Hampshire & Isle of Wight

Isle of Wight's Clarendon shipwreck remembered

The Clarendon shipwreck
Image caption The wreck of the Clarendon in 1836 inspired engravings and poems

The poor communities in an isolated part of the Isle of Wight once relished the chance to plunder the wrecks of unfortunate ships that crashed upon the shore.

But their fortunes changed following the sinking of the Clarendon in 1836 which saw a lighthouse built at St Catherine's Point.

All but three of the Clarendon's 27 passengers and crew perished within 10 minutes of it being wrecked at the coastal ravine called Blackgang Chine.

The 175th anniversary of the disaster is on 11 October, but maritime historian Stuart Haven said the Clarendon was "not as widely known as it should be".

Mr Haven, from the Royal Marines Museum in Southsea, said: "The incidence of a shipwreck is a combination of things - it's either a time capsule for modern archaeologists to study or it can be thought of as a moment of human drama where the passengers have their own story to tell.

"This is one of those great stories that's been forgotten over the course of the years."

'Trapped inside'

The Clarendon left the West Indies on 28 August 1836 with the captain, 16 crew and 10 passengers, including several children.

It was battered by gales in the Atlantic Ocean and by the time it entered the English Channel the storms had increased, forcing it towards Portsmouth.

Seeing the Clarendon's plight, an islander called John Wheeler and a group of local fishermen ran to Blackgang Chine to help.

Wheeler tied a rope around his waist and jumped into the sea as the ship hit rocks at the chine. Three crew members were subsequently rescued from the water.

Ken Phillips wrote in his 1988 book Shipwrecks of the Isle of Wight: "According to the survivors, those on board could see their would-be rescuers waiting, helpless to reach them against the fury of the storm.

"With her hull so disastrously weakened the Clarendon could not hold her heavy cargo of casks and boxes.

Image caption St Catherine's Point Lighthouse is one of the remaining legacies of the shipwreck

"She literally exploded under the enormous stress and within a few moments was simply a mass of shattered timbers littering sea and shore."

The dead eventually washed onto the island's shore, though it is said the body of Miss Gourley of Portsmouth was carried out into the Channel and ended up at the bottom of her father's garden in Southsea.

The shipwreck inspired engravings and poems and demand grew for a lighthouse to prevent further disasters.

'Big stir'

Like the shipwrecks before it, parts of the Clarendon were salvaged by the locals.

Remains formed part of an inn later called the Clarendon Hotel, now renamed the Wight Mouse Inn.

Pieces of wood and a spar can be found at Blackgang Chine theme park.

It started out as a museum and shop when general manager Simon Dabell's great great grandfather came to the island in the 1830s.

Mr Dabell said: "It helped the start of this business because people flocked from far and wide to see the scene of the disaster.

"Most of the shipwrecks were a loss of goods or crew, both of which could be replaced or insured.

"But this caused a much bigger stir in the national press. It really hit the moment and people thought it was a terribly dangerous piece of coast."

Mr Haven added: "The story of the Clarendon is almost a parable, a lesson in morals and responsibility.

"For generations the people along the Back of the Wight profited from shipwrecks and so there was little incentive to stop them by building a lighthouse or lifeboat station.

"After the appalling nature of the Clarendon disaster and the large loss of life, attitudes were firmly changed.

"People would still benefit from wrecks but saving lives became more of priority, as evident from the fact that in the space of 20 years the lighthouse was built and a coastguard station and three lifeboat stations were installed at Brook, Atherfield and Brighstone."

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