In August 1831, one of Britain's worst shipwrecks took the lives of 100 passengers within sight of the Welsh coast.

Almost a quarter of the victims were trippers from Bury -- including well-known local figures such as Lord Derby's land-agent.

In its day, the wreck caused as much of a sensation as the Herald of Free Enterprise 150 years later.

The train of events which led to the tragedy, and the tales of heroism and despair which came out of it seized the town's imagination and were the subject of poems, books and popular ballads.

IT was a cheerful crowd of trippers which embarked at Liverpool on the steam packet Rothsay Castle on Wednesday, August 17, 1831.

Officially, there were 100 passengers aboard. But it is certain there were an extra 20 or 30 passengers, and maybe more.

It seems unlikely that so many extra people had merely sneaked aboard; possibly someone was supplementing his pay by selling extra tickets.

The crew comprised captain, mate, steward, two firemen, two seamen (although there should have been four). There was also a three-piece band.

The ship's destination was Beaumaris in North Wales, 50 miles away. The annual regatta there was to be held next day.

But the Rothsay Castle never arrived in Wales. By midnight the passengers were struggling in the sea or clinging to what was left of the ship.

It had grounded on a sandbank half a dozen miles from Beaumaris, and literally fallen apart from the influence of wind and waves.

Was overloading the main cause of the wreck? Although partly to blame, it seems unlikely this was the principal cause.

The Rothsay Castle was a 200-ton paddle steamer, built 15 years before on the Clyde, in the infancy of steam navigation. She had just been fitted with a new keel and boiler at a cost of £1200, but was not very seaworthy, by some accounts.

Although the disaster happened long before such safety measures as the Plimsoll line, designed to end overloading, the drama which unfolded that fateful day 162 years ago was more a series of small mishaps than of one overwhelming disaster.

Notable were three factors: the weather, the captain and the delay.

The ship was advertised to leave Liverpool at 10am but one passenger, a Londoner, had a carriage to be loaded on board.

The delay this caused was later blamed for the ship's arrival at low tide in Conwy Bay -- a bay which at low tide is mostly sands, with only a narrow navigation channel.

The wind, in the form of gales, also delayed the ship.

Finally, the captain, a Lieut. Atkinson RN, was suffering from a large dose of over-confidence mingled with stubbornness. And at dinner, he drank too much. The consequences would kill three quarters of his passengers.

But until the ship reached the open sea about 15 miles out of Liverpool, none of the passengers were worried. They were out to enjoy themselves; they were travelling on a scheduled service on a British-built ship, so what could go wrong? But once out on the rough sea, some of the passengers became alarmed by the waves and the wind. One passenger who had done a lot of sea trips, said he'd never seen such weather.

Finally, Mr William Tarrey, 55, Land-agent to the Earl of Derby, who was travelling with his family, went below to ask Lieut. Atkinson to put back.

The captain, who was at dinner said: "I think there is a great deal of fear amongst you, and very little danger. If we turned back, it would never do: there would be no profit".

For the next two hours, the bold captain stayed below, eating and drinking, rebuffing nervous passengers and becoming more and more brusque and abusive to anyone who remonstrated with him.

As the afternoon wore on and the wind and waves lashed the vessel, it became clear that they were going to be very late indeed.

From the Little Orme's Head to the Great Orme's Head -- a distance of four or five miles -- survivors said it took the ship three hours. This puts the ship's speed at between one and two knots: a walking pace.

When they rounded the Head about 10pm, they came up against the ebbing tide from Conwy Bay and their speed dropped still more.

By now, most of the passengers were seasick; children were crying' their mothers were fearful. Some of the men asked the captain to try and get into Conwy harbour.

He refused: a wise choice, it seems, because the ship could never have made it into the shallow harbour at low tide.

Just before midnight, half a dozen miles from Beaumaris, the engine lost power.

The pumps, manned by passengers, soon packed up. Attempts to re-light the boiler failed, and now the vessel was in real trouble; drifting, powerless, pitching and rolling, driven by wind and tide towards a sandbank in the dark.

Now the captain ordered two or three passengers to help him raise a sail. But too late; before they could do anything, the ship grounded on Dutchman's Bank, about two miles from Puffin Island.

Even now, the captain's sang-froid was remarkable. He said: "it's only sand, she will soon float".

As he spoke, the stays holding the funnel parted, and it fell with a crash on desk.

Now, with the cabin filling with water, something like panic reigned. Lord Derby's steward, Mr Tarrey, and his 36-year-old wife Alice (daughter of the landlord of the White Lion in Bury), probably drowned below with their children.

All the passengers who could do so rushed up on desk to find no refuge there.

The ship's boat had dropped off its mountings into the sea some way back. There were no flares aboard, no guns, no way of signalling.

This left only the ship's bell to signal with. Someone began to ring it, but the sound was whipped away by the wind.

Yet the ship was only two miles from dry land -- and ten other vessels were not far away, riding out the storm.

The sea began to pound the ship to bits. Waves broke constantly over the deck, washing whole groups of terrified passengers overboard. Women screamed and clutched their children. A clergyman began to pray.

About 40 survivors cowered on the quarterdeck. The captain and the mate had both vanished.

The survivors clutched at whatever pieces of wreckage were at hand and committed their souls to the Lord.

One of these was the Bury chemist, John Nuttall. Moments before, he had been standing on deck holding the hand of Selina Lamb, 24, chambermaid at the Grey Mare on Bury Market Place.

In a trice, they were overboard, and the girl vanished. Nuttall was luckier. Though a non-swimmer, he managed to scramble back onto the wreck.

Dragging a half-drowned woman out of the sea by her hair, he was astonished to find it was a neighbour, Mary Whittaker.Soon the deck under them broke free and floated away. Nuttall and another survivor seized pieces of wreckage and paddled for shore.

Miss Whittaker tore off her petticoat and waved it as a distress signal. They were saved hours later by Beaumaris life-boat.

Mary's brother Robert Whittaker, a brazier, stripped to his underwear when the ship struck, and threw away 80 gold sovereigns, the weight of which threatened to drown him.

Clinging to a piece of wreckage, he floated about for nine hours. When picked up he thought he had been adrift for days -- and he had gone blind, too, although he recovered later.

But his little boy and his sister's child had both perished. Lawrence Duckworth, shopkeeper, of Edenfield, had climbed on the roof of the cook's cabin and tried to pull his wife Mary, 33, up after him. But she was swept away by a wave.

Soon afterwards, he, too, was swept off into the sea, but managed to climb onto a piece of timber about the size of a door.

He was rescued after eight hours in the water.

And so the long night wore on. It was 4am before anyone noticed the wreck. A lookout at Penmon Point, two miles away saw the remains of the ship on the sandbank.

Within minutes a boat was launched. Picking up what few survivors it could, it made for Beaumaris.

As soon as the alarm was raised in Beaumaris, every boat in the town made all speed to the Dutchman's Bank and began searching for survivors.

Sadly, few were left alive. Many bodies were never found. Some were even washed up 100 miles away.

At the inquest in Beaumaris, the verdict on the dead was "drowned".

The jury later wrote to the coroner, deploring the fact that an unseaworthy ship could put to sea with a drunken captain.

Others said that the Rothsay Castle was a leaky old tub that should never have put to sea.

Over the years, government regulations on sea safety were gradually tightened. Life-jackets, boats, signals, Plimsoll line, radio, all made navigation safer.

None of them made sea travel foolproof, but they made it unlikely that a British ship would ever find itself as helpless as the Rothsay Castle did that night 162 years ago.

One family's memorial

IF YOU cross Rochdale Road from the "Flying Shuttle" and look over the low wall at the side of the United Reformed Church, you will see three gravestones against the wall of the Halfords store.

The nearest one to the road is a memorial to the Walmsley family, who drowned in August 1831, in the wreck of the Rothsay Castle, which took the lives of 100 passengers. Nearly a quarter of those who perished were Bury folk.

The stone has been eroded in recent years by traffic pollution, but the text is in Bury Reference Library:

"In affectionate memory of WILLIAM WALMSLEY aged 29, MARY his wife aged 28 years, HENRY his son aged 5 years and MARGARET, an aunt aged 27 who perished in the wreck of the Rothsay Castle steam packet off Beaumaris during the night of 17 August, 1831. "Thou didst blow with thy wind. The sea covered them...They sank as lead in the mighty waters".

Those who perished

OUT OF 128 people who drowned, 21 were from Bury:

Wm Tarrey, 55, Lord Derby's estate agent.

Alice Tarrey, 36, his third wife and John, 15 months, their son.

Betsy, 13, daughter by his second wife Margaret (daughter of Jos Cass, Birtle).

Thos Appleton, 13, Alice's son by a previous husband.

Mary Appleton, 10, ditto.

Rachel, 16, Tarrey's maid, daughter of Jas Howarth, butcher of Rock St.

Wm Walmsley, 29, dyer, Seedfield, brother of Jas Walmsley, confectioner of Millgate (Bolton St).

Mary Walmsley, 28, his wife, daughter of Samuel Hamer, Bury.

Henry, 5, their son.

Margaret Walmsley, 27, daughter to Wm Walmsley, pot maker, Birtle.

Her fianc. Kas Fitton, 30, farmer, Seedfield. John Wilkinson, 25, joiner, Redvales.

Jas, Whittaker, 8, only child of Robt Whittaker, brazier of Silver St.

Thos Whittaker, 6, son of Robt Whittaker's sister Mary.

Selina Lamb, 24, chambermaid, Grey Mare Inn, Market Place, Bury.

Thos Charles, 35, shoemaker, son of Jas Charles, shoemaker of Millgate (Bolton St).

Betty, 43, wife of John Duckworth, Shuttleworth.

Mary, 33, wife of Lawrence Duckworth, shopkeeper, Edenfield.

Thos, 38, spinner, son of Lawrence Entwistle, Edenfield.

Luckier was John Whitehead, bleacher of Lowercroft, who would have been aboard the Rothsay Castle but for a last-minute change of plan.