John Wordsworth and the wreck of the
Earl of Abergavenny

Researched, compiled and edited by Ed Cumming.
Honorary Fellow of the Nautical Archaeology Society.

ISBN: 978-09542104-9-6
© MIBEC Publications - 2016

Email: [email protected]

One and a half miles off the coast at Weymouth in Dorset, 20 metres below the surface, lies the wreck of the Earl of Abergavenny. Built by Thomas Pitcher at his yard in Northfleet, Kent in 1796 she was one of the largest classes of merchant ships chartered to the United East India Company.

The remains of this 1440-ton vessel, cargo and personal possessions lie scattered over the seabed, washed by the ebb and flow of the gentle tides in Weymouth Bay. Her proposed eighteen-month long voyage, first to Bengal and then to China, would have taken the vessel to the very frontiers of the known world, through hostile seas where disease, piracy and uncharted hazards exacted a heavy toll on those courageous merchantmen.

Success would have made the Abergavenny’s commander John Wordsworth a fortune, money he intended to share with his brother William in order that he could pursue his poetic genius. Barely had the voyage started however, when confusion, poor weather and an incompetent pilot, allowed the ship to strike the notorious Shambles bank just south of Portland Bill, Dorset, England. Although the Abergavenny finally managed to clear the bank and attempt to sail for the sands of Weymouth Bay, the hull was too badly damaged and she sank in sight of land. Over 250 souls perished from drowning or exposure on that bitterly cold February night in 1805. They included her commander, a loss that Wordsworth scholars suggest contributed to the passing of William’s highest imaginative powers.

This story is the result of over twenty-five years’ research into the many facets of this tragedy and includes contributions from authors, historians, journalists and many of the key people involved in the loss of the Abergavenny. After having spent many hours selectively abstracting source material for this book, I soon realised the pleasure to be had from reading these manuscripts, particularly the letters written by John, Dorothy and William Wordsworth. I therefore make no excuses for reproducing some of these letters together with other letters, records and newspaper reports, as written by the original authors, revealed during my research.

The first two chapters deal with the East India Company, which in one form or another, developed from the private venture of a few enterprising merchants at the turn of the sixteenth century to become a mammoth corporation of immense political power. We will see that its complex, hierarchical government managed not only a large fleet of merchant ships but, in the latter decades, controlled its own navy, artillery and infantry. It was in existence for over 250 years and played a significant role in the history of Great Britain and the Indian Sub-Continent during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is primarily in recent years that historians have studied in detail the development of the Company and its merchant fleet. E. Keble Chatterton who wrote one of the first definitive books on the subject in 1912, ‘The Old East Indiamen’ made the following comment in his introduction:

“When we consider the two important centuries and a half, during which the East Indiamen ships were making history and trade for our country, helping in the most important manner to build up our Indian Empire, fighting the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French, privateers and pirates, and generally opening up the countries of the East, it is to me perfectly extraordinary that the history of these great ships has never yet been written! I have searched in vain in our national libraries - in the British Museum, the India Office, the Admiralty and elsewhere - but I have not been able to find one volume dealing exclusively with these craft”.

There was a period in the early seventies, when I undertook to research and excavate the wreck site, that there appeared to be a tendency among many British archaeologists and historians to concentrate their efforts on the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) - [Dutch United East India Company], following some well publicised salvage of several VOC wrecks. Fortunately, the situation has changed significantly since then with several new, well-researched publications on various aspects of the English East India Company together with an increasing interest in the wreck sites of its ships by many nautical archaeologists. Although many fascinating insights into the bureaucratic workings of, what was in John Wordsworth’s time, the United East India Companys will be revealed in the later chapters, before proceeding with the story of the Earl of Abergavenny, a little more information on the history of the East India Company itself, together with additional details on how the merchant fleet developed, operated and traded will be helpful. Since this is a vast subject, what follows is merely a précis, heavily biased towards the latter years of the Company’s lifetime and not intended to compete with material dedicated solely to the subject. It is intended to place in context the many significant finds and research, undertaken by myself and many other contributors, into a ship with a very special status in the history of marine archaeology and literary history.

Of all the commanders in the long history of the East India Company, John Wordsworth is one we know a great deal about, because of his famous brother. There exists a vast amount of literary material covering the family life and poems of William, much of which is housed at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. Many of the Wordsworth’s family and business letters have survived and, together with material in the India Office Archives at the British Library, provide a very detailed profile of John for the researcher. The information in chapters 3 to 6 is primarily taken from “The Letters of John Wordsworth’ by the late Professor Carl H. Ketcham (1969) and The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth (The Early Years 1787-1805) edited by Ernest De Selincourt; together with additional material from “Wordsworth’s Shipwreck” by E. L. McAdam (1962), “Wordsworth’s Marine Brother” by Frank P. Rand (1966), the Wordsworth Trust Library, Hardy’s Register, “Times” Newspaper and India Office Archives.

John’s letters deal with matters concerning the family and his profession as a merchant seaman. When he became commander of the Earl of Abergavenny he wrote much more about his preparations for the voyages and his many frustrations with the bureaucracy of the United East India Company. These and other family letters give us a unique insight into his character and I have therefore used the relevant sections of these letters, where appropriate, to give a brief biographical profile, detail the progression of his short career, and in particular, the events which led to, and followed, the loss of the Earl of Abergavenny.

Some of the reports are printed using a straightened lower-case variant of the letter ‘S’, known as the long S, which was used in script and in printing during this period (except in the final position); in most cases these have been removed to make the text easier to read. However, to add a little interest, in those that remain I have used an ‘ƒ’.

It is worth noting here that Ketcham, and to a lesser extent, Rand, attempted to reproduce as text the content of John’s letters as exactly as possible. There are areas on the letters where words are illegible or have been destroyed where the paper is damaged. In the interests of easier reading, I have mainly used Professor Ketcham's interpretation of the text, however I have also inserted few very minor conjectural changes to the text where the meaning is obvious and inserted a ‘?’ where there is difficulty in reading or understanding John’s exact words. I have also clarified some of John’s statements and words within square brackets ‘[]’, particularly where the information is available from other of the Wordsworth’s family letters, Ketcham or contemporary historical sources. Complete sentences are separated from each other by a long space, John seldom used a full stop; if he divided two sentences at all he used a single dash, I have used a --

Like most of the reproduced letters in this book, the grammar and most of the spellings have also been left unaltered. Short lines ‘___’ before and/or after the quote indicate that the quotation is from the start, from within or at the end of a letter.

Finally, the remainder of the text deals with the salvage undertaken on the site since 1805 by pioneer divers like John Braithwaite and John and Charles Deane. In a few instances references are made to discoveries made during our own excavations undertaken from c.1980 to 2005. Details of this extensive archaeological study of the wreck site can be found in a second publication.

Download the full text here: John_Wordsworth__Abergavenny.pdf