The Royal Charter was built at the Sandycroft Ironworks on the River Dee and was launched in 1857. She was a new type of ship, a 2719 ton steel-hulled steam clipper, built in the same way as a clipper ship but with auxiliary steam engines which could be used in the absence of suitable winds.
The ship was used on the route from Liverpool to Australia, mainly as a passenger ship although there was room for some cargo. There was room for up to 600 passengers, with luxury accommodation in the first class. She was considered a very fast ship, able to make the passage to Australia in under 60 days.
In late October 1859 the Royal Charter was returning to Liverpool from Melbourne. Her complement of about 371 passengers (with a crew of about 112 and some other company employees) included many gold miners, some of whom had struck it rich at the diggings in Australia and were carrying large sums of gold about their persons. A consignment of gold was also being carried as cargo. As she reached the north-western tip of Anglesey on 25th October the barometer was dropping and it was claimed later by some passengers, though not confirmed, that the master, Captain Thomas Taylor, was advised to put into Holyhead harbour for shelter. He decided to continue on to Liverpool however.
Off Point Lynas the Royal Charter tried to pick up the Liverpool pilot, but the wind had now risen to force 10 on the Beaufort scale and the rapidly rising sea made this impossible. During the night of 25th/26th October the wind rose to force 12 "hurricane force" in what became known as the "Royal Charter gale". As the wind rose its direction changed from E to NE and then NNE, driving the ship towards the east coast of Anglesey. At 11 p.m. she anchored, but at 1.30 a.m. on the 26th the port anchor chain snapped, followed by the starboard chain an hour later. Despite cutting the masts to reduce the drag of the wind, the Royal Charter was driven inshore with the steam engines unable to make headway against the gale. The ship initially grounded on a sandbank, but in the early morning of the 26th the rising tide drove her onto the rocks at a point just north of Moelfre on the eastern coast of Anglesey. Battered against the rocks by huge waves whipped up by winds of over 100 mph, she quickly broke up.
One member of the crew, Joseph Rogers, managed to swim ashore with a line, enabling a few people to be rescued, and a few others were able to struggle to shore through the surf. Most of the passengers and crew, a total of over 450 people, died. Many of them were killed by being dashed against the rocks by the waves rather than drowned. Others were said to have drowned, weighed down by the belts of gold they were wearing around their bodies. The survivors, 21 passengers and 18 crew members, were all men, with no women or children saved.
A large quantity of gold was said to have been thrown up on the coasts near Moelfre, with some families becoming rich overnight. The gold bullion being carried as cargo was insured for £322,000, but the total value of the gold on the ship must have been much higher as many of the passengers had considerable sums in gold, either on their bodies or deposited in the ship's strongroom. Many of the bodies recovered from the sea were buried at Llanallgo churchyard nearby, where the graves and a memorial can still be seen. There is also a memorial on the cliff above the rocks where the ship struck, which is on the Anglesey Coastal Path.
Almost exactly a century later in October 1959 another ship, the Hindlea, struck the rocks in almost the same spot in another gale. This time there was a different outcome, with all the crew being saved by the Moelfre lifeboat.
The aftermath of the disaster is described by Charles Dickens in The Uncommercial Traveller. Dickens visited the scene and talked to the rector of Llanallgo, the Rev. Stephen Roose Hughes, whose exertions in finding and identifying the bodies probably led to his own premature death soon afterwards. Dickens gives a vivid illustration of the force of the gale:
The disaster had an effect on the development of the Meteorological Office as Captain Robert FitzRoy, who was in charge of the office at the time, brought in the first gale warning service to prevent similar tragedies.
The wreck was extensively salvaged by Victorians shortly after the disaster. The remains today lie close inshore in less than 5 metres of water as a series of iron bulkheads, plates and ribs which become covered and uncovered by the shifting sands from year to year. Gold sovereigns, pistols, spectacles and other personal items have been found by scuba divers by chance over the years. Teams have air-lifted, water-dredged and metal-detected for other treasure as late as 2005.