When the Royal Charter smashed into the rocks in 1859, around £120m of gold sank with it. Ralph Jones goes hunting for treasure
They couldn’t have known a hurricane was coming. Sailing back from Melbourne, the Royal Charter was passing through the Irish Sea on the final day of its voyage to Liverpool. Today this journey takes less than 24 hours by plane. In 1859 the world record was 59 days. For those on board, a long pilgrimage was nearly at an end. The steam clipper had been their passage to a glimmering land: eight years earlier, gold mines had been unearthed in south-east Australia, and these men, women and children had travelled more than 10,000 miles to fill their pockets. One man on board telegrammed his family to tell them that he had found so much gold they would never need to work again. It was their redemption. Now the travellers were coming home.
As the Royal Charter bombed up St George’s Channel, the narrowest passage between Wales and Ireland, an easterly wind began to hammer the sails. But the ship was one of the first of its kind: a hybrid that, in strong winds, could rely on the brunt of its steam engine. The captain lowered the sails as the winds continued to thrash the ship. Shortly after they reached the home straight toward Liverpool, the winds from the north reached 100mph, driving the ship ever closer to the coast. They were perilously close to land, a fierce gale was driving them backward, and the rudder was having no impact on the ship’s course. The captain had no choice: he dropped the anchors.
A force-12 wind is powerful enough to send 1,500 tons of water crashing into a boat. As the October night closed in, one of the deadliest hurricanes in British history – a storm that sank 132 other ships that night – began pounding the Royal Charter as it lay helpless in the Irish Sea. After it sent off rockets and distress signals to no avail, the ship’s anchor cables both snapped. It veered broadside toward land, grinding to a halt when it ran into a sand bank near the Welsh village of Moelfre.
For most of the 480-plus people aboard the Royal Charter, their journey came to an end when waves lifted the 2,749-ton boat and Christmas crackered it on the rocks. The majority were thrown to their death in the darkness, their clothes and gold dragging their heavy bodies into the sea.
As day broke on a scene of carnage, villagers said that gold coins lay like seashells in the rock pools. The Royal Charter had been carrying, in today’s money, at least £120 million of gold. And, ever since the ship sank, people have been travelling to its skeleton, diving into the water, and searching for the gold that is lurking in the dark.
Vincent Thurkettle is the kind of man – big hands, clearly knows his way around a knot – in whose presence you feel immediately safe. His soft, precise voice gives you the impression he is always practising in case he is called on to read a bedtime story to a child. When he talks about gold, he considers his words even more carefully. “Gold fever is a bloody obsession,” he says, Norfolk occasionally creeping into his accent. “You’ve got the sun on your back; the river; there’s a fish just come past you… And they glow. Gold glows in sunlight. It’s gold but it’s pearlescent gold, it’s silky gold, it’s a sheen, it’s a glow.” So transfixed by gold was Thurkettle that, in 2005, he quit his job and went looking for treasure.
Gold is difficult to find. It’s not impossible, but here is how determined you have to be: Thurkettle spent five long years sloshing a ridged pan through streams and rivers across the country before, at last, he found his very first nugget.
It was the size of a lentil.
“One of the hardest things in life is knowing when to quit,” Thurkettle says. He could have given up when he found his anticlimactic lentil. But out there, deep beneath the cold waters off the Welsh coast, he knew there was more.
Peter Day, who formed the Royal Charter Salvage Expedition in 1971, has spent thousands of hours excavating the wreck. He estimates that there is still £7-8 million lurking at the bottom. Now 72, Day has been aware of the Royal Charter since he was a child. In the upstairs offices of his father’s café there was a large brass disc from the Charter, on which the words ‘stove pipe’ were embossed. He and his team unearthed gold rings, one of which was engraved with the names of two of the passengers on board.
“I think it is unbelievable to think that there isn’t one bar of gold at least down there,” he says. “It’s hard to believe that they took away every bar that was there. Somebody, I think, one day, if they work methodically, will get to that bar of gold.”
In 1984, Chris Holden, president of the Chester Sub-Aqua Club, started diving for gold with the rest of his group “in the hope that we were going to make our fortunes”. On the very first trip a colleague found five gold sovereigns. This is easy, Holden thought. He dreamed of finding gold of his own.
On one dive Holden’s heart stopped when he saw a glint of gold. As he chipped away at it, the glint got bigger. The size of a coin. The size of an egg. The size of a mug. It turned out to be one of the ship’s copper pans – an extremely valuable find. Now 68, Holden says it was “the thrill of the chase” that kept him going back and back to the wreck.
VILLAINS AND PIRATES
One character who looms large over the Royal Charter is Joseph McCormack. “I’m very pleased to say the late Joseph McCormack,” says Peter Day when I mention the man. After several hundred coins were found on the ship in 1985, McCormack arrived on the scene, elbowed other groups aside, and spent the summer excavating with his team. Gary Thomas, the co-owner of a bed and breakfast in Moelfre, says that McCormack used dynamite, without a licence, to blow up the wreck. Peter Day and his colleagues went to the High Court and won two legal battles against him after he attempted to push them off the site. “He made a lot of money out of a lot of wrecks but the money was made out of people’s investment rather than the wreck,” says Day. On a separate expedition off the Anglesey coast, investors told the press that McCormack had flat-out lied to them. One had poured £20,000 into the venture. “That was typical everywhere,” says Day. “The Azures, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland. All over the bloody place.”
It’s not enough just to know where gold is. You must tease the sea, befriend it, before it will give up its treasure. You’ll need the right equipment, the right weather, enough patience, enough people, enough time, and a few ounces of luck. “We’ve had to save a few people over the years,” says Alan Owen, a stoical volunteer lifeboat helm at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in Moelfre. “Some people know where [the gold] is and haven’t got the equipment to get it, and the people who’ve got the equipment don’t know where it is.”
In 2012 Vincent Thurkettle was on a reccy dive with his crew. He dived down around the stern of the ruined ship and was in 20 feet of water as the sun filtered through the waves. There he noticed a clay plateau, where a fissure revealed around four grams of gold dust. That’s promising, he thought. He had only been in the water for five minutes when he noticed that the fissure was wider than he had realised.
And then he saw it.
“There was this great glowing lump,” he says. “And I looked down and I stopped. I suspect I just stopped breathing.” As far as he remembers, Thurkettle says, he talked to the lump. “Woah – I have only ever seen you in a museum,” he said to the biggest nugget he’d ever seen.
After seven summers of soaking, mostly futile work, Thurkettle had got what he deserved: he had found a nugget of gold that was more than two times heavier than the biggest nugget ever found in Britain.
These gold-hunters aren’t motivated by money – the expensive, laborious nature of the pursuit soon pisses on that dream – but Thurkettle’s nugget happens to be worth about £50,000. And, because of its value, gold isn’t just a magnet for adventurers but criminals as well. Thurkettle tells me that there are two “bad lads” who dive on the wreck but don’t report the gold they find: “One razor-wires and one has a shotgun. I don’t imagine they’d ever speak to you.”
Talking to Thurkettle has got me hooked, pumped, fired up for gold. Vincent you old rogue, I think – what in the name of hell are we waiting for? Let’s travel to Wales. To the beating heart of this drama. To the gold. It’s time to find some sweet sweet treasure.
A GOLDEN PILGRIMAGE
In the morning Thurkettle and I clamber down to the inter-tidal zone of the beach, the point at which the ship smashed into the rocks, and we dip a blue pan into the cold water between the limestone cracks. I am dreading the worst – the wreck feels so invisible here, as though it existed only as a Chinese whisper in a distant pub. So, when Thurkettle tells me to look into the ugly grey sludge dredged up from the water, I can barely believe my eyes. There, immediately obvious, some tiny, shiny flecks of hope wink up at us. Bloody hell. Yes. Yes. This is it. Gold! It’s actual gold and we’ve found it.
There is something almost illicit about this moment. There is no one in sight but us. There is no fanfare, no ceremony, but in broad daylight we have uncovered real, tangible gold that no human has touched since 1859. Even a pro like Thurkettle can’t disguise his glee. We almost lose our minds when, five minutes later, we discover gold dust that is even bigger and more obvious. As I hold the tiny tube of water into which Thurkettle places the gold for preservation, I think: I am only holding this because a ship crashed into the rocks 157 years ago.
Thurkettle estimates that our gold – all 0.13g of it – is worth £4. Not bad for five damp minutes of fishing. Now that I have the gold, I have to report it to the Receiver of Wreck, an employee of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The Receiver has one year to determine whether or not someone has a rightful claim to the gold. If an owner comes forward, they might pay the finder an agreed-upon price. The gold otherwise becomes property of the Crown, at which point a museum might pay the finder the value of the find. Alison Kentuck, the current Receiver of Wreck, says she cannot remember an instance in which gold from the Royal Charter has been reunited with someone with a valid ownership claim. Thurkettle reported his nugget in 2012 but, to his irritation, has received no money and no closure. He says that 80 percent of the divers he has spoken to have told him that he is “stupid” to report his findings.
One issue remains: the thorny topic of whether or not men should profit from tragedy. Fiona Taylor, a barmaid at a pub a stone’s throw from the pebbly Moelfre beach, says that she doesn’t think people should make any money from the wreck. “People lost their lives,” she says. “And a lot of the people in the village, they went and tried to save their lives. There should be some recognition towards the island.” Thurkettle has had more than enough time to fret over this question himself. “If I could sit and talk to the ghosts,” he says, “I think they would say, ‘Good on you.’” I happen to agree. Far from feeling as though we are plundering the pockets of the dead, the excursion feels like an attempt to keep alive the memory of those who died in the storm.
“Most people don’t realise you can just go out in the wilds and find gold,” Thurkettle says. “Do not believe that you have to sit and watch other people having adventures. We blossom when we’re striving. Adventure times are not over.” When he was at his lowest, shivering, dirty and exhausted in a tent during one goldless summer, the usually indomitable Thurkettle texted his girlfriend to have a moan. Her reply stoked the fires in his belly. To this day he can remember it word for word: “No clean, dry man ever found gold, nor had the tale to tell.”