The Abergavenny East Indiaman, commanded by Captain Wordsworth, with a crew and passengers to the number of upwards of four hundred persons, sailed from Portsmouth
on the 1st of February, 1805, for the East Indies
. On the fifteenth, when in Portland Roads
, she struck on the Shambles about two miles from the shore. The water immediately rose so fast in the ship, that it was resolved to run her on the first shore, but all the efforts to keep the water under, were vain: and at six o'clock in the afternoon, the loss of the ship began to appear inevitable. The captain and officers preserved the utmost intrepidity, and coolly issued their orders wherever necessity required; while their example animated the men to exertion. As the night advanced, the situation of all on board became terrible. It was with the utmost difficulty that the whole ship's company were enabled to keep the vessel afloat; and in order to induce the men to exert their utmost powers at the pumps, the officers stood by cheering and encouraging them, and giving them allowances of liquor. At seven, the ship's company being almost exhausted, signal guns were fired in hopes of obtaining boats from the shore, to save as many of the people on board as possible. Mr. Mortimer, the purser, and six seamen, were sent in one of the ship's boats with a cousin of the captain and the papers and despatches. After landing them, they came back to the ship, took on board some of the passengers, and, amidst a dreadful sea, which threatened instant destruction, safely conveyed them ashore. Mrs. Blair, one of the passengers, who was going out to India
to settle the affairs of her husband lately dead, remained on board, in spite of all entreaties. Indeed, many more would have embarked in the boats, had they not dreaded to encounter a tempestuous sea in so dark a night.
It was now about nine o'clock, and several boats were heard at a short distance from the ship, but they rendered no assistance to the distressed on board. Whether they were engaged in plunder, or in the humane office of saving those who had clung to pieces of the wreck, could not be ascertained. The crew still continued pumping and baling without intermission, and the cadets on board, though of tender age, laboured most indefatigably. A midshipman was appointed to guard the spirit room, to repress that unhappy desire of a devoted crew to endeavour to forget their miseries in intoxication. The sailors, though in other respects orderly in conduct, now pressed eagerly upon him, crying, 'Give us some grog, it will be all one an hour hence.' 'I know we must die,' replied the gallant officer, with the utmost coolness, 'but let us die like men,' and armed with a brace of pistols, he kept his post, even while the ship was sinking.
When the carpenter came from below, and told the men who were working at the pumps that nothing more could be done, and that the ship must go down, the crew were variously affected. Some gave themselves up to despair, others prayed, and some seeking the means of safety, committed themselves on pieces of wreck to the waves. Mr. Bagot, the chief mate, went to the captain, and said, ' Sir, we have done all we can, the ship will sink in a moment.' The captain replied, 'Well, it cannot be helped - God's will be done.' The ship was now nearly full of water, and she gradually sunk in the waves. The cries of the distressed while sinking, which could be heard at a great distance, were awful, the wretched people were seen running about the deck in all the agony and hopelessness of despair, so long as it kept above water. At about eleven o'clock, a heavy sea gave the vessel a sudden shock, and she went down.
At that moment, Captain Wordsworth was seen clinging to the ropes; the fourth mate used every persuasion to induce him to endeavour to save his life, but he seemed indifferent about existence, and perished at the age of thirty-five. One hundred and eighty souls had sought an asylum in the tops and rigging, whose situation was truly dreadful, as they were exposed in a cold, dark, frosty night, with the sea incessantly breaking over them. In their struggles to gain places of security, the most distressing scenes occurred. A serjeant having secured his wife in the shrouds, she lost her hold, and, melancholy to relate, in her last struggles for life, bit a large piece from her husband's arm, which remained dreadfully lacerated. One of the crew having gained a considerable height, endeavoured to climb still higher; but his exertions were frustrated by some messmate, in a perilous situation, seizing hold of his leg; all remonstrance was in vain; and the impulse of self-preservation prevailed so far over the dictates of humanity, that the seaman drew his clasp knife, and cut the miserable fingers across, until the other relinquished his hold, and was killed in the fall.
Several boats now approached the wreck but they rendered no assistance; at length two sloops, which had been attracted by the signal guns, came to anchor close by the wreck, and by means of their boats, took all the survivors from the shrouds, by twenty in each boat; and in the morning, conveyed them safe to Weymouth. The men in the shrouds showed great calmness; they did not crowd into the boats, but came down one by one as they were called by the officers.
Several persons had a most miraculous escape. When the awful declaration was heard, that 'the ship must go down,' Mr. Grimshaw, one of the cadets on board, and two more, went into the cabin, where they stood looking at each other for some time without uttering a word. At length one of them said, 'Let us return to the deck;' and two of them did so. Mr. Grimshaw remained behind; and opening his writing-desk, took out his commission, his introductory letters, and some money, and then went on deck, but without seeing his companions. The ship was now going down head foremost, and the sea rolling in an immense volume along the deck. He endeavoured to ascend the steps leading to the poop, but was launched among the waves, encumbered by boots and a greatcoat, and unable to swim. Struggling to keep himself afloat, he seized on a rope hanging from the mizen shrouds. Amidst his exertions to ascend by it, he slipped into the sea, where he resigned himself to that destruction which now appeared inevitable; but by a sudden lurch of the ship, he was thrown into the mizen shrouds, where he remained until taken off in the morning. Mr. Gilpin, the fourth mate, who was at the mizentop, with about twenty others, continually cheered them, and contributed much to keep up their spirits.
When the ship was going down, William White, a midshipman and coxswain, leaped overboard, although he could not swim, and trusted to save himself by exertion. He got on a hen coop with two others. After drifting some distance from the ship, it overset and his companions were swallowed up; while he in vain attempted to regain his seat. In the struggle, he caught a piece of wreck, of which some unfortunate person had just lost hold and was drowned: and by means of it, he reached the mizen rigging. Twenty persons crowded into a boat, which, before advancing many yards, overset, and only one of the number was saved. The captain's joiner was not less fortunate; the same sea which washed Captain Wordsworth over carried him away along with the launch which was full of sheep and a cow. The joiner on swimming about a short time, observed the launch, and having got into it among the cattle, he was saved. Mr. Bagot, the chief mate, who much resembled Captain Wordsworth in the mildness of his manners, and his cool temperate disposition, made no attempt to save his life, but shared the fate of his captain, and with similar composure.
From The Percy Anecdotes, published 1823