A pocket watch dug out of the sea floor helps unravel the story of an 1881 cargo ship sinking
Rich Hughes was diving the shallow wreck of a ship when he spied what he thought was a silver coin. That small piece of treasure turned out to be a 19th century pocket watch with a simple inscription that led the 39-year-old Briton on a nine-year journey of detective work and discovery that eventually put the watch back into the hands of a distant relative.
Hughes, who had taken up diving three years earlier as a hobby to enjoy with his wife, made the discovery in April 2000 off Pembrokeshire in southwest Wales. "We used to call the wreck the G.B., or Great Britain wreck, because we couldn't be sure what historic vessel it was," Hughes says. The wreck, he notes, is popular with people new to diving because it's in just 25 feet of water.
"I remember seeing the edge of [the watch] sticking out of the sediment, and I thought it was one of those big Winston Churchill coins," says Hughes. "I had to use my diver's knife to free it, and then I saw what it was."
Hughes says he was a little apprehensive about bringing the solid silver and brass watch to the surface because of how quickly it might corrode, but it was too good a treasure to leave behind. When he surfaced, he opened the lid and found the name "Richard Prichard" engraved on the inside cover. After further cleaning, he was also able to read beneath the name: "Abersoch, 1866, North Wales."
Hughes went to work searching for any history of the ship and the life of Richard Prichard; it proved no easy task. His research through the local county records office first turned up a vessel from 1875 named Scottish Las that had a captain named Richard Prichard from the area. A few weeks later, Hughes' diving buddy Nick Hammond found a bell in the wreckage bearing the name "Guanito."
"That really threw us," says Hughes.
None of the local archives, including Liverpool Shipping Records, revealed anything on the Guanito, and he found no record of the Scottish Las sinking in the area. The case of the pocket watch and bell remained unsolved.
In 2008, Hughes joined Genes Reunited, a family-tree Web site, in hope of finding Prichard's family, but no connections could be made. In early 2009, Hughes began to make inquiries at the town hall at Abersoch, a village near the tip of the Llyn Peninsula in Gwynedd, and Prichard's hometown. The local historical society pointed him to www.Rhiw.com, a site dedicated to the nearby Welsh town of Rhiw that also chronicles the maritime history of the area. Though Prichard wasn't mentioned anywhere, Hughes got in touch with Gwenllian Jones, the woman who runs the site, who in turn put him in touch with amateur genealogist David Roberts in Llanbedrog, three miles from Abersoch.
Roberts and Hughes corresponded by e-mail and began making headway. "I started looking through graveyard inscription books. Many town historical societies have records of all the people buried in the cemeteries, so you don't have to go grave by grave," recalls Roberts, 50.
Roberts discovered that Prichard was born in September 1842 to Rowland and Jane Prichard, and their gravestone makes mention of Richard and a barque named Barbara (see accompanying story). In an 1861 census record of the ship Angora at Falmouth Dock, Cornwall, Prichard shows up as a 19-year-old seaman.
Using Prichard as a lead, Roberts looked up the barque Barbara on the Welsh Mariners Web site and discovered Prichard was captain of the "iron-clad" ship from 1879 until his death May 12, 1881, which occurred en route to Rangoon from Cardiff, Wales, his ship laden with rice.
"The tragedy is he died of an illness, leaving a wife and a young son behind," says Roberts. "He was a merchant seaman who was promoted to mate in 1866, then to first mate in 1868 and then to sea captain in 1874. Someone probably had the watch built for him as a gift for his first promotion."
But if Prichard died before Barbara went to the bottom, how did the watch end up on the sea floor - and how did the ship meet her end? An account from the Ocean Monarch I, a ship in the area at the time, details weather conditions Nov. 22, 1881, the night Barbara sank. Visibility was low, and there were gale force winds and driving rain, according to the Ocean Monarch's log.
Roberts found a news article in a local paper dated Thursday, Nov. 24, 1881, which reported the Barbara was wrecked under the cliffs of Freshwater West, Pembrokeshire - where Hughes found the watch 10 years ago.
"He aimed right at the cliffs. He just didn't know where he was," Hughes says of Capt. John Jones, who assumed Prichard's command. The 15 crewmembers on board survived, including William Thomas, son of the owner of the ship. Jones went down with the ship. Roberts believes Jones was returning to Liverpool with Prichard's watch as a keepsake for the captain's family.
A news report about an inquiry into the wreck says the crew was saved by the use of a "rocket apparatus," or Manby Mortar, an early lifesaving device invented by English sea captain George William Manby for near-shore rescues. A mortar fired a shot with a line from shore to a ship in distress, and a breeches buoy was then used to bring crew ashore.
"Twelve men were saved from the mizzentop and three from the foretop," reads a November 1881 news account of the wreck. "The masts went overboard, and the surging waves soon engulfed the splendid ship," according to an April 1887 article in the North Wales Chronicle about a tribute ceremony for the rescue crew.
The mystery of the Guanito was wrapped up as well. While going through the records for Barbara, Roberts also tracked down the story of the bell found near the pocket watch. He learned that the Italian ship sank in January 1887, with all hands lost. The two wrecks are close to one another.
"It's quite a sad story, really," Hughes says of Prichard's death. "Richard's son, John, would only have been about 4 at the time." John also became a mariner; he died of tuberculosis when he was 32 and left no children.
Roberts was only able to track down the descendants of one of Prichard's three sisters, though apparently none are still alive. However, Owen Cowell, a retired dentist who lives in North Wales, had a grandmother who was a cousin of Richard Prichard's.
"There was a lot of talk in the press about him being the ‘only' surviving family member," says Roberts. "But the truth is, we're not sure. But we're very happy the piece is in a family member's hands again."
The pocket watch was presented to Cowell last August at the Abersoch Village Hall, where Roberts' findings are now a permanent exhibit.
"It was thrilling, really," says Hughes. "I had never met David [in person] throughout all this time - very nice guy. And Owen is a very proud, upstanding member of society, and he was very grateful to receive the watch."
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This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issuue.