Quicksilver and Lemons

The Nympha Americana’ was a Spanish owned American ship of 400 tons however, despite being armed with 23 large guns and 6 swivel guns, she was captured by an English privateer ‘The Royal Family‘ off Cadiz in March 1747.  A privateer was basically a legal pirate ship which was licensed by the British Government to attack enemy cargo ships.  

The ‘Nympha’ was bought back to England and was en-route between Portsmouth and London when it floundered on rocks between Cuckmere Haven and Birling Gap on 29th November 1747. This large ship had a compliment of over 100 crew and was carrying a cargo which included bales of clothing and velvet, food including lemons, peppers, nut-oil, wine and brandy and £5,000 worth of gold.  As the ship broke up these goods were strewn along the beaches under the Seven Sisters.  At least 30 of the crew were reported to have drowned including the ship’s doctor.

It was once said that Seaford people slept with their doors open so they could hear the news of any wreck – they must have done so on this occasion as the beaches were soon swarming with people trying to salvage as much as they could from the ‘harvest of the sea’. The news would have quickly spread along the costal community.

‘The Farleys Journal’ of December 1747 gave a graphic (if exaggerated) account of the scene, saying that the wreck had drawn thousands of people despite the freezing cold weather. It reported that over 50 people including several women had died. One account tells of a woman who was unable to leave her children behind as her neighbours were also scavenging, so took them with her but she died of cold on the beach, her babes huddled beside her. One Seaford woman hired a carter to go to the wreck and bring back the body of her husband who had been killed at the scene. The carter had bought back the wrong corpse so the woman refused to pay him. Annoyed, the carter had unceremoniously dumped the body with her before leaving.

Climbing on board a broken ship moving with every wave was a dangerous business and the journal says that every village for miles around had at least one or two young men who had broken limbs caused by clambering over the dangerous wreck.

The Nympha Americana (Sussex Archaeological Society)

The wrecked ship actually belonged to the newly elected MP for Southwark, William Belchier, who had sponsored the privateers who had captured her.  On hearing the news he made haste to the scene with an order, signed by the Secretary of State for War, ordering local militia to assist him in retrieving his goods. Even as he approached the scene, he met twelve men carrying ships supplies but they ran away on seeing his soldiers.  Within a few days Belchier had over 150 troops at his disposal to secure the wreck, and they were certainly needed; on one occasion a group of local men made a concerted attack on the wreck-site but the soldiers shot and killed two and the others soon dispersed. 

Apparently one soldier tried to steal some coins from the wreck by slipping them into his boots. He was only caught when he was ordered to mount his horse but couldn’t as the weight of gold doubloons prevented him from lifting his foot to the stirrup!   Another man from East Dean was more wily as he carefully buried his loot under the sand until he could retrieve it later. He had found some blocks of heavy metal but was not sure what they were. He took them to Lewes where he sold them to a watchmaker called Thomas Harben.

Thomas Harben

He acquired the blocks at a small cost but this one transaction made his fortune as his purchase was a set of virgin gold ingots.  With this money Harben purchased the vacant Corsica Hall near Ringmer.

Corsica Hall at Wellingham near Ringmer

Although he liked the house, he wanted a more picturesque setting and was so rich that he could afford to move the building brick by brick to Millburgh Hill in Seaford. 

Corsica Hall – rebuilt in Seaford.

I have mentioned that the ship was carrying gold, but most of it was retained by the ships captain and crew and was never lost. The most valuable cargo on board the ‘Nympha’ however was one which the majority beachcombers would not have seen or recognised. The ship was carrying a huge cargo of quicksilver (mercury) which probably originated from the cinnabar mines at Almadén in Spain.  The Sussex Advertiser of 18thJanuary 1748 reports that “There has been about thirty wagons of quicksilver brought (to Lewes) recovered from the wreck and there are several more to bring. Each load is valued at near £800

Belchier hired a diver to travel from London to retrieve the mercury which had sunk to the seabed but not all of it was recovered and small pools of the precious metal remained on the seabed for many years. Some was recovered in the 1970s by divers who used hot water bottles to suck it up from under the sea. Seaford Museum has a display containing jam-jar of quicksilver which was recovered a few years ago from the seabed near the town. 

It is interesting to note that despite the graphic accounts of the newspapers of the time that not one single death has been found the parish registers for any local towns or villages which can be associated with the wreck of 1747.



One Comment Add yours

  1. Vivienne VandenBegin says:

    Thank you Kevin. Best regards Vivienne VandenBegin

    Sent from my iPhone



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