The United Kingdom is an island nation that’s also a collection of islands. One of these, which only misses being attached to the mainland by a narrow channel, is Anglesey. To find it on a map you have to draw a line from London to Liverpool and it’ll be just off to the left. You can also go due east from Dublin by water and run right into it. The eastern shore of Anglesey, near a sleepy seaside tourist town in Wales called Moelfre, was the scene of an unlikely shipwreck that sent a fortune in gold to the bottom of the sea, just a few meters from shore.
The ship was the Royal Charter and the year was 1859. Owned by the Liverpool & Australian Steamship Navigation Company, the Royal Charter was a new type of hybrid iron hull ship that used both sail and steam for propulsion. A big ship, she was 236 feet long, thirty-nine feet of beam and displacing 2,719 tons. The Royal Charter was fast for her day, able to haul up to 600 passengers and cargo around Cape Horn to Australia in less than sixty days. Also versatile, when the winds weren’t favorable the crew could light her single boiler to drive a propeller.
In October of 1859 the Royal Charter was on the return passage from Australia to Liverpool and nearly home when she ran into a storm. The ship was carrying roughly 371 passengers; the exact number will never be known as the manifest went down with the ship. Besides the passengers were 112 crew and some company employees. Among these were the usual wealthy first class travelers, and the ship’s safe was likely loaded with gems and jewelry; it was a time when you had to carry your valuables around with you. Also aboard were many gold miners, more than a few who had struck it rich and were hauling their fortune home. Not only was the ship’s safe full of treasure, but her hold contained a contingent of gold belonging to the miners. In addition, many of the passengers decided, for whatever reason, to keep their gold with them; a few even going so far as to sew the precious metal into their clothing.
On October 25th the morning weather was beautiful, but the barometer was dropping and survivors would later claim Captain Thomas Taylor was advised to head for Holyhead for shelter. But the captain was at the end of a long journey and Liverpool was just a few hours away. Ignoring the warning, he decided to steam ahead—after all, they were so close. But as the evening wore on the winds kicked up, eventually rising to Storm Force 10 on the Beaufort scale. The winds were from the east and Captain Taylor figured the seas would be more manageable if they could just get around the tip of Anglesey. But during the night the winds intensified, climbing to Storm Force 12 and shifting around to the northeast, battering the ship with hurricane strength and driving it mercilessly toward the rock-jawed shore. The storm, considered the worst of the century, would eventually be called the Royal Charter Storm.
Captain Taylor realized they’d never make Liverpool, and around 11:00 that night he ordered the anchors lowered in a desperate effort to keep from being swept onto the rocks. At 1:30 on the morning of the 26th, the port anchor chain snapped. An hour later they lost the starboard anchor chain. Captain Taylor ordered the masts cut down to reduce wind drag. But it was all in vain; the ship’s steam engine was no match for the power of the storm. At first the ship grounded on a sand bank but the rising tide carried it into the rocks where it was battered to pieces with tremendous force. 450 people died, most dashed against the rocks rather than drowned; only twenty-one passengers and eighteen crew made it safely to shore. Several passengers were dragged under and drowned by the weight of the gold belts they wore.
The ship shattered with such awful force that in the aftermath writer Charles Dickens described gold ingots and coins being impaled in iron-covered timbers as if they’d been cast there. Many on the shore became instantly wealthy in the days that followed as gold washed up on the beach and nearshore area.
Even though the location of the wreck is known, and the value of the gold estimated to be somewhere north of $150 million, it’s not clear how much has been salvaged. In 2012 one lucky beach walker found a hunk of gold weighing 97 grams, just under a third of a pound, which turned out to be worth nearly $60,000 dollars. Though a good deal of the tragically lost treasure has been recovered over the years, much is still down there, buried in the soft sand, still waiting for the next lucky beachcomber.