A Nutty Shipwreck and her Figurehead

A few years ago I was shown two ivory nuts which had just been found on the beach at Seaford. Although the shingle of Seaford beach is relatively new I think that they may have originated from the hold of the ship the ‘Peruvian’ which grounded in Seaford Bay over 100 years ago.  

The 600-ton barque Peruvian was an iron ship equipped with steel yardarms. It had been built by D & W Henderson shipbuilders in Glasgow in 1875, so had already seen considerable service.  In 1898 it was owned by a Danish company and was en-route to Hamburg from Port Esmeralda in Cuba from where it had departed nearly five months earlier laden with timber and vegetable ivory.   Vegetable ivory is the nut of the South American palm and its main use at the time was in the button industry.

It was during a storm on 8th February 1899 that the ‘Peruvian’ came ashore on the beach between Dane Road and the Martello Tower close to where the Esplanade Hotel once stood. Many people were awoken shortly after 3am by the distress rockets sent from the ship.  The Chief Boatman on duty at Blatchington Coastguard Station was a Mr Farrell who, having been alerted, telephoned his counterpart at Newhaven to launch the lifeboat “Michael Henry.” He then went down to the beach to monitor the progress of the ship which was being pushed into the shore by a strong southerly wind. The lifeboat was launched within twenty minutes and was soon alongside the vessel and rockets were fired to attach a line. After four attempts the line was secured and within 15 minutes Captain Norholm and his men were winched aboard.  On landing back at Newhaven they were met by Mr John Bull, the Lloyds agent for the area.

The Peruvian rescue

The stricken ship moved closer to the shore but at 5am people on the shore were surprised to hear cries from the deck. Two men were seen on board and a line was thrown to the ship to save them.  One man managed to get ashore and was immediately taken to the warmth of the Wellington Inn where he was cared for by the landlord Mr Hadlow and his wife.  The last man off the ship was the First Mate by the name of Neilson but as he neared the shore, he lost grip of the rope and a huge wave carried him off. Despite a chain of men, reaching into the sea for him, he was lost in the watery turmoil; it took three weeks for the stormy waters of Seaford Bay to offer up his body.  It seems surprising today that the captain and lifeboat crew left the two men aboard. Captain Norholm later reported that he had told the men to abandon ship but they had decided to pack their belongings first rather than be rescued. The surviving sailor denied this and said he was not aware that the lifeboat had pulled alongside.

Mr Bull led attempts to salvage the cargo and the following day the rails and spars were removed and recovered, but the bad weather continued and the ship began to break up, especially after the hull begun to crunch against the sea wall.  Three days later at around midnight there was another heavy storm and the ship broke up taking a part of the Esplanade wall with it. 

Thousands of hard ivory nuts tipped into the bay. Although ivory nuts are heavy and sink, the subsequent tides bought many of them ashore and they became odd souvenirs for the visitors to the town.  The event made national headlines and brought large crowds into Seaford, although the local newspaper was to complain that many of these people came from the ‘undesirable classes.’  The ivory nuts came ashore in their hundreds and were collected by the local children. Some nuts were carved and etched to make crude ‘scrimshaw’ style souvenirs which were sold to the crowds who turned up to view the wreck. H. H. Evans the local one-armed artist, painted the stricken ship and also etched several nuts. Seaford Museum has his drawings of the wreck and also examples of some of the painted nuts which are, these days, valued up to £100.   I am lucky – I have one!

The Drawing by H.H. Evans

Seaford Museum has a ship’s figurehead which is said to have come from the Peruvian and she certainly looks like a South American princess. She wears gold and feathers and is holding a fan in one hand and a fruit (maybe a lemon) in her other.

The Figurehead in Seaford Museum

We know that she was one of three ships figureheads which were on display at the Seaford home of Major Lewis Thomas Crook. He lived at Telsamaure, a fine house which once stood at the end of Dane Road.

The garden of Telsemaure – note the figurehead in the foreground

After the Crooks moved to Surrey in 1909 the house was purchased by a Colonel Christie and he presented our figurehead to the local council where it was placed on display on the Esplanade.  It stood here until the outbreak of the Second World War. The beach and seafront then were strewn with barbed wire and sea defences and our mysterious lady was moved to the safety of the council depot in Dane Road.  In 1955 she was re-painted and placed alongside the café in the Salts recreation ground but she was never happy here and soon took on a rather sorry appearance.

The figurehead on Seaford Esplanade

She was rescued by the pupils of Chyngton School in the mid 1960s and stood in the school playground propping up the flagpole. Her last move was made in 1984 when she was presented to the museum and now takes pride of place alongside many other exhibits showing the maritime history of our town.

The figurehead at Chyngton School

Among these exhibits are photographs of the Peruvian but unfortunately in these photos and many others I have seen of the ship there is no sign of a figurehead.  Only two depictions of the ship wreck show a figurehead on the bow of the Peruvian and these are both later drawings by local artist H.H.Evans. Evans did see the shipwreck but he is known to have painted scenes many years later.

Although she was called the Peruvian, the ship was made in Glasgow and registered in Denmark.  It is true that the Peruvian did trade in South America but there is no evidence that our figurehead actually came from the ship, indeed Thomas Crook was known to have purchased at least one of his figureheads from the dockyard in Portsmouth.  We will probably never know the exact history of this beautiful if enigmatic lady but at least, after many years braving the salty seas both onboard ship and in Seaford, she now has a warm dry home.

A poem about the figurehead (although the date is wrong)

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