be set up between ship and shore. He succeeded through a combination of his strength, knowledge of the sea and pure luck, but by the time he was hauled onto land by the villagers he was badly injured. Yet before a rescue operation could get underway, the incoming tide lifted the stricken ship off the sandbank and a huge wave broke it in two.

Another memorial, outside the RNLI
at Moelfre, depicting Guze Ruggier
Thirty-nine people were saved through the efforts of Guże Ruggier, and the twenty-eight local men who had formed a human chain to drag survivors out of the sea. Tragically some passengers had refused to be parted from their gold, because it was all they owned in the world, and they jumped over the side of the ship still wearing their money belts. The majority of those who died were laid to rest at St Gallgo’s Church, Llandallgo, where the Reverend Stephen Roose Hughes opened his house to the bereaved and took responsibility for arranging the identification of the dead. As the author Charles Dickens would later report, the Reverend Hughes “worked alone for hours … patiently examining the tattered clothing, cutting off buttons, hair, marks from linen, anything that might lead to subsequent identification.” Reverend Hughes also wrote over 1,000 letters to grieving relatives around the world. The graves of those who died can still be seen in the churchyard, along with a memorial to the tragedy.

St Gallgo's Church at Llandallgo, just outside Moelfre
The memorial to those who died in the wreck
(St Gallgo's Church, Llandallgo)
The memorial

In the months following the disaster, salvage operations were able to retrieve the majority of the gold from the wreck but a small quantity is still unaccounted for. The water where the ship sank is not deep and, over the years, the wreck has gradually settled beneath about 15ft of water and sand. Among the articles which have been salvaged by modern-day divers are jewellery, gold nuggets, pistols, silver candlesticks and bottles of wine.

The streaming anchor,
salvaged from the wreck
Although Guże Ruggier shunned publicity, he was hailed as a hero and awarded a gold medal and £5 by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). He was also immortalised in a painting, A Volunteer, by Henry Nelson O’Neil.

Memorial outside the RNLI at Moelfre
The author Charles Dickens wrote about the quiet heroism of the Reverend Stephen Hughes in his newspaper, later to be republished in his book The Uncommerical Traveller. Sadly, the Reverend Hughes died only a few years later. His grave can still be seen in the churchyard at Llandallgo.

The grave of Rev Stephen Roose Hughes,
the Vicar at the time of the tragedy
A few years after the Royal Charter disaster, Moelfre launched the first of its lifeboats; saving over 600 lives including the crew of the Hindlea – wrecked in almost exactly the same spot, a hundred years and a day after the sinking of the Royal Charter.

Part of the Anglesey Coastal path,
leading past the wreck site

Monday, 1 June 2015

The One About Forrest

In which I find a new way to procrastinate - watching the antics of the birds in my garden ...

I've always liked magpies, even though they have such a terrible reputation. According to folklore they are bad luck, associated with witchcraft - and they steal things. If you see one at a window, it's supposed to mean imminent death. Oh, and they're notorious for snacking on other birds' young.

Last week a baby magpie turned up in my garden. He was a little too big to be a 'baby', although his feathers were still fluffy. His parents had apparently left him to practise flying and fend for himself and, like any teenager, he spent the day sulking that he was expected to do EVERYTHING ... 

Sulking ...

He half-heartedly poked at the grass for bugs but drank the water from the drain with enthusiasm. Whenever anyone went into the garden he'd hop off at impressive speed, leading to him being nicknamed Forrest (as in "Run, Forrest, run": Forrest Gump).

On the second day he discovered he could duck beneath the garden gate onto our front driveway, where he amused himself by jumping onto the window ledge and frightening me half to death by crashing his beak against the glass. From here he could hop onto the bonnet of my car, where he spent the morning sliding up and down the windscreen, before realising he could get a better grip walking up the plastic at the side. Magpies are apparently known for their intelligence ...

King of the Car

After performing his favourite 'falling-with-style' onto my neighbour's car, I thought at least it might keep him out of the way of the local cats - only to look again and see both he and my neighbour's car had gone.

I fully expected to find a ball of feathers squashed on the driveway but no, Forrest was happily sitting in a flower bed, shredding and eating the flowers. He spent the rest of the afternoon blithely sunning himself in the centre of the road, while I worried about cats and cars - and his real mother scolded him from the roof.

The third day saw Forrest unceremoniously dumped back in our garden, along with his big brother to bird-sit. Here they are, affectionately pecking each other ...

Forrest (left) and his brother

It's easy to tell the difference - Forrest is smaller, fluffier and more bedraggled. But having his cooler older brother around finally encouraged him to stop wandering the neighbourhood as cat bait and, apart from the occasional collision with the fence/window/wheelie bin, Forrest was soon flying from one end of the garden to the other. Now he and his brother perch outside my study like a couple of little thugs, chattering loudly and alternating between cuddling up and pecking each other.

Magpies are territorial, so this little family aren't going anywhere. We're regularly woken by the machine gun 'clack' of their 'birdsong' and, although their parents still occasionally feed them, they've already started eyeing up the neighbouring sparrow nests as a potential all-you-can-eat buffet.

They grow up so fast ...