Jump to main textSkip main navigation Home Smugglers Shipwrecks Dorset Museums For Teachers Virtual Galleries Archive
The Earl of Abergavenny
The Avalanche
The Avalanche
HMS Formidable
The Halsewell
The Royal Adelaide

The Avalanche and Forest

Yes. That's correct!

Stained glass windowOn the 11th September, 1877, the Avalanche and the Forest were heading down the Channel in the same direction. In thick fog and heavy seas visibility was poor and neither was aware of the other's presence.

During the night the weather deteriorated and a Force 8 gale blew up. When they were off Portland a lookout on the Forest spotted a ship's light, but no action was taken.  The Avalanche and the Forest were on a collision course.

By the law of the sea the Avalanche should have given way to the Forest. No one knows why it didn't - perhaps the fog and driving rain prevented the Avalanche from seeing the Forest's lights. The Forest struck the Avalanche several times with tremendous force. Within minutes the iron passenger ship sank with the loss of everyone on board except three crew who were on deck and who scrambled aboard the Forest.

The crew of the Forest tried to save their own lives. They launched three lifeboats, but by daybreak only one was still afloat. It was spotted two miles off shore, in danger of being swamped by huge waves.

The Portland fishermen launched a "lerret" - a boat which was specially built for coping with the strong currents and steep shingle banks of the Chesil Beach - but the boat was too small to take on board the twelve exhausted crewmen. Despite the danger another lerret was launched from the Chesil Beach. In mountainous seas the twelve crewmen were transferred and brought safely ashore, the only survivors of the 120 people who originally set out on board the Forest and Avalanche.

St Andrew's Church was built in 1878 as a memorial to all those who died in the accident. The church is known as "Avalanche Church". In 1981 a stained glass window commemorating the tragedy was created and installed by Jon Callan, an artist from Portland. The window is a modern design. It shows the souls lost in the tragedy as flashes of bright colours rising to Heaven from the deep blue seas.

The wreck of the Avalanche still lies on the sea bed, at a depth of 52 metres, its front twisted and a gaping hole revealing the violence of the impact. The bodies of the victims trapped inside were never recovered, and the ship should be respected as their grave. Chart reference: 50 26.56N; 02 50.65W

To see objects from The Avalanche click here

To find out more about life on board emigrant ships click here