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The Wreck of The Earl of the Abergavenny,1805

The East Indiaman, the Earl of Abergavenny

I have had the privilege of diving with Ed Cumming and his  Weymouth Underwater Archaeological Group on the wreck of the East Indiamen, the Earl of Abergavenny during the 1990's.  The ship sank on February 4th 1805. 'Over 250 souls perished from drowning or exposure on that bitterly cold February night in 1805. They included her commander, John Wordsworth, a loss which Wordsworth scholars suggest contributed to the passing of Williamís highest imaginative powers.' To quote Ed's website the ship lay:

One and a half miles off the Dorset coast at Weymouth, 20 metres below the surface, lies the wreck of the Earl of Abergavenny. Built by Thomas Pitcher at his yard in Northfleet, Kent in 1797 she was one of the largest class of merchant ships chartered to the Honourable East India Company. The remains of this 1440 ton vessel, cargo and personal possessions lie scattered over the seabed, washed by the ebb and flow of the gentle tides in Weymouth Bay.  Her proposed eighteen month long voyage, first to Bengal and then to China, would have taken the Abergavenny to the very frontiers of the known world, through hostile seas where disease, piracy and uncharted hazards exacted a heavy toll on those courageous merchantmen.

Success would have made the Abergavennyís commander John Wordsworth a fortune, money he intended to share with his brother William in order that he could pursue his poetic genius. Barely had the voyage started however, when confusion, poor weather and an incompetent pilot, allowed the Abergavenny to strike the notorious Shambles bank just south of Portland Bill, Dorset, England. Although the Abergavenny finally managed to clear the bank and attempt to sail for the sands of Weymouth Bay, the hull was too badly damaged and she sank in sight of land.

Salvage efforts in 1805

To dive on the wreck we would set off for the day from Weymouth Harbour on the Black Tigress captained by its skipper, the unforgettable Dave, a member of the local Weymouth lifeboat crew.  We dived singly, in strict rotation down to the anchor chain to about 20 metres and then along the dredge hose, when the visibility was poor, to the site of the hull.  The days before computers we kept religiously to a six hour gap between dives. There, during the recognised dive time we dredged the silt away to expose a knee or a plank, hopefully to find some artefact of value,  Small crabs scuttled round us and fish swam across the wreck.  At the back of the dredge small artefacts would drop in the outgoing stream and this included many flints which were being exported for the rifles, muskets and revolvers of the Indian army.   We would fill our goodies bags with the, small chards of china, bases of glass ware, ingots of copper, soles of shoes, bones and other sad relics which we scooped up during our excavation work. Lifting gear was necessary to heave up the lead ingots, used as ballast on the ship  I was lucky enough to a small seal in ebony and gold with 'Cosmas' on one side and 'lisez and taisez -vous' on the other. It belonged to a young midshipman by the name of Cosmas or his father.  Dragging these artefacts up to the surface ascending up the anchor rope the other divers would look eagerly at our 'finds'. Occasional we would find an interesting one of historic value.  Ed has recorded the finds meticulously on his website.

Some of the team members

Ed Cumming was the winner of the British Sub Aqua Club Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award in1996 for his enterprise and a number of his fellow divers joined him when he received it at Buckingham Palace in the Chinese Room, the room that  lead on to the famous balcony. Each of us received a certificate to commemorate the award.

The Chinese room in Buckingham Place where the award to Ed Cumming took place in 1996. I am in the centre next to the Duke of Edinburgh.  Ed is second from the left holding his gold award.

On February 4th 2005 200 years after the Earl of Abergavenny had sunk off Weymouth harbour with the loss of 274 lives a number of the diving group  commemorated the occasion with the unveiling of a plaque at the entrance to the harbour on the quayside.  A wreath was taken out to sea in the Weymouth lifeboat and Ed Cummings threw it on to the waters where the ship had sunk.  Prayers were said for the souls of the departed.

The East Indiaman flag made by Barbara Cumming,

 The memorial, the wreath and those present at the commemoration prior to tossing the wreath into the sea where the wreck lay for 200 years.

Ed Cumming's site   www.weymouthdiving.co.uk/wrecks.htm

http://www.weymouthdiving.co.uk/research.htm

The Loss of the Earl of Abergavenny

Photos taken from the video camera of the Earl of Abergavenny Excavations,
 

 


 

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