Gold and more gold. Many of the travellers had made their fortunes in the Australian gold fields and now they were anticipating lives of comfort.
In their expensive clothes, bedecked with jewellery and other symbols of their wealth, they boarded the luxury 2,700-ton steam clipper Royal Charter at Melbourne and set sail for Liverpool.
On board were 498 passengers and crew – and nearly two tons of gold plus 48,000 gold sovereigns with a total value of around £500,000 (a staggering £35 million in today’s money).
It was 1859 and the Royal Charter was one of the finest, fastest passenger ships and could cover the long journey from Australia in under 60 days.
As the ship approached Liverpool she hit one of the worst storms ever seen in the Irish Sea. The Royal Charter was tossed around like a cork as she hugged the coast of Anglesey. The anchors were dropped but ferocious seas broke the chains.
Royal Charter crashed on rocks off Moelfre and there were terrible scenes as people made frantic attempts to reach the shore. Some tried to save their fortunes by filling their pockets with gold and as they desperately tried to swim to safety, the heavy gold dragged them under. Only 39 people survived and bodies were recovered for days afterwards.
Exhibits from the wreck can be seen in Merseyside Maritime Museum’s emigrants’ gallery. They include a section of the wooden stern – the broken fragment’s carvings indicating the high standard of workmanship on the Royal Charter.
A delicate cup and saucer reflect the luxurious style of the ship. A gold signet ring with the initials SG provokes questions about who owned it.
But perhaps the most evocative is a section of thick rope. Able seaman Joseph Rogers (pictured) was the first to reach shore carrying a long length of this rope from the wreck. He lashed it to the rocks and a bosun’s chair was fitted so that some lives were saved. There were horrific tales of people plunging into the foaming seas.
And what of the gold? Most of it was recovered but who knows how much still lies scattered far and wide after nearly 150 years of tides?
There’s lots more information on the people who travelled to and from Australia via Liverpool in the 19th century in a special online feature, Leaving From Liverpool.
A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.
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