Over a period of 200 years, 3 ships perished at the same location of the coast of Wales, on the same day (December 5th) and all 3 had only one survivor. The 3 survivors all had the same name: Hugh Williams.
1. On December 5th 1660, a ship sank in the straights of Dover - the only survivor was noted to be Hugh Williams.
On 5th December 1767, another ship sank in the same waters - 127 lost their lives, the only survivor was noted to be Hugh Williams
On 8th August 1820, a picnic boat capsized on the Thames - there was one survivor - Hugh Williams.
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.
2. On December 5, 1664, a ship sunk in the Menai Strait, a stretch of water with tremendous tidal swings off the coast of Wales. All 81 passengers died, except one. His name was Hugh Williams.
On December 5, 1785, another ship sunk in the Menai Strait, with again everyone aboard dying except for one man…named Hugh Williams.
And then again, on December 5, 1820, yet another ship sunk in the Menai Strait. Only one man survived, and he was named Hugh Williams.
Hoax or Fact:
These messages, in several variants, claim to talk about a strangest coincidence ever recorded - that over a period of 200 years, 3 ships sank and perished at the same location of the coast of Wales, on the same day (December 5th) and in all 3 incidents there was only one survivor - all with same name: Hugh Williams! Strange as it may sound, this is an urban legend that has been around for many years, but is not a fact. The story is an interesting hoax created by putting together various incidents in the past - with misinformation.
The story also became popular through a video of Strange as it Seems program titled 'The Strangest Coincidence Ever Recorded' and comes with a description saying:
In 1977, The People's Almanac published a list of the 15 favorite oddities of all time, the first on their list being "the greatest series of coincidences in history" which began on December 5th, 1664 off the north coast of Wales.
As you an see in this version of story, the first incident is reported to have happened in 1664, while others said 1660. In fact this has been the case with this urban legend - there are several versions to it, with different details. Before looking into the credible sources of these incidents, let us first look into the location of all these incidents - the coast of Wales, particularly in the Menai Strait.
About the Coast of Wales
The messages talk about the coincidence as a strange incident, but do not point the fact that the coast of Wales in United Kingdom is a dangerous place for ships and several ship wrecks have been taking place here over the years. This is because of the weather along the coast of Wales which is heavily dependent upon sea travel. Moreover, December 5 time along the Wales coast happens to be the prime season for dangerous, windy, and stormy weather and the coldness of the waters increase the likelihood of deaths in a shipwreck. It is to be noted that not just this one, there are many British shipwreck stories around this place.
The Menai Strait, along the North coast of Wales, where most stories particularly relate to this coincidence, has a nasty body of water with strong currents and rough seas. And as the legend might sound, it is not that just these 3 shipwreck incidents have occurred in the span of 200 years, there were few hundreds of shipwrecks around the Menai Strait. Over the years, the coastline of Wales has seen thousands of shipwrecks, where thousands of people have drowned and died.
About Unsinkable Hugh Williams and the Legend
Strange as it may sound, but the explanation behind this 'strangest coincidence ever recorded' is a simple fact that Hugh (Hue in typical Welsh) Williams is very common name prevalent in Wales, as it sounds pleasant and charming. And then there are no credible records to confirm that 3 such ship wreck incidents have happened around the coast of Wales (or around Menai Strait) over a span of 200 years and all 3 sole survivors had the same name of Hugh (Hue) Williams.
In The book of North Wales written by Charles Frederick Cliffe, a footnote on page 155 mentioned this coincidence as:
Coincidences -- On the 5th Dec., 1664, a boat was upset in crossing Menai Strait, and only one person was saved out of 81 passengers. His name was Hugh Williams. On the same day and month, 1785, another boat was capsized with 60 passengers, who were all drowned, with the exception of one, a Hugh Williams!! On the 5th Aug., 1820, a third boat with 25 passengers was upset, and all were drowned, excepting one, who also bore the charmed name of Hugh Williams!!! Again on the 20th May, 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.
Then in a book called Guide to North Wales written by Francis Coghlan, he referred to the same incident on page 69:
Connected with the history of the Menai Strait is the following remarkable coincidence:-- On Dec. 5th, 1664, a boat crossing the Strait with eighty-seven passengers was upset, and only one person, named Hugh Williams, saved. On the same day in 1785, another boat, with sixty persons, overset, and all the passengers were drowned except one, also named Hugh Williams; and, August 5th, 1820, a third boat, with twenty-five passengers, met the same disaster, and all perished except one, who, singular to relate, was named Hugh Williams. This extra ordinary coincidence can only be explained by the circumstance that the name of Hugh Williams is very common in these parts.
This suggests that the third incident of shipwreck has in fact happened on 5th August, 1820, NOT on December 5th - to make this coincidence extraordinary.
To conclude, it is not that unlikely that over a period of 200 hundred years, around a place prone to shipwrecks, and where people are commonly named Hugh Williams, there can be sole survivors of the accidents happening on the same day bearing the same name. In this particular case, the third incident did not happen on the same day, it is a hoax creation to make this interesting coincidence 'the strangest coincidence ever recorded'. But nevertheless, it is a good sea story to tell.