The Shipwreck that inspired a century of businessFriday 6th March 2015
What does a Shipwreck, 20 seaweed huts, and the Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company have in common?
It’s funny how a ship wreck in 1879 can introduce a whole new way of life for a local community and inspire a new business 136 years later, but I guess that’s how life goes sometimes...
The year was 1878 and the Thomas M Reed ship had just been built by the notorious ship builders of the East Coast, The Sewall family, in Bath, Maine – USA. It was one of 100 merchant vessels the Sewall family built during a time when Americans were beginning to find their feet on the world stage.
The Sewall family epitomised this new world hunger for enterprise, business, and the thirst for living the American dream. This 19th century strain of New Englander were known as “Live Yankees”:
“Live Yankees are chuck full of character and sizzling hot with enterprise and curiosity... The beauty of a river to him is its capacity for a steamboat; its sloping banks checker into building lots; and its poetry waters might do the drudgery of a cotton mill...If you would save your pride from being sand-papered, risk it not in a dicker with Jonathan*”
Henry Wheeler Shaw 1818-51
*Jonathan was a term for an American, especially a New Englander Maine Maritime Museum
The Thomas M Reed set sail from Bath, Maine, to San Francisco. It was part of her maiden voyage from San Francisco; the ship was to sail to Liverpool to unload its valuable cargo (around $130,000 at the time), and included
• 1000 tons of Columbia River Salmon
• 1000 tons of Californian Wheat
• 257 cases of beef
• 214 sacks of mother-of-pearl shells
• 49 tons of copper ore
• 8 tons of lead ore
• Preserved fruits (quantity unknown)
• Pottted salmon and lobster (quantity unknown)
• 1 case of honey
From Liverpool the ship was to then sail back to Bath, Maine, but unfortunately this voyage never took place.
Captain Joseph Small and 23 crew left San Francisco on the 5th September 1879 and set sail to Liverpool, England. The ship had already spent 4 months at sea and the voyage had already seen one man lost overboard. The morale must have been low and on the night of the 12th January 1879 things were about to get a lot worse.
The weather was dull and thick with fog. With a force 9 gale, the sea was running high and the ship lost her way. Unfortunately this was off one of the most treacherous coasts in the world. The Thomas M Reed struck a reef, known as the Pole, just off Frainslake Bay on the southwest tip of Pembrokeshire (this currently occupied by the MOD). The Pole reef is an outcrop of rock which comes to a sheer drop; the water is deep and at the bottom it is said “resteth several cannon that for years the foaming billows have rolled over”*.
Three of the sailors from the wreck decided to try and make it to shore to raise the alarm. I would just like to point out at this stage that the Pole reef in a heavy sea is a simply terrifying place to be. It is a shallow reef jutting out into deep water which means it naturally attracts very large and very heavy waves breaking onto the shallow reef around a mile from shore -waves the size of houses breaking into ankle deep water. To attempt to swim in the sea next to the Pole reef in the middle of the night in the middle of winter with a force 9 gale is as dangerous as it gets.
It is said that two of three sailors made it to shore but accounts do vary and it is difficult to clarify. In one paper it was reported that the sailors made it after some time struggling in the strong currents and landed on the shore in an exhausted state. “A little Brandy judiciously administered enabled them to get as far as Gupton Farm”, about a mile from the scene of the disaster and raise the alarm.
Their bravery saved the lives of the rest of the crew and just in the nick of time. The rocket apparatus was sent out to the ship which enabled the crew to leave the ship. 20 of the 23 crew were saved, the second mate was drowned along with one crew. Soon after the crew had been taken off, the vessel went to pieces. Only one body was found, his name was Daniel Hennessy and he was 33 years old.
Here is Captain Joseph Small’s account of the disaster:
At midnight, Jan. 12, 1879, we sounded in about 40 fathoms. Saw lights for a few minutes but could not make out what they were. The weather was dense, wind from the south and a strong gale blowing. The ship was under close reefed topsails, on the starboard tack, heading east-southeast, with a good lookout being maintained. With out having seen any land or hearing any breakers, the ship struck and the sea immediately began making a clean breach over hear. She at once started to break up. We were on the wreck fifteen hours when the coast guard came along and with the exception of two men who were drowned, we got ashore over the life line apparatus which had been shot from the land”.
A letter from John Shankland, Kidwelly, December 12th 1893, provides a local, more informal account of the disaster:
“Dear Captain Small.
Most probably you have forgotten me. However I have not forgotten you nor the circumstances under which we became acquainted.
The other evening while sitting by the fireside, smoking my pipe, I went back in imagination to that January morning in 1879 when I hurried off to Freshwater Bay to assist the Angle Coast guards in getting the crew ashore from the Thomas M. Reed. The whole scene passes in review before my eyes as plainly as it did on that memorable morning, from the time the rocket was fired until you were riding in the bows of the tram cart over the sand dunes to the little village of Castlemartin.
How the waves washed over your poor ship and yourselves, hiding you for seconds from sight as we stood on the little bluff watching you. And when your mate got into the cradle, didn't we haul on that line in the fond hope of getting him on shore. But alas, we failed and when we got his poor drowned body to the side of the bluf, I shudder as I thought of how, in stooping to pick him up, my foot slipped off the rock and down I went into the sea up to my waist. Then I saw three men try to swim ashore; the excitement of securing the first man as he rose on the crest of the breaker and the joy as he was seized and carried in. It was I who wiped the salt water out of his eyes and took the overcoat off my back to put on him. Then he was off on horseback behind a farmer to warmth and food. Then I see a mulatto reach the shore and then a poor fellow sink under the waves, unable to breast the current. Later I see you all coming hand over hand on the hawser and we hasten into the sea to help you all. I almost feel now the grip Mr. Guthrie gave my arm as I assisted him through the surf. I also picture the cabin boy who was the last to come over the hawser, being picked up by two men who were carrying him.
I asked, ‘Where is the Captain?’ and a tall, elderly looking gentleman, barefooted and scantily clothed, said ‘I was the captain sir’. How very sorry I did feel for you as you endeavored to pick your way through the strewn wreckage lining the shore, and I gave you my arm and helped you to climb up the sand hill; and when I failed in this, called to our assistance a young man standing above us.
How we got you into the car; how the horses backed, threatening to send you all down the hill until we seized the wheels and helped the horses get a start for Castlemartin, with a little cheer. When we got to the top of the hill, it was I who gave you the information as to where you were, and pointed out St Ann’s lighthouse. ‘Then,’ said you, ‘Milford must be close by’. ‘Yes’, said I, ‘It is over yonder, but out of sight,’ pointing in the direction. You subsequently gave me, or rather told me, as I wrote on the back of an old envelope, the wording of a telegram to send to the ship’s agent at Liverpool, and this I carried out.
Well, after all this scene passes through my mind, I determined I would write to you and wish you a Merry Christmas, I hope this will find you and reach you in time for Christmas Day, so that my congratulations may be seasonable. I hope that you are not displeased in hearing from me. When I eat my dinner on Christmas Day, among many other absent friends, I shall not forget to drink the health and a Merry Christmas to Captain Small”.
News of the Shipwreck spread like wild fire, 15,000 boxes of goods were strewn across Freshwater West, rich pickings were to be had as well as site of this large ship wrecked just off the beach. Spectators came from all over, but it was spectators from Swansea who found another treasure which all the other spectators ignored: the black, shimmering laver seaweed clinging to the rocks of Freshwater West.
While the wreck of the Thomas M Reed has almost been forgotten in the tides of time, its affects linger today, 136 years later. Perhaps amongst the 1000s of lost cargo a strewn along Freshwater West a little of the “Live Yankee” energy left its footprint in the sand at Freshwater West. The Swansea families struck a deal with the local inhabitants of Angle village to purchase as much seaweed as they could collect and so a small cottage industry of laver harvesting began. This lasted 70 years until the arrival of cars put a stop to the local trade.
However, what remained of the iconic seaweed hut inspired me to start my venture into the mysterious worlds of seaweed. So I, and perhaps, all of us who have a passion for this Welsh delicacy can raise a toast to Captain Joseph Small and the crew of the ill fated Thomas M Reed.
I would like to say a big thank you to Holly, editor of the Western Telegraph, in allowing me to research and use extracts from the local papers at the time, see below:
1. Western Telegraph Archive
2. American Merchant Ships 1850 – 1900, Vol 1, Frederick C Matthews
3. Live Yankees – The Sewalls And Their Ships, W H Bunting
by The Captain