from Somerset, Devon and Dorset
© Andrew Templer 2023
The Halsewell was a grand East Indiaman merchant ship. It had a rich cargo and the passengers included the Captain's two daughters and nieces. Thomas Burston, the First Mate, was also related to the Captain. It was to have been Captain Pierce's final voyage before he retired.
The ship was sailing to India to trade. In January 1786, as it headed west down the Channel, a terrible storm developed. For several days the ship fought against blizzards and hurricane force winds until finally it was driven onto the rocks at Seacombe, near Worth Matravers.
More than 380 people lost their lives including the Captain's daughters and nieces. Captain Pierce and his nephew, Thomas Burston, could have saved themselves but chose instead to comfort the young women as best they could and drowned with them
On 1st January 1786 the Halsewell, a fine East Indiaman of 777 tons, left the Downs on the start of its third voyage to Bengal under the command of Captain Richard Pierce, one of the most senior captains in the Company. Already he had made what was then described as 'a competent fortune' and it was his avowed intention that this trip would be his last, as he planned to retire to his large estate at Kingston in Surrey and enjoy the abundant wealth that his 25 years in the East India Company's service had brought him.
On this particular voyage there were eight passengers on board, a relatively small number for a Company ship -
One of those on board was Charles Beckford Templer, the youngest son of James Templer Esquire of Stover Lodge in Devon. Fourteen year old Charles had left Westminster School six months previously and was en route to Bengal to begin a career with the East India Company. No doubt he was carrying letters of introduction from his Uncle George Templer Esquire of Shapwick, Somerset, who himself had returned from Calcutta only a year earlier, with a competent fortune of his own, earned in Calcutta after all year career there with the Company.
The second day out in the Channel found the vessel becalmed off Dunnose Head, the most southerly point of the Isle of Wight, but this was just the lull before the storm. By the evening the wind had freshened with more than a hint of snow in the air. The next day saw a strong gale blow from the north-
On the 4th day the vessel now had at least seven feet of water in the holds, it was rolling most dangerously and the situation appeared serious. Captain Pierce ordered that the mizen (third after) mast be cut down to lighten the vessel, and a few hours later the main mast was also cut away. In the process five seamen were carried overboard in the mass of rigging; their bodies were never recovered. Certainly nothing was going right for Captain Pierce on his last trip. By mid-
But after a day of slow and painful progress in worsening weather Portland Bill was sighted to the north-
About two in the morning of 6th the Halsewell struck the rocks just below Winspit near Seacombe. A more inhospitable spot could not have been found -
Several reports suggest that the crew refused to obey orders and were only concerned in making their own escape from the doomed vessel. Mr Meriton, the second mate, was amongst the first to get ashore on to the rocks in an attempt to raise the alarm but even in the pitch darkness he quickly realised that the sheer cliff-
Many of those that had escaped from the vessel did not survive until morning, some had been dragged off the rocks by the force of the sea and others died from cold and fatigue. Then, with the coming of the morning two brave men -
The Captain Richard Pierce, his two daughters Miss Eliza Pierce, Miss Mary Anne Pierce, his two nieces, Miss Amy Paul, Miss Mary Paul, the daughters of Mr Henry Paul and Capt Richard’ sister Ann Piece, together with the young Charles Beckford Templer, all perished. Jane Paul who had married George Templer HEIC in 1781 was the sister to Amy and Mary.
The financial loss of the vessel was estimated by the East India Company to be in the region of £50,000. In recognition of the brave and daring rescues by the quarrymen, the Company awarded them with 100 guineas to share amongst themselves; later their quarry was renamed the Halsewell. There was quite an outcry in the press when it was known that seven young ladies had died in the wreck. Several reports condemned the whole concept of taking young girls over to India to be paraded in what they called 'the marriage market for East India Company moguls'! Also there was a rather dramatic account of the shipwreck in the Annual Register, which is said to have so impressed Charles Dickens that he used it as a basis for his story The Long Journey. Other than the folk memories of this 'Great Shipwreck' as it was called by some Victorians, a few items from the Halsewell have survived; one of which is an hour-
Near the site of the wreck on the cliffs above there are still traces of four long graves, though it is not known how many bodies they contain. The nearby church of Worth Matravers records only one burial from the Halsewell, that of a body washed ashore almost one month later. The vicar recorded in his Parish Register, 'On 4, 5, 6 Jan -
One can only imagine the anguish of families who lost loved ones in this dreadful tragedy. Charles Templer had been the youngest of the seven surviving children of James and Mary Templer, although both of his parents had died within the past four years and were spared the agony of the loss of their youngest son. So it was on his elder siblings that the burden of his loss fell most heavily. His three elder brothers, (James, John and George) had already embarked on the demolition and reconstruction of the local parish church at Teigngrace, in conjunction with their sister Anne and brother in law, Sir John William de la Pole of Shute in East Devon to commemorate their parents. It was appropriate that they incorporated a memorial in Coade Stone in the new church to commemorate their young brother. Sir John William de la Pole also placed another memorial at the Shute Church, which read as follows:
“Sacred to the memory of Charles Beckford Templer who on the night of January 6th 1786 perished in the Halsewell, East Indiaman in Studland Bay. This monument in testimony of mutual regard between the unhappy victim and his tributary friend and brother is erected by Sir John W. Pole 13 October Ob Aet 16“
Charles Templer’s brother, John, was the first Rector of the new church, remaining as incumbent for 45 years. The opening of the new church took place on Sunday, March 30th 1788, just over two years after the Halsewell tragedy.
The loss of the Halsewell created a sensation at the time, akin to the loss of the Titanic in 1912. It formed the subject of numerous poems and paintings by famous artists, including James Northcote R.A.. It is probably unique among famous shipwrecks of the day in having been chosen as the subject for a “grand instrumental piece” entitled “The Shipwreck, or loss of the Halsewell East Indianman” by A.F.C. Kollmann. Organist of His Majesty’s Chapel at St James’, which was published in London in 1796. Kollmann was bom near Hanover in 1756 and came to England in 1784 as schoolmaster and organist at the German Chapel in St James’. To him is really due the credit of first making any of Bach’s music available in this country.
Halsewell: 776.90/94 bm. 112’3 x36’l x 15’1
24.8.1778: Launched by Adams & Barnard, Greenland Dock, for Thomas Burston.
Laid down as Earl of Ashbumham but renamed before launch. Captain Richard Pierce.
c) 1.1.1786 Began Voyage to the Coromandel Coast and Bengal;
■ Ships of the East India Company, by Rowan Hackman & the World Ship Society, 2001; ISBN 0 905617 96 7
■ Pamphlet for refurbishment of the organ at Teigngrace Church 1960 With reprint of article from Mid Devon Advertiser,
19 November 1960.
Edited by SJDrabble with reference to Charles Templer
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