Thanks to a generous benefactor, a couple of years ago Seaford Museum commissioned an old ship’s figurehead to be restored. Richard Hunter of Yorkshire, a renowned authority on figureheads, expertly restored and repainted an old figurehead (nicknamed Phoebe) to its former glory. Whilst in Seaford, Richard asked me to help trace another local figurehead, that of the “Lewes Lass” which he thought once decorated a house in our County Town.
The Lewes Lass was a 90 foot long wooden sailing ship launched on 21st May 1850. Although an old copy of the ‘Sussex County Magazine’ claimed she was built in Lewes, she was actually constructed at Monkwearmouth, Sunderland. She must have immediately sailed for Sussex as she is shown as departing Newhaven to return to Sunderland on 28th May. The first owner of the ship is believed to be Edward Chatfield, a Lewes timber merchant although the ship was more than likely used to bring coal down to Sussex. The ship is regularly recorded as sailing between Newhaven and the North East ports between 1850 and 1856.
There is a record that in 1854 the Lewes Lass crossed the Atlantic. She left Cardiff on 7th June and arrived in Montreal on 26th July that year. The captain at this time was Tiltman of Newhaven he was the ‘master’ or ‘commander’ until May 1864 when he took over as the Captain of the ‘Sussex Maid’ which had been built and launched in Newhaven. Like the Lewes Lass she too had a figurehead which is described as “the bust of a female head, tastefully decorated with gilded carved work on the stern”
The Lewes Lass was still owned by Chatfield (trading as T&E Chatfield of Newhaven ) in 1858 although this time she was registered in Dover.
In 1867 she was re-registered to W.R. Mowll at Dover. William Rutley Mowll lived in Kent and the Lewes Lass was one of three ships he owned. In 1875 he rigged the Lewes Lass as a brig. Mowell did not insure his ships, instead giving the money to the church. He sold all three in 1884 and the following year she was re-registered to James W. Miller of Leicester. (a town not really renowned for its maritime history!)
The last owner appears to be Mr J. Hillman who was also a Lewes coal merchant.
On 31st October 1885 she floundered whilst en-route between Rouen in France to Newcastle with a cargo of plaster. She went aground under Beachy Head but was re-floated with the tide. Unfortunately this damaged the ship below the water-line and she took on water. The Lewes Lass sank quickly about a mile out to sea between Bexhill and Hastings, adjacent to the Coastguard Station at Cooden. Luckily the ship was still being escorted by the Eastbourne boats who had helped to re-float her and they were able to rescue the Captain, John Long and the crew. The Coastguard also assisted in the rescue.
The Lewes Lass was lost but the wreck was purchased by a local man, Albert Adams. He wanted the materials to build a family home. The Lewes Lass was recycled to become the floors and doors of some cottages in Sidley just to the north of Bexhill. The ships figurehead was placed above the front door and the new building was named ‘Lewes Lass Cottages’.
Albert built another row of cottages nearby called ‘Albert Cottages’ and in 1952 one of the occupants was interviewed by the Sussex Express. 82 year old Stephen Adams was a teenager when the Lewes Lass was wrecked. He remembered “The wreck lay on its side on the sands about a mile from the high-water mark and I never saw it any closer. I used to drive my father and his men down to the shore in a pony-cart, but I did not go on the sands with them. They could only work on the wreck at low water as it was completely covered at high water. I remember my father and his men removing the masts and rigging and the anchors and cables and bring them here. I don’t think they got a lot of useful material from the old vessel. The cargo was stone but my father did not remove that as it wasn’t his property”
In 2011 The Bexhill-on-Sea Observer published a poem by an old resident ruing the changes to the village from when he was a lad. This included the lines
No brickyard with its smoking kilns,
Or pig-sty’s pungent smell,
Or Lewes Lass’s figurehead,
Now she has gone as well.
Yes, Lewes Lass’s figurehead,
So proud for many years,
Shared Sidley’s many triumphs
And Sidley’s many tears.
So it appears that the ‘Lewes Lass’ figurehead has gone. Was it destroyed or was it sold? I would love to know the whereabouts of her if she is still around.