The fishwives of Brixham built a bonfire of their household effects on the end of the breakwater (half the length of the current breakwater, although in the same location) to try to guide their husbands home safely, while the men on shore in the town did all they could to save people from the ships which were wrecked along the Brixham and Churston coastline, and all those saved, both locals, and those from other parts of Britain, and indeed mainland Europe, were shown great kindness by the residents of the town who in many cases offered them lodgings in their own homes, even as they waited for news of their own loved ones.
It is said, however, that after the storm one could walk along the coastline from Brixham to Paignton, upon the wreckage of all the wrecked ships. Over a hundred bodies were identified, and records to this day also list many other unidentified seamen who were found torn apart by the fury of the storm and unidentifiable. A mass grave and memorial exists at St Marys Church in Brixham to this day. The full death toll from the storm will never be known – for example it was reported that two passenger steamers had been seen in Torbay, and some sailors, later rescued from the wreck of their own ship, reported that in the chaos of the night, in the bay, their ship had crashed into an unknown steamer which then sank, as far as they knew, with all hands.
In the 19th century, at the time of this storm, Brixham was one of the foremost fishing ports in England, and it was due to this storm that the people of Exeter, the county capital, raised funds for Brixham to have her first RNLI lifeboat; named The City Of Exeter, and the town has always had a lifeboat since.
Wednesday Jan 10th 1866
Prior to this date, there had been a period of bad weather, of south westerly gales, sleet and rain, but by the afternoon of January 10th, the storms had abated, and many ships which had been sheltering in Torbay, now decided that it was safe to continue on their journeys.
As it turned out, this was simply a “lull” in the weather, because by the evening, it was observed in Teignmouth, only a few miles up the coast, that the barometer was already falling again. The mate of one vessel, the Zoe, even had his family and friends on board for a party, though they returned to shore as the storm blew up.
By 9pm that night, the barometer had fallen a whole inch, and the storm struck in all its fury, this time from an easterly direction, from which Brixhams breakwater (shorter than it is now) and Berry Head could afford little shelter. A newspaper report of the events tells us that there were seventy-four vessels, both British and foreign, at anchor in the Bay, and eyewitnesses also make mention of other vessels in the bay, including two steamers of unknown name. House of Commons records, however make this number sixty-two, and perhaps we will never know the exact number.
The skippers of some vessels attempted to make their way out of the bay, realising the danger that their ships were now in, but to little avail; one skipper, whose ship was wrecked, reported later that the instant he tried to make sail, his vessels sails was torn apart by the strength of the wind. Only a handful a few vessels escaped. Other vessels were literally torn from their anchors and driven into the cliffs and the small breakwater that existed then.
Two vessels reached the safety of the Inner Harbour, but many of the others, unable to see their way clearly, and struggling to remain upright in the storm, were driven against the break water, or passed the pier-heads, only to collide with other vessels anchored within the harbour to the destruction of all vessels involved.
It was quickly realised by the people in the town that a disaster was taking place, and most of the inhabitants of the seaward part of the town turned out along the coast, between Shoalstone and Churston. Mention should be made of the fisherman Richard Mills, who, being a large strong man, dragged several sailors to safety by sheer brute strength, as well as the coastguard James Milton, and harbourmaster Mr Skivell, who were instrumental in saving as many men as possible from the ships being driven against the breakwater. Another man, Mr Matthews, abseiled down cliffs near Churston Cove, to pull men from a ship, which could not be reached.
Many of the fishing vessels from the town were at sea, since the south-westerly gales had abated, and in those days, the men of the families being traditionally the “breadwinners”, and safety-nets such as Social Security not existing, the women of the town were not only afraid for their husbands, but also what would become of their families if their husbands died. Observing that that some vessels were attempting to reach the harbour, the local women built a huge fire of the end of the breakwater, in an attempt to guide vessels to safety. This fire, was built of thier household furniture, bedding, anything that they could burn – as one of the women explained, if their husbands did not return, they would loose everything anyway. Some of the fishermen reported that the flames from the fire looked like an angel in the storm, which gave rise to the name for the ladies of Brixham “The Brixham Angels”.
While it is reported that many of the men from the ships driven against the breakwater were saved, many others were lost, drowned, or crushed between the wreckage of ships and the breakwater wall, as in the case of the crew of the Colonel Buller, whom the men on the pier were simply unable to reach in time. The masters of ships in the inner harbour ordered their rigging be cut to provide more ropes to try and pull less fortunate seamen to safety from the breakwater.
It should also be noted that the women of the town not only tried to guide ships to safety with the fire, but also welcomed many rescued sailors into their homes, providing them with as much clothing, bedding and hot food as they were able, even as they awaited news of the fate of their own menfolk.
Every inn was filled to capacity, and in addition, over seventy men were put up at the towns Assembly Rooms (on the site of what is now the town hall), with blankets supplied by the town draper, and a further thirty were sheltered at Elbury Farm, by the farmer Mr Tulley. The vicars of the towns churches, and the towns two surgeons also laboured unceasingly in their efforts to aid those rescued, and the local tradespeople donated whatever they were able. The local representative of the National Shipwrecked Mariners Society, exhausted their supply of passes, which gave shipwrecked men the cost of travel home.
A telegraph was sent to Teignmouth, where the closest lifeboat was stationed, for help. The captain of the Coastguard in Teignmouth did not have the authority to allow the then lifeboat, the China to go as far as Torquay, also citing the fact that the storm was bad in Teignmouth, and that the lifeboat may be required closer to home. While a call was put out for a crew, after receiving further news of the disaster unfolding in Torbay, there were not enough men that night to form a full crew, but a team of horses was gathered and the lifeboat hauled 10 miles to Torquay Strand, where she was launched at around 2pm on January 11th. Despite the delay, the lifeboat was in time to save several men from two ships, the Cesarewich (sometimes referred to as the Cheshire Witch) and the Jesse, still afloat in the bay.
By the time that dawn came, the worst of the storm was past and it was possible to begin to take stock of the damage. It is commonly reported that it was possible to walk from Brixham to Paignton upon the wreckage of the ships which had been destroyed the night before. A few vessels had indeed made it to safety, even though most of the vessels in the harbour were damaged and leaking, and of at least five vessels, no discernable trace was ever found.
The sights along the coast during the weeks after the storm, will have been gruesome. Registers of the corpses found, which were washed up along the coast for several weeks after, mention that many were nude, their clothes having been torn away by the sea, or being found wearing, for example, a single boot, or one sleeve of a shirt. Other bodies were found missing limbs or their heads, and as such, many were never identified. Others were identified only by such items as rings.
One local family tells that one relative, a small boy at the time of the storm, was not permitted out of the house for several weeks after the storm, for fear of his seeing such sights.
The more fortunate townspeople raised as much money as they were able, to aid the widows and orphans left behind, while an enquiry into the disaster was held.
The coastguard, Mr Milton stated that he was horrified by the inability of the town to render more assistance to those vessels wrecked, and that he believed that if Brixham had a lifeboat, many more lives could have been saved, although after full evidence was heard, a court decided that if a lifeboat had been stationed in Brixham at the time, it could not have been launched to save many lives because of the direction of the storm.
Meantime the people of Exeter, shocked by the events, began raising funds for Brixham to have her own lifeboat, and within months raised £600, which was handed to the RNLI to start Brixham’s own lifeboat Station.
Within the year, Brixhams first lifeboat, the City of Exeter was built and tested on the River Exe, in a gala atmosphere attended by over 20,000 people, and paraded through the city centre.
She was delivered to Brixham in the same year, and stationed in the towns first lifeboat station, which was then situated in the town centre at Bolton Cross. Brixham has had a lifeboat ever since, now stationed close to the breakwater.
Funds were also allocated for the erection of a memorial to the storm, which can be seen to this day, over a mass grave, in St Marys churchyard.