There is a video bouncing around the web these days called “The Strangest Coincidence Ever Recorded?” (The video is embedded at the bottom of the post.) It tells the story of a ship which sank in the Menai Strait off the coast of Wales on December 5, 1664. All 81 passengers died, except one. His name was Hugh Williams. Then on December 5th, 1785 another ship with 60 aboard sank in the Menai Strait. The only survivor – a man named Hugh Williams. In 1820 on December 5th, a third vessel sank in the Menai Strait. All 25 aboard were drowned except, you guessed it, a man named Hugh Williams.
An amazing tale, but is it history or just a an oft retold sea story? It could easily be a bit of each.
One version of the story appears as a footnote on page 155 of Cliffe’s Book of North Wales, published in 1851. The story starts out the same with the sinkings on December 5, 1664 and 1785, with Hugh Williams, the only survivor. The story changes for the 1820 sinking. Hugh Williams is still the sole survivor but the sinking took place on August 5th, not December 5th. The footnote goes on to mention that, “Again on May 20th, 1842, a boat was crossing the Menai, near the spot where the above catastrophes happened, when she upset with 15 passengers, and all perished save one; but in this instance the name of the survivor was Richard Thomas.”
Another book, Guide to North Wales by Francis Coghlan published in 1860, repeats the story of the three shipwrecks with the August 1842 date.
There is documentary evidence for at least the 1785 version of the the story. Pages 281- 286 of Rev. William Bingley’s book “North Wales, including its scenery, Antiquities and Customs” 1804, Vol. 1. describe Hugh Williams escape from the shipwreck on December 5, 1785.
Another version of the story includes: On 10th July 1940, a British trawler was destroyed by a German mine – only two men survived, one man and his nephew – they were both called Hugh Williams.
So it appears that the video version on the Internet may have been slimmed down and improved a bit. Making the third sinking on December, rather than August 5th, pumps up the story and omitting Richard Thomas and Hugh Williams and his uncle, Hugh Williams, makes the tale more pithy and considerably more mysterious.
One thing is obvious from the story of Hugh and his Uncle Hugh – Hugh Williams is not an uncommon name in Wales. Apparently the Anglicization of Welsh names had an impact. From Welsh Names : ...by the 15th century the range of names in use was affected by the great popularity of a limited number of names such as John, William and Thomas, which had also been adopted in England by that time. Also, fixed surnames were adopted gradually in Wales, so the son of William often took his father’s first name as his last, which is how popluar first names became common surnames. Indeed, Coghlan’s account of the three shipwrecks ends with the comment: “This extraordinary coincidence can only be explained by the circumstance that the name of Hugh Williams is very common in these parts.”
Another point which emerges in the longer version of the story which includes the survivor, Richard Thomas, is that the Menai Strait is a particularly nasty body of water with strong currents and rough seas. When listening to the shorter version of the story one might think that only three boats sank in the Menai Strait over two hundred years. The number is probably closer to three hundred. The number of deaths by drowning is probably in the thousands.
So it appears safe to say that the answer to the implied question in the video title “The Strangest Coincidence Ever Recorded?” is no. The name Hugh Williams is fairly common and the waters off North Wales are treacherous. Over a period of almost two hundred years is not that unlikely that there would be three sole survivors of shipwrecks who had the same name. Two on the same day of the month is less likely, though over more than 100 years, maybe not that improbable either.
It is a good sea story all the same.
Thanks to Irwin Bryan and Polly Seip for contributing to the post.
For more about nautical coincidences, see our post, Nautical Coincidence & Lifeboat Morality – Richard Parker and the Mignonette