The Royal Charter Graves
The Parish Church of St Gallgo with the Fowler tomb in the foreground
The distribution of churches on Anglesey tells you something of its history. The non-conformist chapels - the Bethesdas and Salems and Tabernacles - are in the towns and expanding villages; the older churches are lost in woodland, in remote spots surrounded by fields, on cliff-tops overlooking the sea. Many of them have links to ancient cells and foundations, the time of the saints. Through the centuries, they served a scattered rural population; folk tramped along country paths from their farms and cottages to the place of worship, or so, in a Thomas Hardy-like idyll one imagines them. Frequently, of course, they didn`t. The old church was in decline, there was absenteeism and probably a bit of despair in the clergy; the levels of poverty, consumption, infant mortality on the island were appalling; for many parishioners the bottle provided more comfort than the Gospel: it`s not surprising that successive revivalist waves, promising a new hope, spread across the island like wild-fire. Their effects, however, were of short duration.
The grave of Stephen Roose Hughes, with a tribute composed by his wife
If the clergy were sometimes guilty of burying their heads, the figure of Stephen Roose Hughes, the Rector of St Gallgo`s church in the parish of Llanallgo stands out, a beacon of light. History dealt him a unique and tragic hand. Half a mile from his church, down the hill towards the rocky coast, lies the fishing village of Moelfre, and it was close to here, in October 1859, that the auxiliary steam clipper, the Royal Charter was smashed to pieces on the vicious rocks of Porth Helaeth. The romance of the Royal Charter is that it was a treasure ship carrying bullion from the goldfields of Australia. The reality is that over 450 men, women and children lost their lives, and it was Stephen Roose Hughes who dealt with the mess.
He had the dead, many of them appallingly disfigured and dismembered brought to his church. He kept meticulous records of distinguishing features - a birthmark here, an old scar there - of those who could be identified by no other means. He buried them decently and exhumed them when, later, a family member came to take them home. He wrote over a thousand letters to relatives all over the world seeking news of their loved ones. If, in his own heart he ever found an echo of Christ`s words, take this cup from my lips, he never faltered from what he took to be his duty.
INSCRIPTION ON THE MONUMENT TO THE MEMORY OF THOSE WHO PERISHED ON THE ROYAL CHARTER IN THE CHURCHYARD OF ST GALLGO
"There lie in this Churchyard the remains of 140 of the sufferers and 45 in the Church of Penrhos Lligwy all of whom were buried by the pious and charitable Incumbent the Revd STEPHEN ROOSE HUGHES and his brother the Revd Hugh Robert Hughes"
He was fortunate in his historian. The story of the Royal Charter was sufficiently famous to bring Charles Dickens to Anglesey a short time after the disaster, and in "The Uncommercial Traveller" Dickens records the tale of the great storm and the wreck, and the heroism of Stephen Roose Hughes. He was not so fortunate as to enjoy such acclaim for long, however, and perhaps, if we think of him as true to himself - and why should we not - he would not have wanted it. It is sad, nevertheless, to reflect that a little more than three years after these events, Stephen Roose Hughes came home one day from parish duties, sat down in a chair and died there. He was 46.
His tomb is in the churchyard of St Gallgo, close to so many of the dead of the Royal Charter he had laid to rest.
The graves of the Royal Charter dead are now are now a hundred and fifty years old. In St Gallgo`s churchyard, some of them stand now mere blackened and pitted stumps, like carious teeth, unnamed. The most ornamental, tombs raised by families, in stone, bear inscriptions now so weathered and made obscure by lichen that in another generation or two they will be lost entirely. Others, favoured by a sheltered aspect, or by the choice of slate rather than stone for their memorial, will last a little longer.
Inside the Church of St Gallgo where the bodies brought from the wreck were laid. Buckets of pitch were lit to offset the terrible stench
The Davis family lie together in a tomb on the side of the graveyard farthest from the sea, by the landward wall. The mother, Louisa Frances, aged 48, her two grown up daughters, Sophia and Florence and two younger sons. I touch the inscription of Sophia`s name with some feeling. It is Sophia whom I chose to be the author of the fictional diary of the Royal Charter`s voyage from Melbourne which forms a central part of my novel "A Golden Mist". I imagined her bright, vivacious, precocious, a lover of life. And here the real Sophia lies, dead at sixteen.
The Fowler tomb just a few yards from the church door is weathered to a greater degree than that of the Davis`.
The inscription reads:
Unnamed gravestones of Royal Charter victims in St Gallgo`s churchrard
The headstone of Robert Walton in St Gallgo`s. He is one of half a dozen who has an individual gravestone with an inscription.
Not far from St Galgo`s church, on a quiet country lane, just below Mount Bodafon, is the lovely church of Penhros Lligwy. Its incumbent, in 1859, was Hugh, the brother of Stephen Roose Hughes, and 45 Royal Charter victims lie here. Parts of the churchyard now, close to the church itself, are neglected and overgrown, and it seems that many of the Royal Charter graves, if they were marked at all, are now lost. As in other ancient graveyards on Anglesey, the ground is so honeycombed and unstable that you tread in some places at your peril!
The Church of Penrhos Lligwy where 45 victims were interred.
One tombstone, however bears a clear and detailed inscription. It is that of Anthony Belt from Newcastle.
The church of Llaneugrad, near the village of Marianglas, is the most secluded of all the Royal Charter burial locations. It is approached through the hollow of a woody dell, half a mile from the lane, and surrounded by high trees.
Preserved side by side, however, in the cemetery of St Eugrad, and commemorated with matching stones in the more durable slate are Henry Molyneux and Edward Pearn Sanson, aged 56 and 26 respectively. They look like companions. Here, there is nothing to remind anyone of the sea. Perhaps they would have preferred it that way.
The records tell us that bodies from the Royal Charter, caught in the variable currents of the late Autumn were carried as far as the Isle of Man and even the coast of Ireland. The longer the bodies were in the water, the less chance there was of identication. At the head of Red Wharf Bay, in the churchyard of St Mary, Pentraeth, several tablets, unobtrusive and modest, simply carry numbers, Royal Charter 1, Royal Charter 2, Royal Charter 3 etc. The burials and the simple memorials were commissioned and paid for by Lady Vivian, of Plas Gwyn.
On the far side of Red Wharf Bay stands the church of St Dona. The modern village of Llanddona is high up above; to get to the old hamlet, where the church is to be found, you follow a narrow road which winds steeply downwards, affording some magnificent views across the bay, where in the distance, just visible are the islands of Ynys Moelfre and Ynys Dulas, between which, in the blackness before dawn, and in the eye of the storm, the Royal Charter was swept the last few metres to its fate on the rocks of Porth Helaeth.
It is known that bodies washed up on the sands just fifty metres below the church were buried in the cemetery here, though none are marked. However, between two graves, David Jones, 1852, and Owen Jones, 1861, there is a conspicuous gap.
May it be that in this space unidentified Royal Charter victims were buried?
The Church of Llanddona
John Wheatley`s novel, A Golden Mist, which incorporates the story of the loss of the Royal Charter, is available as an e-book/Kindle download from Amazon. It is also available as a paperback from Amazon.