Ġużeppi (pronounced: Giuseppi or abbreviated to Guże') Ruggier (often known as 'Joe Rogers') was a Maltese seaman born in Birgu (Vittoriosa) to a seafaring family from the 'Three Cities' (Cottonera) in Malta.
His name is intimately linked with the tragedy of the shipwreck of the "Royal Charter" in 1859 when he exhibited great courage.
The images alongside shows him in his later years.
On the left he is shown in 1874.
The photograph on the right was taken by Messrs Brown Barnes Bell in Liverpool, and has been handed down by his descendants over the generations. Although it is undated, the pattern on the rear conforms best to 1883 .
According to oral family history, Ruggier's family had plied the central Mediterranean, including the hitherto notorious Barbary coast.
His first name Guze or Guzi is the diminutive of Giuseppe (Italian) or Giuzeppi (Maltese). His name was anglicised to Joseph or Joe, Rogers or Rodgers, ( but he has also been very mistakenly referred to in some accounts as Joie Rodriguez).
However Guze (Guzi) sailed further afield, including notably the Melbourne to Liverpool route.
The Royal Charter was a sailing clipper with an auxiliary steam engine and an iron hull built at the Sandycroft works in Flintshire on the River Dee, not far from Chester.
This clipper was intended specifically for sailing from Melbourne, Australia to Liverpool, and on it Ruggier completed five trips.
The painting reproduced below shows the Royal Charter at her best. Note the small chimney just behind the main mast.
On the last leg of a trip from Melbourne to Liverpool in which she had done very well until then in terms of speed and performance, her luck changed. Unfortunately on the night of the 25th / early morning of the 26th October 1859 the Royal Charter was caught in a terrible storm - arguably the worst of that century, ironically as she was nearing her destination (Liverpool) after a brief stopover in Ireland.
The ship was blown towards the rocky coast of the island of Anglesey (Ynys Mon) in Wales by a very powerful North Easterly hurricane.
Attempts to slow her inexorable movement failed - the anchor lines broke, attempts at chopping off sails, rigging and masts were not enough, and the propellor stopped (perhaps fouled by the rigging which had been cast adrift)
The outcome was that the vessel was shipwrecked on the coast of Anglesey between on the one hand Dulas bay and Lligwy Bay and on the other hand Red Wharf Bay, not far from the village of Moelfre.
The ship sent out repeated distress signals (cannon, flares, and
lights) but the conditions were so atrocious that the Moelfre lifeboat,
based only about a mile away, could not be launched.
Guze Ruggier volunteered to swim from the vessel to shore with a rope.
This act was portrayed for posterity by the Victorian artist Henry Nelson O'Neil in 1860 in his painting entitled 'A Volunteer'. A detail of the painting is shown above. The Maltese seaman Guze Ruggier is seen with Mr Stevens the Chief Officer (according to the booklet researched and compiled by John Hughes) just before his leap of faith into the stormy sea. In the top left are the rocks with the men of Moelfre ready to assist, whilst to the right are some of a cluster of hapless passengers.
'Joe Rogers' succeeded in reaching the rocks, probably through a blend of courage, strength, skill and knowledge of the behaviour of the sea, and luck too. On reaching the rocks he was caught and hauled (badly injured) by men from Moelfre who also braved the terrible conditions.
This effort permitted a bosun's chair (or arguably more accurately a 'breeches buoy') to be rigged, and slowly this provided a veritable lifeline for passengers and crew.
However the ship rapidly broke up by the force of the storm, and the hawser broke (as had the ship's anchors before it). Thus in the event only thirty nine lives were saved, and by all accounts more than four hundred perished as the ship very rapidly disintegrated in the very heavy seas.
According to the Bradford Observer at the time, the survivors were:
Christopher Anderson, William Ferris,
Thomas Gundry, James M'Capper, Henry Carew Taylor,
James Dean, John
Bradbury, Samuel Grenfell, Samuel Gapper, John
James Russell, William Draper, Edward Wilson, George
Gibson, David Strongman, Tom Tims, Patrick
James White, George Pritchard, Thomas Cunningham,
Barton, Thomas Cormack, John O'Brien, Joseph
George Suiacar (Suaicar?), Walter Hughes, William Foster, Owen
Henry Evans, Thomas Griffiths and William M'Carthy.
A memorial overlooks the rocks where the ship was wrecked
alongside taken in April 2002).
'Joseph Rogers' was honoured by the Royal National Life Boat Institution (RNLI), by the Board of Trade, by other bodies and the public as a hero and dubbed 'Rodgers of the Royal Charter'.
The photograph alongside shows the original entry in the minute book of the Royal National Life Boat Institution dated the 3rd November 1859 (serial number 129) in which the resolution was recorded:
"That the Gold medal and £5 be presented to Joseph Rogers in testimony of his heroic conduct in swimming ashore with a line from the Steam Ship Royal Charter, whereby many lives were saved, on the occasion of the unfortunate wreck of that vefsel, during a very heavy gale of wind on the Anglesey Coast on the night of the 25th October 1859."
The rapidity with which the award was made, only 8 days after the shipwreck, was astonishing especially for those days.
The next photograph alongside shows the Royal National Life Boat Institution citation on vellum presented to him with the award of the Gold Medal.
A copy of this citation has been donated by 'Joseph Rogers' family to the Seawatch Centre (Gwylfan) in Moelfre, which exhibits indoors his name on a plaque along with other recipients of the RNLI gold medals, notably coxswain Richard (Dic) Evans. (Statues of both of them are outdoors).
An image of Ruggier's Royal National Lifeboat Institution Gold Medal is shown below:
Besides the RNLI Gold Medal, Ruggier was also awarded a medal by the Board of Trade " for gallantry in saving life" and an image of this medal of his is shown too.
In spite of the horrendous loss of life with only about one in ten of the people on board the Royal Charter surviving, it is probably part of human nature to seek out a hero or act of bravery, as well as some comfort and 'good news' out of the terrible tragedy.
About 28 or 29 men from Moelfre braved the atrocious conditions on the shoreline forming a human chain to help Ruggier up, and to try to save other lives.
Moreover it is said that on the Royal Charter that night another Maltese seaman, a boatswain's mate called "George Suiacar" tried, albeit with not as much success as Ruggier, to save lives and he was given a silver medal in recognition. However Suiacar is not a Maltese surname, unless perhaps it is a corruption of 'Cassar'.
Although he shunned publicity and fame, 'Joseph Rogers' was acclaimed by the press far and wide.
Thus, 'Joseph Rodgers' was featured in several newspapers and other periodicals of the time.
Thus the Illustrated London News of the 26th November 1859,and an archive in Liverpool provides access to an image of a page from this periodical, (located in the Liverpool Central Library), showing 'Joseph Rodgers' with a rope around his chest in a posture presumably demonstrating his initiative and action.
A similar, but perhaps more verbally effusive, presentation is exemplified by the 'British Workman'. This was a popular monthly magazine for 'working men' whose readership was probably slightly different from that of newspapers like the Illustrated London News. A rather tattered page is shown below. The caption reads: " JOSEPH RODGERS, THE HERO OF THE “ROYAL CHARTER” It affords us much pleasure to present our readers with a life-like portrait of the brave seaman who swam ashore with a rope, by means of which thirty-nine lives were saved from the wreck of the “Royal Charter.” .
The Royal Charter was a famous wreck because of the loss of life, especially among the passengers, and also because she was carrying large quantities of gold bullion as ingots or in coins (the product of the Australian gold rush).
Most of the bodies which were recovered lie buried in St Gallgo's church (Llanalgo). The church and the churchyard is well worth a visit. There are many graves and other links to the sad event.
Particular credit is due to the vicar of the church at that time the Reverend Stephen Roose Hughes who worked assiduously to bury the bodies of the bereaved with dignity and to help their distraught relatives.
Until a few years ago his grave had been terribly neglected but has since been lovingly restored.
Charles Dickens gave an account of the shipwreck very soon after the event in Chapter II - 'The Shipwreck' from 'The Uncommercial Traveller'. This publication helped raise money to build the memorial in the Llanalgo church.
The website of that church provides further details such as the names of the men of Moelfre who tried to rescue the victims from the shore.
Other bodies were buried in various churchyards in Anglesey such as at Pentraeth.
An obelisk in the churchyard of Llanallgo church commemorates the tragedy.
A photo of one of the inscriptions on this memorial is shown below. Unfortunately this monument is now urgently in need of repair as it risks toppling over.
earliest and still currently available in the 150th centenary edition of the loss of the Royal
and of the intrigues of recent salvage attempts is in the book 'The
Golden Wreck' by Alexander McKee (Avid
Publications). The front cover of the latest edition is shown
A shorter account (in Welsh) of the wreck of the Royal Charter appears in 'Ofnadwy Nos' by T Llew Jones (Gomer Press). 'Ofnadwy Nos' means 'Awful Night' - which it was since well over 100 ships sank throughout British waters that night and about 800 lives were lost - more than a half of them on the Royal Charter.
A book first published more recently, and which reproduces many of the original accounts as well as several underwater photographs in colour, is " Life and Death on the Royal Charter - The true story of a treasure ship wrecked on Anglesey" by Chris and Lesley Holden.
A short article about the Royal Charter tragedy appeared more recently in the Spring 2002 edition of the Lifeboat magazine, based on 'Gold Medal Rescues' by Edward Wake-Walker.
In referring to 'Joseph Rodgers', the article says that "The first Gold Medal to be awarded after the establishment of the Lifeboat journal was not to a lifeboatman but was for an act of individual bravery ...".
Besides the painting of 'The Volunteer' shown above, the wreck of the Royal Charter and the actions of 'Joe Rogers' have been the subject of a number of pictorial depictions as well as prose and verse over the years.
The image alongside shows a receipt from the purser of the SS Great Britain acknowledging receipt of more than £63 from Captain Gray on behalf of Ruggier (with his name again mis-spelt).
In total it seems that Ruggier worked on at least 22 trips on the SS Great Britain from Liverpool to Australia (mainly Melbourne). Initially his job was an Able Seaman but later he became a Lamp Trimmer. In 1864 a passenger called Thomas Mellanby Dunn mentions Joseph Rogers in his diary. ''The sailor who swam ashore with a rope around him from the wreck of the 'Royal Charter' and thereby saved the lives of many of those on board that unfortunate ship - is a seaman on board the Great Britain''.
As far as is known Guze Ruggier never married and was childless. He was still working at the age of 65 on a small steam vessel which travelled the Mersey River, and by some accounts did save at least one other life from drowning, decades after his heroism on the Royal Charter.
Guze Ruggier died on the 10th September1897 aged 68 years at the Northern Hospital in Liverpool, where he was taken after a 'bronchial attack'.
On the death certificate shown below, his name is quoted as "Joseph Rogers", his occupation is stated as 'Merchant Seaman' (with an address in Wellington Dock) and his cause of death as "Pneumonia, Heart failure". The name and qualifications of the certifying medical practitioner are difficult to make out but seem to be Dr Pearce LRCP or possibly FRCP (coincidentally both being amongst the qualifications of the author of this web page). The registration district of the death was Liverpool in the sub-district of Islington in the County of Liverpool and the informant appears to be a "Jas Moffatt" (with an address in Orwell Road Kirkdale) .
The following was his obituary notice, but sadly it made a mistake in his nationality by birth (as he was in fact Maltese):
THE TIMES, SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 1897 Mr Joseph Rodgers, who died in Liverpool Northern Hospital yesterday, in his 68th year, was the man who, in 1859, swam ashore from the stranded ship, Royal Charter, to the shore with a rope, and was thus the means of saving the lives of many on board the steamer. This vessel left Melbourne for Liverpool on August 26, 1859, with 388 passengers and 112 officers and crew. She passed Queenstown on October 24, landing 13 of her passengers and pilot boat. Next evening she passed Holyhead in fine weather, but it shortly became tempestuous, and at 3 a.m. on the 20th she struck the rocks in Moelfre Bay. It was here that Rodgers gallantly undertook to carry a rope through raging surf. He accomplished what had seemed to be an impossible feat of swimming, and by means of the rope a hawser connection with the shore was established. He was a Portuguese by birth. If time had been allowed all on board might then have been saved, but the vessel shortly divided amidships, and about 430 passengers and crew were lost. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution presented Rodgers with a gold medal, and he received other recognition for his gallantry. Latterly he commanded a steam barge on the Mersey, but a few days ago the bronchial attack caused his removal to the Northern Hospital, where he died.
Ruggier is buried at Ford Roman Catholic Cemetery in Liverpool.
He was a shy and diffident man who died poor, and was buried in a pauper's grave.
The image alongside shows the inscription exhorting us to pray for the repose of his soul.
The tomb stone was erected by the Evening Express several years after his death, apparently after money raising through public subscription bought an empty grave plot where the stone was placed.
The 150th anniversary of the Wreck of the Royal Charter was commemorated in October 2009, through the efforts of the Moelfre partnership and others.
On Saturday 24th October 2009, during the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Royal Charter tragedy a paired set of bronze sculptures by Sam Holland were officially unveiled on the 24th October 2009 by Michael Vlasto the Operations Director of the RNLI.
These works of art are located just outside the Seawatch Centre (Gwylfan) in Moelfre.
One of the bronzes portrays Ruggier climbing the rock face.
The inscription on the other side of it states:
A hero of the Royal Charter.
Underneath is an eight pointed 'Maltese cross'.
The other bronze statue shows the wrecked Royal Charter.
The above image shows the sculpture immediately after the official unveiling. The author is second from the right, next to Sam Holland who is demonstrating her work of art. (Carwyn Jones, elected Welsh Labour leader five weeks later, is second from left.)
Other commemorative events on Saturday 24th October 2009 included:
A new Celtic longboat belonging to the Moelfre Rowing Club was named 'Joseph Rodgers' on the same day by the author of this web page.
On Sunday the 25th October 2009 the events included:
A Memorial Service at the Church of Llanallgo conducted by the Right Reverend Andrew John, the Bishop of Bangor.
Later on Sunday evening at another religious venue - Capel Carmel two memorial concerts were held (as well as a memorial service the following day). The image above shows the author being interviewed by Bedwyr Rees ( narrator of Y Royal Charter ) during the event.
Further details are available here (from the 'Moelfre' website) and from the RNLI website.
The commemorative event has also been mentioned in The Malta Independent on Sunday.
An article in the context of the Dickens bicentenary has also been published in the Sunday Times (Malta).
I am grateful to Mr Brian Wead, Service Information Section Manager at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution Head Quarters in Poole for very kindly allowing me access to minutes of the Institution and other documentation pertaining to the wreck of the Royal Charter.
Andy Birchall, the great, great grandson of Thomas Taylor, the captain of the Royal Charter, is fundraising for the RNLI in memory of the passengers & crew of the Royal Charter.