Throughout the 18th Century Parkgate Packet Boats provided a much used means of sea travel to Dublin from the west coast of Britain. They mostly carried passengers, the mail being directed through Holyhead. Described as brigs, carrying two masts with square rigged sails, the vessels were built of wood and had a broad and flat beam so that they could lie aground at low tide. Although based at Parkgate, close to Chester on the River Dee, they also sailed from the larger port of Liverpool.
On Wednesday 15th December 1790 the Parkgate Brig Charlemount, reported to be under the command of Captain Gillen, set sail from Liverpool for Dublin and had reached the bay of Dublin, when she was driven back by a violent gale. On Friday 17th December, the weather became favourable and the Captain again proceeded to make for Dublin, having now 120 people on board. The storm returned and he was again forced to put back.
By now the passengers became increasing concerned and insisted that he make for Holyhead. The Captain declared that he was unfamiliar with the coast but the Mate said that he knew the coast well. The Captain gave way against the pressure of the passengers and the Mate took over the navigation. As they approached Holyhead in the midst of a storm the Mate was confused by some lights and the Charlemount struck the rocks at the point of Salt Island (Ynys Cybi). A few yards further and they would have reached the relative safety of the creek at Holyhead. This being about 4.30 in the afternoon of the 18th December 1790.
It took only half and hour for the vessel to break up completely. There were about 12 ladies on board, who it is told, clung to the Steward in fear of their lives. Unfortunately they and the Steward all perished. Of 120 persons on board only 16 survived. One of the passengers, Captain Charles Jones RN, the eldest son of the Irish peer, Viscount Ranelagh, managed to save himself and was able to help another passenger by catching hold and dragging him onto the rocky shore.
Newspaper reports of the day mention some of those who perished – William Holmes of County Wicklow; Mr. and Mrs. Moore of County Meath; Mr. Smith of County Wicklow (his body was found with his pocket watch and 9 guineas in his pocket book). Also lost were a Miss Carter and Miss Church, belonging to the Society of Moravians at Ballymena.
The Captain and Mate saved themselves. They took to the shrouds and managed to scramble ashore. A newspaper report in the month following the tragedy mentions that the Charlemount was among a number of vessels seeking shelter at Holyhead from the storm and was following another vessel, the Hillsborough, and should not have lost its way. The Mate was later arrested and imprisoned for negligence in his navigation of the vessel.
With more than 100 victims of the tragedy the question arises to where the bodies were buried. Those of a higher station in society could have been returned to their home parishes. Many of those who died were of poorer means and probably buried locally in an unmarked grave. There are no records available to confirm a precise burial location. However, evidence suggests that they were buried together in the north-west corner of the Roman Fort at the Holyhead Parish Church of St. Cybi.
This area is now the location of the town’s ‘Field of Remembrance’, where tributes to those lost in recent conflicts are displayed. Observers will see the lack of marked graves in this section of the graveyard and that the ground is clearly raised. Lending support to this theory is the marked grave of William Holmes, 31 year old victim of the tragedy, lying close by. It would seem from his grave inscription that a friend thought highly enough of him to arrange a separate burial.
From research undertaken by Peter Scott Roberts
Image of the ‘Packet Boats at Dublin Harbour’ from a painting by J T Serres. With permission of the Victoria and Albert Museum.