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The County of Dorsetshire     OS Map Grid Ref: ST721015

 The County of Dorsetshire

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The western part of the Dorset coast has always been hazardous to shipping since the first nautical records were kept.

As early as 877, an invading Danish fleet numbering possibly over one hundred longships foundered on the rocks off Swanage and was destroyed.

During the days of sailing ships, the huge arch of shingle which is Chesil Beach and the Isle of Portland were most feared by mariners; if they entered West Bay driven by a south-westerly storm they had little hope of avoiding the roaring boulders of the great beach or of rounding Portland to reach more sheltered waters beyond.

Not only did the churning boulders of Chesil Beach rip the bottoms from under the unfortunate vessels which foundered there but, as with the southern flank of Dungeness in Kent, the shingle is very steeply shelved. The undertow here as the waves pound the beach is awesome and countless sailors and their passengers have drowned almost within the grasp of their would-be rescuers ashore.

The shingles of Chesil Beach have claimed many victims;-


Seven ships of Admiral Christian's fleet were lost and the sea claimed over two hundred souls.


Four ships were lost with all hands in a great storm known locally as "The Outrage".

The waves rolled over Chesil Beach and reached half a mile inland; Fleet church and village were wrecked and hundreds of bodies were left on the beach.

The sloop Ebeneezer was cast onto the crest of the shingle. Hauled into the Fleet after the storm, the Ebeneezer still floated sufficiently to allow her to be towed to Portland for repairs.


Another great storm utterly destroyed five ships on the shingle and not a single man of their crews survived.

The cargos of wrecked ships were invariably plundered by the locals but it should also be remembered that many of the same locals frequently risked their lives attempting to rescue the crewmen and sometimes passengers of stricken vessels along this trecherous coast - with all hands dead, the cargo was salvage. The same storms which brought the ships onto the beach also brought debris from elsewhere.

Where there was gain to be made, there were always the unscrupulous; in 1822, for example, Richard Bishop of Swyre was imprisoned for "unlawfully making a light on the sea coast".

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The submarine limestoneridge of the Dorset coast provides a habitat for a great many plants and animals.

Common spider crabs (Libinia emarginata) congragate near West Bay to mate and large numbers may be found as close as fifty metres to the shore. The crabs attract high prices on the continent but are largely ignored as a seafood in Britain.

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The Great Storm of 1824

Wreck of the barque Unity
The Unity, a London trading ship, was carried with its crew from the Cobb and driven ashore below the cliffs at Black Ven, midway between Charmouth and Lyme Regis. A small rescue party wich included local pilot William Porter and John Freeman was organised by local resident Captain C Bennett RN.

Lowered down the cliff-face, William Porter managed to save the master of the stricken barque and was followed by Cpt. Bennett who plucked another member of the crew who was plunged from the rigging into the ragin waves. Utterly shocked and exhausted, another two of the crew had to be cut free of the rigging and carried ashore.

Capt. Bennett was awarded the gold medal of the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (later becomming the Royal National Lifeboat Institution), the highest award of the Institution which had only been made twice previously. William Porter and John Freeman were each awarded the Institiution's silver medal.

The World Wars

A vast tonnage and thausands of lives were lost in the English Channel during the two World Wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945) and the trecherous coast of Dorset had its share of unfortunates. Over one hundred and fifty vessels are known to have been bombed, mined or torpedoed of this short stretch of coast without a month passing which was free from tragedy.

Any news regarding shipping, including casualties of war, was most rogorously censored at the time for fear that any reporting of such incidents might prove useful to the enemy.

The last British casualties of the World War I (1914-1918) in the area were two merchantmen sunk on successive days in September, 1918. The Gibel Hamam was torpedoed off Abbotsbury by UB-103 on September 14th with the loss of twenty-one of the vessel's crew. The Ethel was being towed to the safety of Portland on the 15th when she was sunk by UB-104.

During World War II (1939-1945), the Channel was also a hive of German U-boat activity and the submarines claimed many victims.

The 5,222-ton British steamship Everleigh from convoy TBC-60 was the last casualty of the war along this coast on February 6th, 1945, when it was torpedoed and sunk by U-1017, on patrol under by Werner Riecken, with the loss of six lives.

The U-boats did not have it all their own way along this stretch of the coast; U-85, UB-19, UB-72, UB-74, UC-51 and UC-62 were all sunk between Portland and Start Point.

Exercise Tiger, April 1944

The Dorset coast became the practice ground for the D-Day landings in Normandy of July 1944 as huge numbers of both tank and infantry landing craft (LCTs and LCIs) were assembled here. The doors at the front of the landing craft dropped onto the beach allowing both men an machines to disembark, and the landings were practised again and again. It was one such exercise, "Exercise Tiger", that ended in tragedy in April 1944.

Twelve miles off Portland the convoy of landing craft, heavily laden with troops and machinery, was sighted by German E-Boats on the prowl for Allied shipping. Two of the LSTs, 507 and 531, were sunk by the E-boats' torpedos killing over five hundred American Soldiers.

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Twenty or thirty-foot (6-9 metres) waves crash into the Dorset Coast on April 23rd, 1868, on an otherwise calm day, possibly a tsunami or "tidal wave" or the remnants of an Atlantic storm.

A decription of the event appeared in the Dorset County Chronicle, v. 14, No. 40, p.7.

The unusually huge waves suddenly arrived on the coast on an otherwise calm day.


The Bridport Road became impassable and the town itself suffered flooding.


Huge waves crash over the beach on a calm day.

Burton Bradstock

The near the western end of the Chesil Beach was inundated by a rush of water from the sea.

Lyme Regis

During calm weather, the sea crashed over the Cobb and 20 to 30-foot (6 to 9-metres) waves rolling ashore over the beach with a deafening roar.

Bibliography of Dorset Geology, Thomas and Ensom, 1989.

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877Battle of Swanage Bay; Alfred the Great wins first English naval victory against the Danes
A Danish fleet left Wareham to relieve their comrades besieged at Exeter by King Alfreds forces. Storms drove 120 of the vessels ashore off Perveril Point before the English galleys could intercept them - the earliest known shipwrecks off the Dorset Coast
1377.Nov.11A great storm hit the south coast
At Lyme Regis in Dorset it destoryed the breakwater, fifty boats and eighty houses
1653.Feb.18During the three-day Battle of Portland, three miles off the promontory: the 32-gun Sampson and several Dutch ships sunk
The English, under Blake, chase Admiral Tromp\\\'s Dutch fleet up the channel to eventual defeat of the Isle of Wight on the 20th
1795Seven shipsof a fleet commanded by Admiral Christian lost on Chesil Beach with the loss of over two hundred souls
1802.May.21The crew of the Abbotsbury vessel Greyhound caught a 15-ton fish off the Dorset Coast
1822Richard Bishop of Swyre in Dorset was imprisoned for unlawfully making a light on the sea coast
1824.Nov.22The Great Gale rages for 2 days, during high tides, battering the West Country and leaving a trail of devastation in its wake
The bad weather continued - a week later the Dutch vessel Leonora went ashore at Chesil Beach between Wyke and Portland, all her crew and cargo lost
1824.Nov.22The Great Gale severely breaches the Cobb at Lyme Regis destorying several vessels including the revenue cutter Fox which claimed the lives of 4 Customs mariners
1824.Nov.22The Unity carried away from the shelter of the Cobb and thrown ashore between Lyme Regis and Charmouth with its crew leading to a heroic rescue by locals
1824.Nov.22The 80-ton sloop Ebeneezer, on a voyage from Plymouth to Portsmouth with government stores, cast ut near the crest of Chesil Beach by the Great Gale
The captain lost his life but the rest of the crew survived. Later hauled into the Fleet, the Ebeneezer floated sufficiently to be towed to Portland for repairs
1824.Nov.22Foundering on the Dorset coast of the West Indiaman, Colville, outward bound from London, with the loss of 17 lives
1824.Nov.22The enormous seas of the the storm practically engulfed the tiny Dorset village of Fleet, knocking down its church and several cottages
The Carvalho, with a cargo of rum and cotton, was lost in the storm with all hands
1824.Nov.22The harbour pier and Esplanade at Weymouth badly damaged by the storm, boats sunk, swept to sea or dumped in the town\'s streets, 2 smacks lost and a Dutch galliott broke her moorings near Sandsfoot Castle and driven ashore
1824.Nov.22+Captain C Bennett RN awarded the gold medal, William Porter and John Freeman each awarded the silver medal of the Royal National Institute for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck for their rescue of the crew of the barque Unity at Black Ven on the Dorset Coast
1825Richard Spencer, Lyme Regis Coastguard Captain, alters a local boat by fitting of airtight compartments and cork fendering so it can be used as a lifeboat
1826Royal National Institute for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck takes over the saving of life at sea at Lyme Regis organised in 1825 by Coastguard Captain named Richard Spencer
The station served by two locally converted vessels (their names unrecorded) until1852
1838.Nov.28(Wednesday) Great Gale utterly destroys five ships on the shingle of Chesil Beach leaving no survivors
The Weymouth sloop Dove under Captain Bussell was wrecked on Chesil Beach - all hands and part of its cargo were saved
1868.Apr.3020 or 30-foot waves crash into the Dorset Coast on an otherwise calm day, possibly a tsunami or tidal wave or the remnants of an Atlantic storm
1916.Nov.30Sinking of a German submarine UB-19 off Portland Bill by the Q-ship Penshurst
1917.Feb.172,233-ton steamship Valdes torpedoed 7 miles off Portland with the loss of 6 lives
1917.Mar.12Torpedoing of the 2,897-ton steamship Tandil 20 miles off Portland Bill with the loss of 4 lives
1917.Sep.23Dredger St Dunstan sunk by a mine off Abbotsbury with the loss of 2 lives
1917.Oct.14Sinking of the German submarine UB-62 off Portland
1917.Dec.22Torpedoing of the Norwegian steamship Start off St Aldhelms Head
1918.Jan.28Steam vessel WHL torpedoed 8 miles SSE of Portland Bill
1918.Apr.15601-ton British armed steamship Ailsa Craig sunk by an enemy torpedo in Lyme Bay, Dorset, while carrying coal from Cardiff to Weymouth
1918.May.26Armed yacht Lorna sinks German submarine UB-74 using depth charges in Lyme Bay
1918.Sep.14The 647-ton merchantman Gibel Hamam torpedoed off the Dorset coast at Abbotsbury by UB-103, whilst on a voyage from Swansea to France with cargo of coal, with the loss of twenty-one lives including that of the master
1918.Sep.15]15th/16th?[ The merchantman Ethel hit by a torpedo from UB-104 and sank while on tow to Portland
The last of many vessels to be sunk of the Dorset coast during WWI
1930.Sep.20French sailing ship Madelaine Tristan wrecked on the Dorset coast at Chesil Cove (Dead Mans Bay), Portland
The Madelaine Tristan was the last of the big sailing ships lost on the Dorset Coast - it remained beached for five years
1940.Jul.04The tug Silverdial sunk in Portland Harbour by enemy aircraft fire
1940.Jul.111,124 ton yacht Warrior II, built in 1904, sunk by enemy aircraft off Portland
1940.Sep.20Steamship Trito bombed and sunk in Lyme Bay
1942.Jan.04Destruction of the 519-yacht Sona by enemy aircraft off the Dorset coast
1944.AprExercise Tiger: two landing craft practising for the D-Day landings off the Dorset coast, sunk by torpedos from German E-Boats 12 miles off Portland with the loss of the lives of over 500 American troops
1945.Feb.06The steamship Everleigh torpedoed and sunk by U-1017 with the loss of six lives
The Everleigh was the last casualty of the war off the Dorset coast

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Hants & Dorset Shipwrecks

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Coastal towns and villages from Lyme Regis to the Isle of Portland
Lyme Regis Charmouth Seatown Eype West Bay (Bridport) Bothenhampton Burton Bradstock Swyre West Bexington Abbotsbury Rodden Langton Herring Chickerell Charlestown Wyke Regis Isle of Portland

Chesil Beach, Isle of Portland, Portland

The fishermen of Abbotsbury were, no doubt, smugglers and possibly wreckers as well.



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Bibliography of Dorset Geology
  by Thomas and Ensom, 1989

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