The wreck of the ‘Sherwell‘ in my new novel Sinclair is based loosely on the wreck of the East Indiaman the Halsewell a ship captained by a man called Richard Pierce; Captain Richards in my story. The Halsewell left Gravesend docks on the first day of January 1786 with a manifest of 240 people and was wrecked six days later of the Dorset coast with the loss of over 170 lives. The tragedy shocked the nation to its core and the ship’s captain became a national hero with stories and eulogies[1] appearing in the London press and magazines like The Gentleman and The European praising his self-sacrifice. The ship was not the first to go down and it certainly was not the last but this wreck in particular captured the nation’s imagination.

Built by Wells of Blackwall in 1778 the 758 ton ship was on route to Madras armed with 12 cannon and carrying a cargo of 53 chests of small arms, 25 tons of copper plate, 500 tons of lead for shot, and general merchandise including pitch, grindstones, tar, chains and bellows but the main consignment was the men of the 2nd Battalion and the 42nd Regiment of the East India Company’s army who were being sent to replace men lost in Company’s war with the last mogul emperor with any clout, Hydra Ali, three years earlier.

In addition to these soldiers the Haleswell has civilian passengers, including three female members of the captain’s family; his daughters Eliza and Mary-Ann; and two nieces Amy and Mary Pau;, there was also a Miss Elizabeth Blackburn,a Miss Mary Haggard, a Miss Ann Mansell on board along with  Mr John Shultz. The first mate, Thomas Burston, was a member of the captain’s family too.

All the women died along with 170 others including the captain and the first mate. Accounts[2] given by two surviving officers Meriton and Rogers said that Pierce heroically remained with the women as they faced death.

The storm that night was one of the worst in living memory and the ship broke up within a couple of hours, smashed to matchwood on the rocky Dorset coast. The survivors were rescued by quarry men who lowered ropes down the cliffs and hauled them up to safety. For their efforts they were rewarded with 50 guineas. The survivors, who were mainly the ship’s crew, had to walk all the way back to London through snow and rain, and there was no reward for them. In fact the crew were lambasted in some sections of the London press[3] and in an epic poem[4] for failing to do their duty on that fateful night and it soon became a commonly held view that the reason for the disaster was the lax attitude of the crew and their failure to follow their captain’s orders.

The legacy of that fateful night was used to strengthen the hand of the Navy and commercial ship owners when it came to disciplining their crews. They used the tragedy to enforce strict discipline on board ships allowing mariners no defence when they found themselves serving under brutal officers.

You can read my fictionalised account of the disaster and its aftermath in Sinclair.

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[1] Monody, On the death of Captain Pierce, 1786.

[2] A circumstantial narrative of the loss of the Halsewell, East-Indiaman .Henry Meriton (second mate of the Halsewell.), John Rogers (third mate of the Halsewell. )

[3] The London Recorder, January 15th, 1786.

[4] The Ship Wreck of the Haleswell, Evan Thomas, 1787.

See also: Shipwreck in Art and Literature: Images and Interpretations from Antiquity edited by Carl Thompson

Illustration: The Loss of an East Indiaman (formerly Loss of a Man of War), depicting the shipwreck of the Halsewell East Indiaman on 6 January 1786, off the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, England. Painted by Joseph Mallord William Turner circa 1818, watercolour on paper, 280 x 395 mm; Collection of trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford, England