In November 1795 the English fleet had left Spithead under the command of Rear Admiral Hugh Cloberry CHRISTIAN. The fleet consisted of about 200 heavily laden troops, ordnance transports and merchant ships destined for the West Indies where the French were threatening British supremacy. However, within 48 hours disaster struck when south westerly gales sprang up. The fleet was ordered to make for Torbay and shelter but regrettably some of the ships were dangerously close to the dangers of Portland and the Chesil Beach.


By now it was too late and the full force of the storm drove at least six of the fleet upon the menacing shingle of the Chesil bank. Two ordnance transports were lost out towards Wyke and Portland, whilst between Chickerell and Fleet three troop transports, the Piedmont, Catherine and Venus together with a merchantman were driven on the bank and smashed to pieces.


Wrecks and dead bodies were strewn everywhere over an extent of two miles of the beach. As was the wretched custom in those days of shipwreck plunder many of the inhabitants of the nearby villages of Chickerell, Langton and Fleet descended on the site paying scant attention to the needs of those that survived.


By chance, stationed in the area, on their tour of the south coast were the South Gloucestershire Militia who had become aware of the disaster. They were immediately despatched to the scene to commence rescue operations and give sustenance and comfort to the survivors. Apart from the other officers much of the rescue work was supervised by Lt WILLIAM FISHER SHRAPNELL who was the surgeon of the Regiment.


They had the thankless task of burying 215 soldiers and seamen in graves dug on the hollows of the beach on the landside of the Chesil Bank. 17 officers and 9 women were buried in shrouded coffins in Wyke Regis churchyard 5 miles distant on the outskirts of Weymouth. The whole Regiment attended the burials, which were given full military honours.


A memorial was erected in the Wyke Regis churchyard which cost seven pounds including a guinea for the Rector, also three guineas for lettering at three halfpence each!


WILLIAM distinguished himself by undertaking to write to many of the relatives of the victims which he did with a great deal of sympathy and aplomb. Many of the letters survived and are in a collection in Lancashire. I am fortunate to have copies of these which I acquired some thirty five years ago. It was these and a request ‘was I related to WILLIAM’ from a lady who was researching the disaster which started me on the family history quest. I said I didn’t know but would find out, which I have!


Several years ago I visited the area and tried to locate the gravestone commemorating the event but could not, though since then have been given a pointer to where it is to be found. For some days I stayed at the Moonfleet Manor Hotel which is right on the edge of the Chesil Bank at Fleet. Here I was able to soak up some of the atmosphere of where all this took place together with the awe inspiring thought of all those burials on the bank in front of me.

William Shrapnell and the sinking of

the English Fleet off Weymouth in 1795

The wreck of the Catherine,

one of Admiral Christian's fleet