The Unsinkable Hugh Williams – Truth Behind the Legend?

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.

The Strangest Coincidence Ever Recorded?

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

 

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67 Responses to The Unsinkable Hugh Williams – Truth Behind the Legend?

  1. Irwin Bryan says:

    I knew I could count on you to dissect the story with factual research!

  2. Hugh Williams says:

    As you can see my name is the lucky or safe name. I was named after my
    paternal grandfather who immigrated to Canada from north Wales in 1877.
    My late father gave me newspaper clippings (two ) many years ago—he died in 1954 and I am now 79 these both describe four ship sinkings with the only survivor being Hugh Williams. The first was on Dec.5,1664 in the
    Menia Straits, the second event was on Dec.5 1785 a pleasure schooner
    was wrecked on the Isle of Man. Then on Aug.5,1820 a pickning party on
    the Thames was run down by a coal barge and of 25 on board only 5 year old Hugh Williams survived .Now the most singular storey–onAug.19,1889
    a Leeds coal barge with 9 men abord floundered–all but two were drowned
    and both were named Hugh Williams,an uncle and nephew! This is unlike
    the story which has the same 3 dates but all say the sinkings were in the straits of Menai . Go figure ? Respectfully, Hugh Rowland Williams.

  3. Rick Spilman says:

    Thank you for the fascinating comment. Truly intriguing. By the way, has anyone ever hesitated to join you on a boat or ship?

  4. Hugh Williams says:

    I have only been on four cruise ships,and a number of smaller
    boats over the years, but no one ever knew of the historical events
    with those sailing with ancients bearing my name. I will not have any
    fears however if by some remote reason I should find myself on a ship
    in the Sraits of Menai between Anglesey and Carnavonshire

  5. Rick Spilman says:

    I am sure that you are correct, sir. Nevertheless a bit of caution is always a good idea. We should not forget Captain Hugh Williams, master of the schooner “Clara Felicia” who was drowned at Porthmadoc, Wales, on the 11th day of December, 1879 at the age of 42. Of course, Porthmadoc is some distance from the Straits of Menai.

  6. Sue Phillips says:

    There are at least two people buried at the Old Llanidan Church Anglesey who were drowned crossing the Menai Straits. Margaret Edwards and her son Edward both died on 5th August 1820 so it appears that there was indeed a tragedy on this date but I don’t know about the sinking on the Thames.

  7. Rick Spilman says:

    Very interesting. Thanks for the comment.

    Rick

  8. Xpencer Count says:

    This is a very peculiar incident. Maybe time will tell if there is really arelation to the name of the person to the accidents.

  9. shiena summer says:

    omg .. thats it

  10. Bamigbola Omobolaji says:

    This is very interesting…

  11. Hugh Williams says:

    Great, now I have a worry about going to Wales on a cruise…And the mates at my school are freaking out xD

  12. Isaid says:

    Very interesting, thanks for factual information.

  13. Karen says:

    This was awesome! Thank you for answering with factual evidence.
    I manage many social media accounts and always research on trending topics this one being one!
    So this article and the comments by an actual Hugh Williams is amazing!

    Thank you “Old Salt Blog”!

  14. D Lloyd says:

    The Three Hugh Williams story.
    My father comes from a long line of fishermen from the Caernarfon area by the Menai Straits.The 3 Hugh Williams story is a true story according to my great grandfather as the three were saved just off the Menai Straits.Our family knew of at least one of them as it was the ferry that sunk.My Great grandfather was the captain of the ferry for many years circa 1820’s.

  15. Heather McGill says:

    I’ve heard the legend before, as my family are of Irish descent and supposedly a lot of the stories and legends are passed around abit I suppose. I never knew the dates or the reasons why the ships sank, but none the less, it is always a good sea story to tell when you are out on the boat! It is great to see some evidence behind it though and that it isn’t just a story.

  16. Destiny Sutherland says:

    I understand completely how one might feel that this story is 100percent true and that you should never ride a ship through the manai strait with a man named hugh williams on december 5th. I also understand how one would feel that even though proven wrong in many of ways that this is a very ineresting story. The first version of the story that i read was the shortened one. In this version they failed to mention that there were hundreds of other ships to sink in that area. They also changed the dates to make it seem more convincing. There is still one thing that I find strangely mysterious. Even with the name Hugh Williams being as popular as it is in that area, only ONE survivor and all having the same name. If there were other incodents with only one survivor, it might seem less myserious. Over all, i think that there is more research to be done if you want the whole truth.

  17. Ashleigh says:

    Thank you for adding the information passed on by your family heritage it is amazing to read.
    I will be looking into this a bit deeper im that keen to learn everything about it and try to piece how all the stories are linked in either one way or another. anyone with information on this feel free to email me.
    Thank you once again.
    Ash
    ash_gibbo_@hotmail.com

  18. dan says:

    I thought that was facsinating, its like a moral to the story is to think out the box, I agree with you destiny sutherland, although the is an explanation for it, the survivors were still hugh williams

  19. Hekasi says:

    Very interesting. I got here from 1 facebook page and the information that page gave turns out to be wrong

  20. Masika jacob robert says:

    Very strange!

  21. abeer says:

    Guys everyon please dont be fooled hugh williams died on 22 of something 1819 i am not sure aboutvthe first two sinkings but the last one is just exageration

  22. Marcy Stevens says:

    Very interesting! I also think it’s great Hugh Williams took the time to respond :)

  23. Henry IV says:

    Damn that was a good story. Do it again William Hughs.

  24. Scottie P says:

    There is no real records that say such. Manifests (passenger or otherwise) are a recent inclusion.. The Internet..share and spread the BS..

  25. Pingback: A miracle? |Secret Done

  26. richard thomas says:

    Was a rough time. At least I know I have a lucky name

  27. The real Hugh Williams says:

    You think a 79 year old goes to school, and writes “xD”? Dont believe everything on the internet, for I am the real Hugh Williams.

  28. dgdgdg says:

    you guys never got laid damn….

  29. Stacey says:

    If Hugh Williams is such a common name, they should look at how many Hugh Williams dies on these ships.

  30. lumano gasper says:

    its like a dreamer..,when you get heard of it..,but is that to say all of them they are family THE FAMILY STORY OF HUGH WILLIAM

  31. Andrew N says:

    @The real Hugh Williams The person you’re referring to didn’t mention that he’s one of the three people in the story :/

  32. amelia coleman says:

    @the real hugh williams
    Considering the popularity of the name, perhaps the latter is another hugh williams? Afterall the elderly gentleman commented on August 5th when the next hugh commenter sometime in January 2013? Seems like the Hugh williams name is still a winner :)

  33. Jon Williams says:

    I wish my name is Hugh and go to Menai Strait by ship.

  34. Ashley Reese says:

    Fascinating story to say the least. Totally going to read up on this now. :)

  35. Emma Farwell says:

    Wow unbelievable

  36. He leido The Unsinkable Hugh Williams – Truth Behind the Legend? | Old Salt Blog – a virtual port of call for all those who love the sea con mucho interes y me ha parecido util ademas de claro en su contenido. No dejeis de cuidar este blog es buena.

  37. Ryan says:

    He’s clearly a time traveler trying to fix a point in time that’s already a fixed point. Who even knows for sure how many times that’s happened with the same guy. He could’ve come back a dozen times!

  38. Shawn McCalla says:

    It’s not Hugh Williams Fault the Water Horses and Silkies got them

  39. Mercury Mends!
    Click amazing link below, u would love to share the story too!

    3 Ship-wrecks, all had just 1 survivor each.
    All survivors had the same name in common!
    Apart from the common name of all 3 survivors, Hugh Williams, notice all the surviving dates were No 5 dates! 5th Dec, 5th Dec & 5th Dec!

    Hugh Williams as a Name adds to No 41 {5, Mercury} as H=5, u=6, g=3, h=5; W=6, i=1, l=3, l=3, i=1, a=1, m=4, s=3!
    5, Mercury lends recovarative powers; just like Mercury found in a thermometer that can disintegrate but agin join back as easily. Best part is that it won’t carry a mark too of being hit!

    Ironically the true meaning of Number 41 is as follows:
    ‘This Number has a magical power like the single 5. It is a fortunate Number if the person it represents holds to his own judgement & opinions; if not, his plans are likely to be ‘wrecked’ by the stubbornness & stupidity of others!’
    Apparently, all three Hugh Williams were lucky to be blessed with a powerful name! And survived on dates adding to their Name Numbers!
    Lots in a Name, Mr Shakespeare! And Numbers!

  40. curious says:

    I wonder how many ‘Hugh Williams’ died in the sinkings?

  41. Rick Spilman says:

    Excellent question.

  42. Saad says:

    I am always interested in historical events andis history have increased my interest more to explore more about this event. Aldo I’m pretty sure that a man is not always the same. There is only name confusion.

  43. Carmel says:

    My great grandfathers name was Hugh Williams born in Anglesey in around 1840 he married and moved to Australia in the 1860’s. I find this story fascinating, might be related !

  44. Hugh Williams says:

    I was named after my father, who was named after his grandfather. My grandfather interrupted the potential line of I, II, III and IV by being named Leonard, the youngest of 12 and having 11 older sisters. He was born in Liverpool, but was Welsh by birth. He came to Baltimore as a teenager in the early 1900’s, delivering several horses to a wealthy farmer in Maryland.

    I’ve been aware of the “Legend of Hugh Williams” since I was 4 or 5 years old, thanks to Robert Ripley. That knowledge did not stop my father from pursuing a career as a naval architect and spending a great amount of time aboard naval vessels and freighters. Nor did it stop me from enlisting in the US Navy, stationed aboard a vessel that made occasional trips into the North Sea, then later earning a civilian Captain’s license and operating boats for the past 3 decades (however, I didn’t usually relate the “legend” to the passengers until we approached the dock on the return leg of the trip).

  45. Hugh Williams says:

    Anyone want to go on a cruise?

  46. The for real real Hugh Williams says:

    I am aboard ship in the Menai Strait and we are listing starboard….

  47. Hugh Williams says:

    Well the Royal Princess was adrift in the Mediterranean/Ionian Sea for 8 hours on 22/09/2013 having blown a main fuse 23 knots and a long time to stop, 90 miles form land and 3.0km of water beneath.

    If it had happened in the Messina Straits ???? hmmmm.

    I was on board !!!!

  48. ssemusu william cox says:

    for sure i could postpone my voyage if hugh williams was part of it, dont wanna be part of the experiment, ha haaaaaaaaaaa intersting fate

  49. amy says:

    I am a Williams. My family also comes from Wales.
    It was nice hearing the story.

  50. Lindsay N. says:

    I saw this legend reposted and had to know if there was any truth to it. Interesting read!

  51. news printer says:

    Howdy, I hopped over to your page via Digg. Not a thing I regularly read, yet I really like your thoughts nevertheless. A big heads up for developing something worthy of reading through!

  52. cly wyd says:

    I hope there will be more investigation about this story and be featured on a documentary. Sounds very interesting ^_^

  53. James Sanable says:

    I am unsure as to why you have your research for the alleged third sinking dated as 1820.
    At around 1:26 on the video clip, it seems clear that the narrator mentioned “75 years later” after the second sinking.
    So wouldn’t seventy five years after 1785 be 1860?
    I had not seen any other comment prior regarding this knowledge so it was necessary to show.
    This may correct your path and help secure a definite answer.

  54. Rick Spilman says:

    The video clip seems to be the least reliable source for the data. The 1820 date dates from a source publsihed back in 1851 so it may be the closest to a source document that we have.

  55. NELSON PATTY says:

    I WOULD LIKE TO JUST SAY THAT THIS WEBSITRE NEEDS A VIDEO TO REFUR TO JUST BECAUSE AS A WELL BEING FOR ALL VISUal LEARNERS WHO HATE READING … THANKS

  56. Debz says:

    Hum-mm, time traveler or vampire?

  57. sufi william says:

    thats really interesting !!!!!!!!!!

  58. sufi william says:

    i wish i get chance to travel in that cruise

  59. Janet Stevens says:

    I have heard this story before, but they said the man’s name was Hugh Wilson. All of my research never turned up any information. Today I Googled Hugh Wilson and Hugh Williams came up. So happy to know the full story. I will ask for the names of the passengers before I go on another cruise!

  60. Hello! I simply want to offer you a big thumbs up for your great information you have
    here on this post. I’ll be coming back to your website for more soon.

  61. Hugh Williams says:

    Who want to join me on the next cruise?

  62. Not Hugh Williams says:

    It’s like INCEPTION starring Hugh Williams.

  63. Hugh Williams says:

    Who wants to go on a cruise with me??

  64. jmoney says:

    BULLSHIT!!!!!!

  65. Jeff Hix says:

    I’m one of the writers and producers of the video — also the grand nephew of John Hix, creator of “Strange as it Seems” back in 1928 (40+ year comic strip, 150+ short films, 600+ radio shows)… great information and discussion here, especially the posts from a real Hugh Williams … for what it’s worth, our primary source for this story was “The Book of Lists” by Irving and David Wallechinsky…

  66. Jeff Hix says:

    P.S. We also produced a video about the “Richard Parker” coincidence mentioned in the article — http://on.aol.com/video/the-cannibal-coincidence–517490053?icid=bottom_related_thumb_4 — as well as a video of another extraordinary coincidence related to the sinking of the Titanic — http://on.aol.com/video/a-titanic-coincidence–517406503

  67. Cindy says:

    Can anyone tell me the name of the ship photographed in the “Unsinkable Hugh Williams and who identity of the photographer who took the photograph?

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