Site of 1899 boating accident, Pwllheli

Site of 1899 boating accident, Pwllheli

Nine children and three parents from the slate-quarrying village of Dinorwig drowned after a boat capsized off South Beach, Pwllheli, in 1899. They were part of a large Sunday School outing from communities in the Llanberis area on Saturday 1 July.

Old photo of South Beach, PwllheliSome of the party made their way to the newly developed promenade at South Beach, shown in the old photo courtesy of Rhiw.com. There one of the mothers, Ellen Thomas, negotiated a 50% discount for an hour’s trip in a rowing boat for three adults – herself, her husband Owen and neighbour John Hughes – and their six children. The price was 3 shillings each. When they arrived at the boat, three more children had joined the party, prompting questions later about overloading.

Boatman Robert Thomas, aged 18, attempted to turn the boat after about half an hour, when c.1.5km (a mile) from the shore opposite the South Beach Hotel. Waves hit the stern and John Hughes’ son Johnny shouted to his father that there was water in the boat at that end. John moved from the bow to the stern, ignoring Robert’s command: “For God’s sake, man, don’t move!” This extra weight caused the stern to go under and the panicked occupants moved to one side, capsizing the boat.

Robert held up one of the girls while struggling to stay afloat himself. His clothing and sea boots were dragging him down. He sank twice with her and eventually she slipped from his grasp. He believed he would have drowned in another five minutes had he not been rescued when he was.

The bodies were recovered over several days. The last body recovered, at Abererch beach, was that of John Rowland Hughes, whose fateful shout to his father prompted the tragic sequence of events. His mother Jane had lost all her family; she was pregnant at the time and missed the trip to Pwllheli because she felt unwell. For details of the victims, see our page about their graves in Deiniolen.

The inquest at Pwllheli police court concluded that the accident was caused by a sudden change of wind producing a nasty cross sea when the boat turned, combined with John Hughes’ movement from bow to stern. The inquest recommended action in Parliament to secure compulsory registration of boats.

With thanks to Dr Hazel Pierce, of The History House, and to Rhiw.com for the old photo

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