Monday 31 July 2017

121 The Dollar Ship

121 The Dollar Ship
With Burry Holmes at the northern end, and Worm’s Head at the southern, the large expanse of Rhossili Bay has the remains of two shipwrecks visible - most noticeably protruding through the sand are the ribs of the Helvetia, a Norwegian barque with a cargo of timber that ran aground in 1887.  Further along by Diles Lake, equinoctial tides twice a year reveal part of the engines of the City of Bristol, a paddle steamer from Waterford, that ran aground and was wrecked in 1840. 
But not visible is a more famous wreck, called “The Dollar Ship”, the precise details of which are lost in legend.  She may have been a Spanish vessel wrecked beyond the low tide line during the seventeenth century, possibly around the year 1660.  At one time she was believed to have been carrying a vast treasure, the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who came to England in 1661 to marry King Charles II, and who introduced the drinking of tea to Britain. 
In 1807 exceptional tides uncovered for a few hours part of a wreck beyond the low tide mark.  This prompted a “gold rush” in west Gower, for Spanish coins from the early seventeenth century were uncovered.  Over 12lbs in weight of Spanish dollars, half-dollars and pieces-of-eight were dug up, some coins dated 1625 and others 1639, from the time of King Philip IV of Spain - which would date that shipwreck after 1640.  “The Cambrian” newspaper of 7th March 1807 reported that the findings “are conjectured to have formed part of the cargo of a rich Spanish vessel from South America, called the Scanderoon galley, which was wrecked on that part of the coast upwards of a century since”.
Though the tide came in and the sands closed over the site, there was a similar “gold rush” again in 1833, when C.R.M. Talbot of Penrice waived his right as lord of the manor to the finds, so some local people had a windfall.  Rev. William Griffiths, Lady Barham’s minister at Cheriton Chapel, commented on the enthusiasm with which people hastened to the beach to seek gold coins, while being unconcerned about seeking spiritual riches. 
Besides coins being uncovered, there were also lead bullets, pewter, and part of an astrolabe (an old navigational instrument).  According to Rev. J.D. Davies, who recounts legends as well as actual history in his “History of West Gower”, two iron cannon were also recovered, and mounted in the garden of Richard Helme at Hillend.  As the coins were Spanish dollars, any connection with the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza can be dismissed; anyhow she had sailed to Southampton through the English Channel, not the Bristol Channel, and there was no record of such a calamity as a future Queen of England’s dowry having been lost. 
A letter of 3rd December 1666 states that a vessel, laden with wine, sugar and Brazil wood was wrecked “on a certain sand ten miles off Swansea.  The men are Portuguese and cannot speak English”.  But in this case no treasure was mentioned, and again she was a Portuguese not a Spanish ship.  To add to the confusion moidores (Portuguese gold coins) and doubloons were later found in Bluepool Bay, but they would seem to have been from a different wreck, possibly travelling in convoy.
Writing in “Gower Gleanings” in 1951, Horatio Tucker points out that a ship that had grounded in the darkness would have been pounded mercilessly by the waves, and would disintegrate in the broken water to leave no trace of her visible by the morning.  Local people would have been unaware that any shipwreck had taken place until those exceptional tides of 1807, and it would have been difficult to salvage a wreck beyond the low water mark. 
Perhaps at the time of the equinoctial tides people with metal detectors will be scouring Rhossili Bay sands at low tide….                                                                                                

1 comment:

  1. See book by Tom Bennett "Dollar Ship of South Wales" ISBN 9781916157316