DORSET'S coastal location has meant the county has never been short of shipwrecks, but it is the area around Portland and Chesil Beach that has proved the most treacherous. The viscous strength of the undertow combined with the rocky coastline and overwhelming currents make for some of the most dangerous conditions in England.

One of the best-known shipwrecks of the area is that of the Earl of Abergavenny, which was wrecked in Weymouth Bay on February 5, 1805. Captain John Wordsworth, brother of the famous poet William, was in command of the ship on her journey from London to Bengal. In the midst of a storm, the ship struck a sandbank off Portland and was grounded, becoming waterlogged as desperate attempts were made to reach the drifting vessel. Suddenly, the ship gave a lurch and quickly began to sink in the shallow waters of the bay. 141 of those on board were rescued after clinging to the masts and shrouds, but 261 crew and passengers died, including Captain Wordsworth. He was buried on the south side of the church in Wyke Regis, along with other victims of the tragedy.

Almost two decades later, on a night in November 1824, 15 vessels were shipwrecked along the coastline, in gales that destroyed the esplanade at Weymouth. Among those lost were two West Indiaman ships, the Carvalho and the Colville, which were both washed up on Chesil Beach. All those aboard both ships were killed, and 17 of the victims of the Colville were buried on Portland.

The Royal Adelaide fell victim to the treacherous seas in November 1872. An emigrant ship bound for Australia, she was an iron sailing boat of 1,400 tons, built by William Patterson in Bristol seven years previously. Stormy conditions on November 25 saw the captain of the Royal Adelaide attempt to reach the shelter of Portland Harbour, but the ship was forced into Lyme Bay, from which there was no exit in a storm. Eventually, the Royal Adelaide struck the shingle on Chesil Beach.

The Mayor of Weymouth, James Robertson, left the banquet he had been hosting upon hearing of the beached ship, and went about organising rescue. 60 lives were saved before the rescue line broke and the seven remaining onboard were swept out to sea and drowned.

The large crowd which had gathered to witness the rescue then watched with excitement as the ship began to break up and her cargo was spilled across the beach; almost 3,000 tons was saved. The Royal Adelaide had been carrying goods of all kinds, from gloves, boots and hats to hams, tea, coffee and figs, as well as casks of brandy, rum and gin. These spirits were quickly pounced upon by observant locals, four of whom died the following day. An inquest into the deaths of these four men ruled they "died from exposure and wet after drinking raw spirits," while the death of a 15-year-old boy was recorded as caused by "excessive drinking."

In the days following the wreckage, local school registers reported many absences, as children joined in with the treasure-hunting antics. Boots and shoes from the ship are still displayed in Portland Museum.

Two days before the Royal Adelaide was wrecked, the Jane Catherine also became a victim of the November gales. The 70-ton Welsh schooner en route to Port Madoc smashed on Chesil Beach between Wyke Regis and Fleet, and the crew of four all drowned.

Another well-known wreckage was a result of the collision between the Avalanche and the Forest in 1877, which is commemorated by the Avalanche Memorial Church on Portland. The 1,200-ton Avalanche left London bound for New Zealand, carrying 63 emigrants with a crew of 43. As she neared Portland Bill, a force eight gale was blowing, and sailing nearby was a wooden ship, the Forest, destined for New York: the two ships collided approximately 12 miles offshore.

The Forest struck the middle of the Avalanche before rebounding and striking again, breaking her in two. The Avalanche sank immediately with the loss of 103 lives. The remaining three on board scrambled onto the Forest, with orders made to abandon ship using three small boats. Two of these were lost to the stormy seas, along with 12 men. The only remaining boat carried the 12 survivors of the two ships to safety. The Forest stayed afloat, partly submerged near Chesil Cove and consequently presenting a shipping hazard. It was blown up by the Navy 11 days after the tragedy.

These shipwrecks make up only a fragment of those beached over the years, with estimates that there have been more than 1,000 along the Dorset coast over the last few centuries.

*With thanks to the Weymouth, Dorset website for some of the information used here.