Provincial Grand Lodge of Dorset

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For Lodge L1266 - Honour and Friendship.

The Wreck of the Halsewell

It was on New Year's Day in 1786, 230 years ago, that the 785 ton East Indiaman set sail from Gravesend for Madras with 242 souls on board. In command was Captain Peirce embarking on his final voyage before retirement. Amongst the seven female passengers, all being despatched to India to find husbands, were his two daughters and two of his nieces.

Snow and bitter winds plagued the Halsewell down the Channel making the sails so heavy with ice that the mizzen-mast had to be cut away. A ferocious westerly gale blew up. A leak was then discovered and seven feet of water filled up the bilges making the Halsewell difficult to handle and slow to respond. To prevent the ship from foundering it was decided to fell the main mast with axes, but the coxswain and four seamen were washed overboard and drowned in the attempt.

On January 5th Captain Pierce ordered the helmsman to steer a course for shelter in Studland Bay. With only a jury rig set, progress was painfully slow and as darkness fell the Halsewell was off St Albans Head and in danger of being swept into the tide race. The anchors were lowered, but they dragged, and in the early hours of the 6th the ship struck Seacombe Cliffs about midway between Winspit and Dancing Ledge, not far below Worth Matravers.

Shortly afterwards the ship broke its back and those still on board; Captain Pierce, the seven women and about 60 others perished. Many of the survivors had gathered in a cave at the base of the cliff, others clung to rocks, harried by big seas and the rising tide. During the night the cook and the quartermaster managed to scale the 200ft cliff and reach Eastingham Farm to raise the alarm. They woke the steward to a local quarry-owner.

The The Quarry-men from Worth Matravers turned out in the foul weather. They managed to lower ropes down the cliff and began hauling up those trapped around the cave and on the ledges beneath. The work continued through the next day. Some fell to their death on the way up, others were swept from their precarious perches, too weak from the cold to hold on, before help reached them. Some reached the top but died soon after. When the last survivors were brought to safety nearly 24 hours after the wreck, the death toll had reached 168.

The wreck was a major news event and was not quickly forgotten. Tea-caddies were soon on sale depicting the event to satisfy public curiosity. A symphony was written, paintings commissioned and the tragedy was worked into a short storey by Charles Dickens. The press had a field day- particularly regarding the number of women on board – and their reason for being there 'are our young women now reckoned amongst our exports?' one paper asked. George III came down and visited the site of the wreck.

There are three Masonic postscripts to this article; one is purely coincidental in that in December 1776 bills were posted in the Old Antelope Inn in Poole announcing an auction 'being part of the cargo of the Halsewell, East Indiaman'. The Old Antelope Inn was the regular meeting place of the Lodge of Amity at that time.

The second is more significant; the survivors, 74 of them, were now stranded on the Dorset Coast with little choice but to start walking back to London, which they did. A little booklet published by the Blandford Museum Trust records the following:

'On January 6th 1786, the Halsewell East Indiaman was wrecked on the coast near Swanage. The seventy-four survivors set out next day for London: when they arrived at Blandford each man was given a good dinner and half-a-crown to help him on his way by Charles Wasse, master of the Crown Inn'

What the booklet does not record is that the benefactor of this very significant act of charity, Charles Wasse, was a Freemason and a member of The Lodge of Blandford formed in 1771.

The third is the building of the Portland Breakwater – designed by another Freemason from Blandford – but that is another story.

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