The ‘Alexander’ - An East Indiaman Wrecked on Chesil Beach
An Initial Account
The story surrounding the loss of the inbound East Indiaman ‘Alexander’ on a wild gale swept Easter Monday in 1815 has never been fully documented because, we are told, none of the survivors could speak English. Furthermore the wrecking of the ‘Alexander’ was probably the worst single disaster for loss of life on Chesil Beach and has been remembered with one of the finest memorials to a shipwreck in the area. Neither has there ever been any hard evidence that anyone has ever found any remnants or signs of the wreck site or even any consensus of agreement, in modern times, as to its exact location. The mystery deepens and the known facts become a little blurred when it is discovered that there was another East Indiaman of the same name and size plying its trade to the East at the same time.
The ‘Alexander’ that tragically finished its days on Chesil Beach was built in India in 1803 and therefore probably of teak, as a ‘Country Ship’ or ‘Countryman’ and rated at 600 tons for her owner, Charles Forbes and Company, a prominent trading firm in Bombay. The principal of the company, Charles Forbes (1774-1849), became a Member of Parliament in 1812 and remained one until 1832 during which time he campaigning successfully for an end to the East India Company’s monopoly of trade and was later created a baronet of Newe and Edinglasslie. There is a reference to Charles Forbes and Co declaring that they did not keep their ships for long but bought and sold the ships after a couple of years, however in this case it would appear that Charles Forbes and Company rather unusually kept this ship for 12 years.
It is widely reported, but has yet to be confirmed from original sources, that the ‘Alexander’ completed seven voyages between the East and England between 1803 and 1815, suspicions regarding these journeys are raised by the existence at this time of another East Indiaman also named ‘Alexander’ of basically the same size, built in the same year that definitely complete seven fully documented voyages with dates and names of Owners and Captains. This second ‘Alexander’ was built in 1803, for her original owner, George F Clay, by the Liverpool shipbuilder Grayson. She was launched on 22nd April 1803, measured in 1804 and rated at 614 tons (the Bombay built ‘Alexander’ was rated at 600 tons). She completed seven voyages between 1803 and 1816, before she was sold in 1817 on the condition she be used as a hulk or broken up. Although we have no dimensions and construction details for the Bombay built ‘Alexander’ wrecked on Chesil we do have them for the Liverpool built ‘Alexander’ that must have been of similar size. The dimensions and construction of the Liverpool built ‘Alexander’ were recorded as follows:- 3 decks, 4in bottom, length 128ft, keel 102ft 5in, breadth 33ft 7in, hold 12 ft 10in, wing transom 21ft 9in, waist 1ft 6½in, between decks 5ft 6in and 6ft, roundhouse 6ft 3in. It had 18 guns and a crew of 55. She was sometimes referred to as a ‘Regular’ and other times as an ‘Extra’.
To add to this confusion there is also a reference to yet another ‘Alexander’ as an East India Company Country Ship of 746 tons, built a year earlier in 1802 that was owned by Adamson in Bombay between 1804 and 1807, and of a French built ‘Alexander’ from 1796 that was an East India Company ‘Charter’ vessel that plied backwards and forwards to Bombay up to the 18th December 1803. During the lifetime of our Bombay built ‘Alexander’ references can be found of a further six boats of that name.
However what is certain, as was recorded in the Bombay Courier, that the last voyage of the ‘Alexander’ left Bombay, now known as Mumbai, under Captain Lewis Auldjo bound for London on 22nd October 1814 with a cargo of cotton, sugar, rice, pepper and coffee with the following people on board as passengers: the Captain’s wife Mrs Auldjo, Doctor and Mrs Dunbar, Miss Toriajo, Major Ramsey, Captain Campbell of his Majesty’s 47th Regiment, Lieutenant Deverel also of his Majesty’s 47th with his wife and their three children, Master Edmond, Miss Lydia and Miss Frances, Lieutenants Wade, Baker (his wife Mary Ann and their 2 year old daughter Catherine had remained in India so it can be assumed that he was intending to return to India, Catherine inherited from her father property in Bristol when, she and her mother returned to England in the following year), Bennett and Goadby, three further children, Miss C and Master J Elphinstone (also spelt Elphinson or Elphiston) and Master W Richard Russell as well as Thomas Mathews, an invalid from the Artillery. The soldiers were from the old First Battalion of the 47th who had been in India since 1809 and had recently been re-designated as the 47th Regiment of Foot after the disbandment of the 2nd Battalion on 24th October 1814.
Captain and Mrs Hughes and their family, of the Madras establishment were expected to also board as passengers from Cochin. Cochin, now known as Kochi, is situated on the western coast of India 700 miles south of Bombay, it had been seized by the British in 1795 but administered by the Dutch until early in 1814, when it became a possession of the East India Company and was a major trading point dealing in pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Whether he and his family joined the ship is not known as they are not recorded amongst the dead.
After a voyage of approximately 13,000 miles in a slow time of 155 days (the average for a non-stop journey from the East over a ten year period was only 114 days) that included a stop at Cochin and probably a second stop in the Azores for some private trade as there was considerable amount of Madeira wine recovered from the wreckage, the ‘Alexander’ was now only a few hundred miles from home as she approached the Dorset coast.
The newspapers of the day reported a “hard gale of wind” for all of Sunday 26th March 1815 which continued to blow from the SSW through the night of 26th/27th. The ‘Alexander’ battled the storm trying to avoid the notorious lee shore of Chesil Beach but was finally beaten and was thrown on the bank of pebbles that is Chesil Beach in an area known locally as Deadman’s Cove in the pitch blackness several hours before dawn on Easter Monday, 27 March 1815, and quickly broke up. “She struck at two am and at four she was a complete wreck and every soul on board were consigned to a watery grave except four Malays and one Persian” reported the local papers.
Of the 145 (some accounts say 160) crew and passengers on board only these “four Malays and one Persian” also described as “four Lascars and a woman” and again as “five Lascars” or “five black people” survived. It is probably reasonable to assume that the survivors were four Malay crew members and a Persian woman. It is reported that as none of them spoke English the exact circumstances of the disaster remained unknown. The Sherborne Mercury on 3 April paid tribute to E Henning Esquire, banker, for his humanity in providing the five survivors with “wearing apparel and every refreshment that could in any way add to their comfort and relief, which was sent to them at the Passage House, wither they were conveyed almost lifeless”. The Lascars were sailors from the ‘East’ and it is interesting to note that the East India Company would only allow them to crew on inward bound ships; they were always returned to the East as passengers in order to safeguard the jobs of Englishmen.
Two days later the ‘Times’ printed a Weymouth report of the 29th that said:
“Very little of the cargo saved. There have been taken up from the wreck the bodies of 39 lascars and 7 Europeans; amongst the latter Captain Campbell; Captain or Lieutenant Brooks; Lieutenant Hodges; Mr Jackson (also referred to on the memorial stone subsequently put up by Charles Forbes, and more likely correctly, as Major Jackson) and two children; Mr Black, Chief Mate (presumably the same person as Mr Brown, Chief Officer again referred to on the memorial stone); Antonio, gunner’s mate, but the above only are at present recognised”.
As only seven were referred to as European we can presume Antonio was another Lascar or Non-European and that he was recognised by one of the survivors.
Thereafter bodies and wreckage were found between Portland and Abbotsbury and even one body was recovered some 20 miles west along the coast at Lyme Regis. The Reverend Chamberlain rector of Wyke and the Reverend CE North, rector of Portland administered the last sacred rites to the remains of those whom the sea washed ashore. John Thomas Elliott in his diary for 27th March said “there were sixty buried in one grave in St George’s Churchyard close by the South gate in Portland, all of these were black people and several more at other places in the above churchyard”. No stone has been found to record this mass grave. From the Portland Parish Register it states that on 10th April the body of a woman (this might have been Miss Dunbar who was said to have been “buried on Portland”) and on 14th April the body of a man, both of unknown age and “supposed to belong to the ‘Alexander’ ship East Indiaman lately wrecked on Portland Beach”, were buried. The ceremonies were performed by the Reverend CE North by order of the Coroner on 14th April. It is also said that there was a “mass grave of 140 of the poor souls whose lives were claimed by the sea that night, in Wyke Regis” but this is more likely to be a much lesser number.
One casualty was a Lady Jackson, returning from India with her children, her body was washed up at Lyme Regis. Mary Anning’s friend Anna Maria Pinney recorded in her journal of 1832 that “an East Indiaman (the ‘Alexander’) was lost off Portland, and after some days the body of a very beautiful lady was [washed up] near Lyme” and that Mary Anning, when she was only sixteen and before she became the “first” and most famous Lyme fossilist, “untangled the seaweed which had attached itself to her long hair and performed all the other offices due from the living to the dead, and the unknown corpse being deposited in the Church until some friend appeared to claim it, she daily went to strew fresh flowers over it”. This was Lady Jackson, she was buried in Lyme but her headstone has yet to be identified and identification has been made more difficult as part of the graveyard was lost in one of Lyme’s frequent landslips. Lady Jackson, her husband Major Jackson and their three children were not identified in the Bombay Courier’s list of passengers so she and her family may well have joined the ship at Cochin with the Hughes family.
In the graveyard of All Saints Church, Wyke Regis there is a headstone located on the south wall (fourth one in from the gate, clearly relocated from its original position) with an engraving badly eroded but still decipherable as “EIC 1815”, presumably to remember someone (or several) from the ‘Alexander’ The outside west wall of the church has a very fine memorial stone designed by James Hamilton, Weymouth’s leading Georgian architect/contractor which was restored by public subscription in 1896 to commemorate the disaster and to record the internment in the graveyard of 13 of the 140 casualties. The memorial is still readable and says:-
“To record the melancholy wreck of
THE SHIP ALEXANDER
This stone is erected by Charles Forbes Esq. of London MP. And the owners of the said ship which on her voyage from Bombay to London, was totally lost in the West Bay on the night of 26th March 1815 when all of the Crew and Passengers consisting of more than 140 souls unhappily perished with the exception of five Lascars. The following are the names of the persons whose bodies were found and buried immediately opposite the spot:
Lewis Auldjo, Commander, Mr Brown, Chief Officer, Major Jackson, Capt. Campbell, Lieut. Wade, Mrs Auldjo,Mrs Dunbar, Miss Torajo, two Miss Deverels, Miss Jackson, Master and Miss Elphinson - The remains of Miss Dunbar were found subsequent to the internment of the above mentioned and buried in Portland - The body of Mrs Jackson was taken up near Lyme in this county and there buried - The under-mentioned also perished on this melancholy occasion but their bodies have never been found:
Major Ramsey, Lieut Bennett, Lieut. Baker, Mrs Deverel, Miss Jackson, Master Deverel, Mr Bowerman, 2nd mate, the 3rd and 4th mate, a European Servant, and an invalid of Artillery.
Lamented shades! ‘twas yours, alas to drain,
Misfortune’s bitter chalice: - whilst in vain
Fond hope and joy regardless of control
Prompted each movement of the willing soul.
Sudden destruction reared his giant form
Black with the horrors of the midnight storm:
And all convulsed with elementary strife,
Dissolved the throbbing nerves of Hope and Life.
Death’s triumphs past, may angels guide your way To the blest regions of eternal day!
Where no rude blasts provoke the billowing roar,
Where Virtue’s kindred meet to part no more.
J HAMILTON, Archt.
Restored by public subscriptions 1896”
Local papers reported that a very small part only of the cargo was saved from the wreckage and that was scattered from Portland to Abbotsbury and it was only by the vigilance of Mr R White and the boat’s crew of the cutter ‘Greyhound’ that this was recovered, the remainder being totally destroyed and scattered in fragments on the shore. It is very likely that this ‘Greyhound’ is the same 16 gun, 200 ton Excise Cutter that was based in Weymouth and patrolled the waters between the Isle of Wight and Start point between 1796 and 1822 under Captain Richard Wilkinson for most of that time. Ten years earlier the ‘Greyhound’ was reported to have salvaged items from the wreck of the ‘Earl of Abergavenny’ also for the benefit of the owners. Amongst the items recovered was a package of letters addressed to the governors of the East India Company which have yet to be traced.
The Dorchester and Sherborne Journal reported on 19th May that there would an auction at 2pm on Wednesday, 24th May 1815 by Mr T Tindall for the benefit of the Underwriters and Owners of the ‘Alexander’ at Mr Weston’s Store near the Bridge. Offered for sale were 103 bales of Bombay cotton (damaged), 5 cases of Gum Benjamin (a balsamic resin obtained from certain tropical Asian trees used in perfumery and medicine, known as the “frankincense of Java”), 2 pipes and 1 hogshead of Madeira wine (a total of 230 imperial gallons, a pipe was the standard Madeira shipping cask which would yield on average 44½ cases of 12 bottles and a hogshead was half a pipe) and 1 cask of pitch (probably stores rather than cargo), further details were to be available from Messer’s Weston, Richardson and Co. Mr Weston was the then Mayor of Weymouth and in on-going correspondence with the East India Company regarding the disposal of salvage and cargo from various East India Company shipwrecks including the ‘Earl of Abergavenny’ and the ‘Alexander’.
The exact location of the wreck site is not known but various authorities have put her on Chesil Beach, “two miles West of Portland” (ref. Times 29 March 1815), or in “Deadman’s Bay which Wyke Church looks out over”, or at “Highsands near Ferrybridge” or “in the West Bay” or “near the Royal Adelaide”, or “at Moonfleet””, or “close by the village of Wyke” or ”opposite the Passage House at Wyke” or “the whole line of coast from Portland to Abbotsbury has been completely strewn with vestiges of the hull” but research will continue at all those venues!! I have also compiled a list of the passengers and crew identifying what information I have about their fate, it is interesting to note that there appears to have been between 114 and 129 crew which does not compare vet well with the Liverpool ‘Alexander’ which had only a crew of 55.
As the reader will see the information is surprisingly very thin considering it was one of the worst single losses of life on Chesil. This winter will see further research in the London archives on both of the ‘Alexanders’, the location of the wreck site, the lives of Sir Charles Forbes, and Major and Lady Jackson, history of the 47th Regiment and the East India Company records.
All additions, corrections to this account of the sinking of the ‘Alexander’ are welcomed.
Anna Maria Pinney’s Journal for 1832 by WD Lang
Bombay Journal – 22nd October 1814
Diary of JT Elliott, County Records Office
Dorchester and Sherborne Journal – 31st March 1815
Dorchester and Sherborne Journal – 19th May 1815
History of the Parish Church of All Saints Wyke
Regis, Weymouth by R C Domoney
‘Lords of the East’ by Jean Sutton
‘Merchant Sailing Ships, Sovereignty of Sail, 1775- 1815’ by David R MacGregor
Portland Parish Register for 1815
‘Register of Ships employed in the services of the Honorable United East India Company for the years 1760 to 1811’ by Charles Hardy
Salisbury Echo – 3rd April 1815
Sherborne Mercury – 3rd April 1815
‘Shipwrecks of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras’ by Terence Grocott
Times – 27th and 29th March 1815
With thanks for the help from Maureen Attwooll, Captain Roger Abbott and Selwyn Williams.