The ocean-stripped oak carcass of the Helvetia shipwreck is today an easily recognised landmark of Rhossili and must be one of the most photographed of objects on the Gower Peninsula as a whole.
Today, it is difficult to imagine Rhossili without the wreck of the Helvetia. Standing upon the cliffs here, and gazing down upon the bay, the shipwreck punctuates the 3 mile stretch of sands.
But its presence is not a permanent feature. Each day, the mighty Atlantic Ocean continues to feed upon the wreck. In only the last decade or so, the wreckage has reduced considerably. Who knows how many future generations will have the fortune of gazing upon the Helvetia and should be treasured whilst it remains.
The wrecking of the Helvetia
The gales around the Gower coast on the morning of 1st November 1887 caused two ships, heavily laden with timber, to be stranded off Mumbles' Head. Unable to navigate the stormy seas to dock at Swansea Harbour, the struggling ships found themselves being blown down the Bristol Channel by the increasingly strong south-easterly winds. One ship luckily managed to reach the shelter of Lundy Island, but the oak-constructed barque of the Helvetia, struck the dangerous sandbank of Helwick Sands. With the next turbulent swell, the ship gained freedom from the shallow waters but was swept precariously around Worm's Head into the shallow waters of Rhossili Bay.
The captain of the Helvetia dropped anchor here and was taken ashore by the coastguard. However, he refused to abandon his ship altogether, leaving the crew aboard the barque, afraid that given the chance, someone might steal her. Unfortunately, the wind refused to die down and when it changed direction suddenly, it forced the ship to drag her anchor. With nightfall rapidly approaching, the decision was finally made for the crew to abandon ship. The tortured wreck of the Helvetia was discovered the next morning, laid to rest upon the sands and surrounded by her cargo of 500 tons of wood.
During the following weeks the timber was systematically collected from the beach and gathered for auction sale, where South Wales timber merchants purchased the cargo at a bargain price. Arrangements were made for the timber to be taken by ship during the summer months. It was during this phase of the wood clearance operation that the sea brought a second disaster to the area.
The steamboat Cambria, from Llanelli, and a small Mumbles sailing vessel, having loaded the Helvetia's timber from the bay, were both caught short by the tide. The captain of the sailing vessel carried his anchor out to low water to assist in leaving the bay later, but the propeller driven Cambrian needed to wait for high tide.
As the tide came in, the wind picked up pace causing the waves to intensify and swell. As the Cambria started to float with the rising water, it unfortunately turned sideways onto the strengthening waves, and looked as if it would surely be wrecked. However, with the help from the coastguard, the ship was stabilized and the crew managed to sail away safely later the same day. The ship's anchor had been left behind, however, and so some local men were hired to carry the anchor over the sands at low water, to the nearby area of the bay known as Kitchen Corner. There they attached a buoy to the anchor, making it ready for collection when the ship returned later.
When the ship returned to the bay several months later, the Cambria's master sent a boat ashore with some day-tripping landlubbers. After spending the day at the Rhossili public house 'The Ship Inn', these men finally recovered the anchor. Unfortunately, the weight of the anchor, accompanied by the weight of the six rescuers, proved too much for the boat, eventually causing it to capsize. All six men were thrown into the ocean. Only one of the men made it to the shore alive.
The wreck of the Helvetia itself was sold cheaply to a local man, but before he had a chance to strip the precious copper keel from the vessel, she had started to settle in the sand. Nevertheless, he made good salvage of the ship's deckboards by flooring his kitchen with its wood.
Rhossili was not a stranger to profit from shipwrecks, previous centuries had witnessed the violence of the Rhossili Wreckers - who lured in unsuspecting ships caught in troubled seas to be smashed against the rocks, in order to acquire their cargo. Such purposeful wrecking confined to the past, the locals would still always make good use of the wreckwood from the beaches, and nearly all of the surviving old farm buildings down the far end of the peninsula are constructed from such reclamation.