Divers find gold in Holyhead, as wreck gives up ghosts
Published 17/07/2011 | 05:00
Treasure hunters have recovered gold from a Victorian shipwreck that sunk off Anglesey Island in Wales while returning laden with riches from the Australian gold rush.
For more than 150 years it has lain tantalisingly close to the shore. Now the ship that sank in a storm in 1859, claiming 450 lives, has given up its most precious secret: gold.
But this treasure trove is not in a distant tropical lagoon -- it is near the ferry port of Holyhead, in the remains of an iron-clad steam clipper called the Royal Charter.
A team of divers at the ship, which sunk off Anglesey while returning with riches from the Australian gold rush of the 1850s, has brought gold coins and nuggets to the surface and expects to find more.
The ship foundered on rocks just yards from the shore after a hurricane hit on the last leg of its journey from Melbourne to Liverpool in October 1859. On board were gold prospectors returning with their fortunes. By daybreak the ship had sunk and 450 passengers and crew, along with the gold, had been lost.
Vincent Thurkettle, a full-time gold panner who is leading the expedition, said: "We have got some gold dust, nuggets and coins as well as about 200 artefacts. And there is more gold down there."
The finds have all been reported to the Receiver of Wreck, who administers all shipwrecks. People connected to the passengers can claim ownership -- although claims are thought to be unlikely. The gold will then be returned to the team or sold to a museum, with a fee passed to the divers.
The treasure has yet to be valued and the team have declined to say how big their haul is. However, the value, particularly of the coins, will be inflated because of where they were found.
Mr Thurkettle said: "To have a coin from the Royal Charter will probably be worth double or treble what it would otherwise be worth."
His team of about 12 divers and gold panners have been visiting the wreck for the past seven summers, but only now have they agreed to reveal details. They estimate there's another two years' worth of exploring left.
The wreck lies just off the village of Moelfre, on Anglesey's east coast, in clay beneath about 15ft of water, and sand. To search for gold, the team blow away the top sand. They then use a machine to suck up sand and clay to be sifted for gold fragments.
The tale of the ship's loss gripped Victorian Britain.
Her captain had tried to anchor in Moelfre Bay to escape the storm but the vessel's chain broke and her engine was not strong enough to keep her off the rocks, where she was battered by 60ft waves and 100mph winds. The ship snapped in two while less than 50 yards from the coast. A Maltese seaman made it to shore with a lifeline, allowing a few survivors to reach land. But only 39 of the estimated 490 on board were saved.
The storm was one of the worst of the 19th century and became known as the "Royal Charter gale" with about 200 vessels lost around the British coast. Charles Dickens, at the height of his fame, went to north Wales to report on the aftermath.
At least 79,000 ounces of gold were on the boat.
Soldiers and coastguards salvaged some before many of the bodies had been recovered. The press upset villagers by accusing them of stealing the gold.
About 80 per cent of the haul was recovered, leaving the tantalising prospect that, even after the latest find, millions of pounds' worth of gold remain on the seabed.