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The wreck of the Avalanche

The Avalanche left London in September 1877 bound for Wellington, New Zealand carrying 63 emigrants. Built of iron and weighing 1,210 tonnes, the Avalanche had a crew of 43 under the command of Captain E. Williams.

The AvalancheAs the ship neared Portland Bill, a force eight gale was blowing. The driving rain was whipping up some huge seas. Another ship was sailing nearby. This was the Forest, a wooden ship, bound for New York with a crew of 21 men commanded by Captain Lockhart. By the 11th of September 1877 both ships were twelve miles off Portland Bill. In spite of the awful conditions they managed to see each other but, tragically, it was too late to avoid a collision.

The Forest hit the Avalanche amidships, rebounded and struck again almost cutting her in two. The Avalanche sank straight away with the loss of 103 lives. Only the three who managed to scramble on board the Forest were saved. Very soon thereafter, the Forest’s captain gave orders to abandon ship. They launched three small boats but two sank immediately with the loss of twelve men. The third boat made it to safety carrying twelve survivors.

The Forest stayed afloat and became a hazard to shipping. Eleven days after the tragedy the navy towed it out to sea and blew it up. Many bodies were washed ashore along Chesil Beach. The responsibility for burying the dead lay with the parish councils along the coast. The news of the build-up of bodies waiting to be buried came to the attention of the national press.

The survivorsAn appeal fund was launched by the friends and relations of those who lost their lives in the tragedy. Money poured in from all over England as well as Australia and New Zealand. Sufficient funds were raised to purchase a site on Portland Bill at Southwell to erect a memorial chapel overlooking the scene of the disaster. A huge anchor from the Avalanche lies in the churchyard of what is now known as the Avalanche church.

Anyone wanting to find this church in Southwell should have no trouble at all. The village is located on the road to Portland Bill and the southernmost tip of the Bill is always worth a visit. A wild and desolate place in a gale it still draws thousands of sightseers a year to the views, the lighthouse, the Lobster Pot Restaurant and the Pulpit Arms.

In the 1990s when I had a much bigger boat I would regularly take divers out to the Avalanche. They needed to be experienced because of the depth. Most divers would return to the surface with pieces of pottery and bottles, sometimes unbroken.

Many Lyme Regis deep sea fishing trips would have a few drifts over the wreck hoping for the odd bass, cod or pollack.

Published on 13/01/2013.

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