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Respected Wreck-diving Author & Resident Farnes Ex
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Hi Everyone,

I thought you might be interested in something I wrote for SUBAQUA SCENEthe 1980s, about miner John Bradbury and his home coming on the ROYAL CHARTER. Something to think about next time you visit the wreck-site!

Passenger John Bradley & the Royal Charter

Gold was first discovered in Australia in 1823 around Bathhurst, New South Wales, but it was not until the late 1840s that the size of the deposit was fully realised. By 1851 the tempo of the gold rush had built up to uncontrollable proportions in NSW and it finally spread, with the encouragement of the government to the rest of Australia. Probably the biggest sites were at Ballarat and Bendigo close to Melbourne, but other gold fields flourished across the new continent. Disposing of the 'panned' gold by individual miners was a major problem and many sold their gold on site although a government escort travelled to Melbourne once a week where the gold was sold on behalf of the miners to jewellers and gold buyers. By the mid 1850s there was little law and order in the camps and the government had to introduce a licensing system to protect individuals rights. It also gave those miners a parliamentary vote, which simplified the problem of tracking down any named miner and placing on record names of immigrants and emigrants. The late 1850s saw the end of the surfaced prospecting, where the gold was lying around just for the picking and many miners’ started to leave for their homelands taking with them their hard earned 'pickings'.

One of these tough pioneers was a young man called John Bradbury whose home-town was Manchester. At the age of 24, John had amassed a vast fortune in gold and had decided that he had had enough of digging. Before he left for his native England he had his gold made into coins and placed inside specially made little boxes, for each of his family. Then he booked second-class passage for home on the fast steam clipper, Royal Charter, a 2719-ton iron- clad ship, furnished with powerful auxiliary engines of 200hp and renowned for its speed and safety. The vessel was crammed with miners and she was loaded with a fabulous cargo of gold bullion and coin belonging to the passengers returning to Liverpool with their fortunes. On the 24th and 25th August 1859 a small steamer lay along side the Royal Charter from which square wooded boxes were handed up to the clippers deck. Each box was marked with its weight, name of the shipper and the bank to which it was consigned. Then the captain and Australian customs officer personally checked each box, before being stacked away below in the strongroom deep inside the hull at the stern. At the time gold was valued at £4 an ounce. A total value of the cargo being £322,440, but the real total could have doubled this because a great many of the 390 plus passengers were carrying their own fortunes on them.
John Bradbury had watched his own boxes being stowed safely away before retiring to the reasonably comfortable accommodation he was to share with another young miner called
Bakewell. On 26th August 1859 the Royal Charter steamed out of Hobson’s Bay, Victoria with her full compliment of officers and crew under the command of Captain Taylor who had gained for her (quote) ‘a golden opinion’ by his rapid successful voyage from Liverpool to Melbourne in 59-days. The journey was uneventful except for one incident off Cape Horn when an iceberg was reported to have ‘approached’ the ship rather too close for comfort, but the passengers were not made aware of it until the danger was long passed. The passengers
Placed so much trust and appreciation in the captain that when the ship anchored up 20 miles off Cove of Cork, they presented him with a testimonial. It was also from here that the excited and elated passengers dispatched their letters and telegrams via a pilot boat to the waiting relatives back home. Unfortunately the pilot boat did not reach Queenstown in Ireland until the following day the 25th. Not a breath of wind disturbed the water as the Royal Charter steamed around the Irish Coast., At Queenstown thirteen passenger went ashore and escaped the fate which forty eight hours later befell so many of their fellow voyagers but unfortunately a steam tug captain transferred eleven riggers onto the Royal Charter off Bardsey and they were given a free trip to Liverpool.

As the ship passed Holyhead and night came on, an ‘Egyptian darkness’ reigned. The wind, which had been freshening in the earlier pan of the day now burst with uncontrollable fury over the ship. Off the Skerries the Captain signalled for a pilot, then again off Point Lymas, but was forced to proceed without one, for no pilot boat dared to venture out amid the huge breakers and darkness of that terrible night. Eleven o’clock and the ship was becoming unmanageable, but still John Bradbury and most of the passengers kept faith in the professionalism of their captain. By this time the waves were building up to 50 and 60 feet high in the face of a full-blown hurricane with winds over one hundred miles an hour. The whips powerful engines were helpless and she slewed across sideways towards the shore. Orders were given to let go the port anchor with 100-fathoms (600-feet) of chain, then the starboard anchor with 70-fathoms of chain. These succeeded in checking the vessel until 1.30am but then the port chain parted and orders were given to get up the steam anchor. The strain from the raging wind and waves were too much as the starboard cable parted and the ship slewed around broadside and grounded. The big two-blade screw, which had been driving steadily to help the anchors hold, dug deep into the sand and stopped. Officers and crew fought desperately against the elements, impervious to their own danger, using every means, which the skill of their captain could devise to save the ship and those aboard her. The four feet thick masts were cut down and immediately swept away, but the falling debris killed many of those on deck. Passengers were ordered below, but it was too late by this time, as panic had broken out. People were swept off the decks into the raging water. Distress guns were fired and blue lights went up, but the roar of the storm deadened the signals. Terrified men, women and children clung to each other in prayer as the vessel was battered by the sea, then a tremendous wave came down onto her, which rushed into the cabins and through the skylights, broken by falling rigging. John Bradbury struggled up from his cabin pushing past the screaming, panicking people and made his way up to the saloon. He knew that all seemed lost. No longer could be believe the commanding voice of Captain Taylor and Captain Withers as they tried to assure the passengers that when day break came they would all get ashore safely. The ship bumped and heaved with each wave and those few hours of darkness seemed like all the years of John Bradbury's life.

When dawn broke a Maltese sailor, George Suaicar lowered himself into the water with a rope and tried to reach the shore, but time after time he was swept back, until he was finally hauled out exhausted. Then another Maltese crewman called Joe Thomas attempted the swim through the treacherous short stretch of water and after what seemed like an eternity, managed to secure a hawser around the only rock able to take the strain. Along this sixteen of the crew were able to make their escape with the help of the hundreds of local people who now lined the shore. (Joe Thomas later presented with a gold medal and £5 by the National Lifeboat Institute and George Suaicar with a silver medal at the Liverpool Sailors home). Soon after the rescue occurred, a huge wave forced the ship violently onto the rocks and another crashed down on top of the ship smashing through the full length of the hull. The destructive force broke the vessel in two and they slewed round becoming a total wreck. About half of those on board perished by being crushed or swept out into the raging sea. John Bradbury was pushed against the saloon walls and had great difficulty clawing his way onto the remains of what used to be the deck. He lowered himself down into the water amongst the bodies and debris and was just starting to swim for shore when a lifeboat fell from the vessel, crushing him beneath it. Seething pain shot through his chest and back as he was forced below the freezing water. He could not feel his leg and as he gasped for air he thought the end had finally come. With senses numbed and barely conscious of his movements he washed back and forth in the huge rollers, which pounced onto the rocks and nearby beach. The surf was so fierce that it had hurled 14-ton rocks onto the sand. John was dragged room the sea half dead and unconscious, his clothes ripped to shreds but extremely lucky to be alive at all. Four burly fishermen from the village carried him up to a cabin belonging to a Mr Tyndall Bright, where remained until he recovered in December of that year. John was unaware at the time of his escape, but was later informed that he was the last person to reach shore alive and he was presented with a candlestick from the wreck by one of the salvage divers as a token of esteem. Although now penniless, he was luckier than most of the prospectors and miners on board in that his gold was stowed away in the ships hold. Many of those had died because of the weight they carried in money belts around their bodies, which dragged them down in the seas. The sea was a seething mass of bodies for days after the wrecking and some were discovered months later around the coast of Moelfra. 480 people had perished in that terrible hurricane of 1859 on one ship alone and little mention was made about the dozens of other vessels which met a similar fate on that same day.  

At the official inquiry held in Liverpool, the captain, who went down with his ship, was exonerated of any blame, but he was criticised by others for not turning back for shelter at Holyhead and thus causing the death of all those souls on board. The famous Charles Dickens visited the scene of the disaster and wrote of the heroism and kindness shown by many of the local people, although there was also a great deal of pilfering and plunder. While the heart breaking search for relatives and the bodies of loved ones went on, hard-hatted divers were already down on the ship searching the wreck for the fortune in gold. During that operation they successfully recovered half a million pounds sterling in gold, which the underwriters took possession of having paid out the insurance. Divers also recovered hundreds of other objects as well as the gold and jewellery, but a great deal must still lie there in the sand and debris. John Bradbury returned home and joined the family Wine and Spirit business in Altringham. He later married and had two children before he died in 1904 at the age of 68 years. In the period between the wrecking of the Royal Charter and the date of his death John Bradbury was instrumental in saving a dozen people from drowning and was awarded the Bronze Medal for his bravery. The terrible tragedy and loss of life on the Royal Charter would have by now faded into history, like the Rothsay Castle, which was wrecked on Puffin Island in 1832 with the loss of 126 lives and within sight of the cliffs of Moelfra, had it not been for the lure of the rich cargo of gold she carried. Had it not been for that fateful day in 1859, many people like the Great Grandson of John Bradbury would probably have been fabulously wealthy today.

Cheers Ron
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