"The Cyprian"

October 14th 1881

There is scarcely a single portion of the United Kingdom, which has not suffered severely, was the report in the newspapers of October 1881. Roofs were torn off buildings, trees were uprooted and many a hayrick was blown away. There were many disasters at sea, due to mountainous waves and hurricane force winds swamping small vessels, while large ocean going ships were blown on to the beaches and rocks. One of the worst disasters, which became the talking point of the nation, was the loss of the steamship Cyprian with the loss of 19 lives, and the courage of her young Captain. Built at Seacombe in 1874 and owned by F-Leyland & Co of Liverpool, the Cyprian was of 1,433 tons and driven by two compound engines developing 700 horse power, and carried a crew of 27 men. She steamed out of the Mersey at 2pm on Thursday 13th October 1881 with a general cargo, bound for Genoa. Soon after departing the vessel ran into a North Westerly gale, a storm which rapidly worsened, but her captain was confident she would ride out the storm, after all he knew his ship well, and also the ability of his crew, apart from the three substitutes he had taken on to replace three of the regular sailors who did not turn up to join, and within twenty four hours the three of them would have perished in the stormy waters of the North Wales coast.

By 3am on Friday morning the 14th the Cyprian had safely rounded Holyhead and was in Caernarvon bay when the first of many incidents took place, the bottom tube of her starboard boiler burst and orders were given to extinguish the furnace so as to carry out repairs. With the aid of the remaining engine Capt Strachan kept his ship bows on to the storm until 8:30am. Soon afterwards the steam steering gear failed and measures were taken to steer the ship by hand, but once again disaster, a cogwheel in the hand steering system snapped leaving the Capt with no alternative but to lash the helm and rely entirely upon his one engine. By this time the storm was at its height and water was rushing through the bilges due to the pumps becoming chocked with debris. With water having risen well above the fire bars, the three remaining furnaces failed and the Cyprian was left with no power whatsoever. A sail was then hoisted and according to eye witnesses on land the ship was seen to behave in an odd manner, first battling her way towards Bardsey Island in the West and returning Northwards towards Porthdinlleyn harbour, when in sight of the said harbour a white flag was flown by the coastguards as a signal to enter the harbour and it's somewhat calmer water. Unfortunately due to the misty conditions created by the swirling spray, the signal wasn't seen from the doomed vessel, neither were the rockets that were fired from the ship visible to the coastguards.

By 3pm the captain ordered soundings to be taken and the port anchor was dropped in 15 fathoms. Failure to apply the windlass brake in time resulted in the anchor running out with all it's chain, and when the starboard anchor was dropped and the brake applied in good time the chain parted, it was now only a matter of time before the steamer struck the jagged rocks at Rhosgor about two miles West of Porthdinllaen.

It is a well known fact that lifeboat men are brave dedicated men who will risk life and limb to save their fellow men, but the days that followed the disaster of the Cyprian, the finger of suspicion was pointed in the direction of the Porthdintlaen lifeboat crew, and the word cowards was heard on more than one occasion due to the lifeboat falling to turn out to assist the stricken Cyprian, although attempts had been made to transport a breeches buoy to the scene, but by the time the team arrived it was far too late, the vessel having already disappeared into the murky depths of the Irish sea.

"The end of the Cyprian"

An inquiry was held at the schoolroom adjacent to the church at Edern, and a jury of ten Master Mariners sat to weigh up the facts. After a long and tiresome hearing it was agreed unanimously that no blame was to be cast on the lifeboat crew whom had only just returned from another mercy mission where they had saved four men from a steam flat belonging to the Porth-Nant quarry company. It was also stated that it would be suicidal even to attempt launching the lifeboat in such horrendous conditions, and that the men were suffering from sheer fatigue and the cold. In the inquest that followed held before Mr. T.Hunter Hughes the County Coroner, a verdict of misadventure was passed.

In memory of Captain John Alexander Strachan, a Mrs. Noble of Henley-On-Thames donated £800 to the RNLI with instructions for a lifeboat station to be placed on the Caernarvonshire coast. A 27ft 12oar boat was placed in a new station at Trevor on the 19th April 1883 and served there until its closure in 1901. The heroism of Captain Strachan inspired a sermon to be preached at Westminster Abbey also the rescuers that so bravely helped in bringing safely ashore the survivors of that dreadful storm, men that later received a certificate on vellum, a medal and a gold sovereign in a specially embroidered bag, given by the squire of Nanhoron who also held a celebration function in their honour.

Years later there was to be a dramatic postscript to the tale of the Cyprian.

A Captain William Roberts of Llanengan was saved when his ship sank off the Azores, he was taken on-board the “Highland Watch” and was amazed to learn that the chief officer, was non other than J.W.KIahn the stowaway whom Captain Strachan had given his life-jacket to.


"Captain John Alexander Strachan" "The Cyprian's Bell"

Report obtained from various newspapers of the time.

Local farmers to the rescue,

Owen Williams. Hirdre Fawr and neighbouring farmer William Jones of Cwmeistir were harvesting the potato crop in fields overlooking Rhosgor when the Cyprian struck the rocks some 50 to 200 yards off-shore, their account of the disaster is as follows "We were harvesting potatoes in a field above Rhosgor when we noticed quite a large steamer behaving in rather an odd manner and we believed it to be a deserted ship. It was being tossed sideways here and there and seemed to be going towards Bardsey, it then returned in the direction of Porthdinllawn, to return once again but perilously close to the rocks. We hastened to the waters edge and arrived in time to witness a horrific sight when the vessel ran on to a rock known as Carreg Whistlan. The crew were on deck and some of them were scrambling up the masts while others were hanging on to the ship's rail, as soon as the ship struck it wasn’t long before it broke up and disappeared into the cauldron, and by 5:30 pm the battle was lost.

When Captain Strachan realised his ship was doomed he gave the order to abandon ship and wished his men luck, "every man for himself now" he called out. As he was about to jump off a young lad appeared from hiding. On seeing the frightened youngster who had chosen a doomed ship to stowaway on, and seeing that there wasn’t a lifebelt available for him. The brave Captain took off his own jacket immediately, and gave it to the stowaway, with the order that he was to jump; I'm a strong swimmer and can easily reach the shore were the last words uttered by the unselfish and kindhearted mariner. Due to the sacrifice of Captain Strachan the young lad made it safely to land while the Captain and 18 of his men perished in the turbulent sea, either drowned or killed as they were hurled against the rocky fangs. Some of the bodies recovered were so badly mutilated to be beyond recognition, with limbs torn off and faces disfigured.

The eight who survived owed their lives to the farmers who formed a human chain risking their own lives in the process. In a later newspaper article the survivors wished to thank the following gentlemen by whom they were treated in the kindest manner, Reverend O. Lloyd Roberts rector of Bodfean, better known as the sailors friend, Mr. W Witson Roberts, Robert Williams and William Jones. One of the survivors the ship's fireman by the name of Williams was badly injured when he was struck on the face by a spar, another by the name of Mitchell became crippled due to having his legs and feet crushed and was taken to Pant-Gwyn farm where he was comforted by Mrs. Jones the farmer's wife.

Saturday 15th.

Saturday dawned a peaceful autumn day, the sea was calm and it was beyond imagination to visualise that such a storm had ever existed. Today there’s only a light breeze to remind the people who have turned up to rummage amongst the hundreds of boxes and flotsam that is strewn far and wide along the coast with linen draping the rocks as though to hide the shame of yesterday. The remains of the unfortunate mariners lay amongst the seaweed, indeed a gruesome sight even for the stalwarts of the community who had gathered together specifically to collect the dead. Farm carts are gathered on the cliff top, ready to transport the dead seamen to a makeshift mortuary at the stable of the Cefnamlwch Arms public house at Edern. By late Saturday evening 6 of the dead were laid out on the cold cobbled floor. Due to telegraphic break down the authorities at Pwllheli were unaware of any shipwreck having taken place, and it was well into the morning when news arrived of the tragedy. By noon Mr. Holmes, chief of Caernarvonshire customhouse, Mr Norsworthy chief officer and a number of coastguards were on the scene, and Major Clayton the chief constable in company with Inspector Roberts arrived shortly afterwards and Captain Archer of the Salvage Association also arrived in the evening.

Sunday 16th

Another bright day and the sleepy little hamlet of Edern was like any other Sunday, a day of rest and worship, the only difference being the eerie quietness that shadowed the whole community and the feeling of death hovering in the air. The only sound to be heard was the nailing of the coffins that the carpenters who had assembled together to prepare in a nearby workshop. Villagers on their way to Sunday services in the chapel and church whispered as though afraid to impair the stillness, and as someone later remarked even the birds stopped their usual chatter and song as if in sympathy.



O'r wyth dyn ar hugain gychwynnodd mewn parch
Wyth enaid achubwyd fel gynt yn yr arch
Yr ugain a drengodd, yn gorwedd maent hwy
Mewn un bedd yn Edeyrn, hen fynwent y plwy'



By Sunday evening the dead numbered 13 and by Monday morning the remaining five had been recovered along with their captain, being the last to be found and duly identified by his brother in law. The eight survivors including the young stowaway were taken by train from Pwllheli on the Saturday afternoon back to Liverpool followed by Captain Strachan's body on the Tuesday following for burial at Anfield cemetery, the rest of the crew numbering were interred in a mass grave at Edern church.

Crew list of the Cyprian

The Times 11th November 1881                The Times 16th November 1881

Local newspaper report December 7th 1881

Thanks to Mr  Gwilym Jones, Tudweiliog, for all his help with this article.


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