The Sailor-girl with a Rocky History

The ship Coonatto started its life in Rotherhithe on the south bank of the Thames in 1863. She was built by Thomas Bilbe & Son to a new design which used both timber and iron – known as “composite hull construction”  Although this made the hull stronger, it was of course heavier. She was a square-rigged clipper and worked the route between London and Australia mainly importing wool, indeed the name Coonatto comes from a village near Wilmington in South Australia. She had three sails and was 633 tons in weight. She is described as an ‘extreme clipper with slim and fine lines capable of making exceptionally fast runs’. She once made the run from Adelaide to London in just 77 days in a time when many cargo ships were taking twice as long.  The return cargo was human and many emigrants travelled on the return voyage for a new life in Australia.

The usual the captain of the Coonatto was James Smart but in 1875 she was under the control of an Irishman, Captain John Eilbeck Hillman. She left Port Victoria near Adelaide on 14th November with a cargo of wool and copper ingots. The voyage from Adelaide was apparently without incident and The Times of Monday 21stFebruary 1876 reported that she had passed the Lizard in Cornwall en-route to London Docks two days earlier.  

The ship never reached its destination; whilst readers of the times read the report of the Coonatto over their breakfast, she was floundering off the Sussex coast. In the early hours of 21st February, shortly after it passed Seaford Bay, Coonatto got into difficulties at Crowlink, to the east of Cuckmere Haven.  It was dark and the weather was poor with rain and a heavy fog. 

As Captain Hillman was desperately looking for the light of Beachy Head lighthouse, she struck the shore and started taking on water. Captain Hillman requested a lifeboat from Newhaven and a steamer to pull her from the rocks. The following day The Times carried a brief report under ‘Shipping News’ sent to London from Newhaven by telegraph – “The Coonatto from Adelaide for London is ashore at Crolink (sic) near here. Too much sea to communicate from shore. Lifeboat gone for her; steam-tug applied for

Seaford Museum has a print of the scene which shows that a line had been fired to the shore and a rowing boat with what appears to be eight men on board.  This maybe the Newhaven lifeboat. There appear to be seven more people still on board the ship. (of course this may be artistic licence)  All the crew were saved and were taken onto the shore where they made temporary tents with sail-canvas.

A message was sent to the shipping insurers ‘Lloyds of London’ by Captain Knight, their agent at Newhaven. It was reported that the ship came ashore at half-tide and lay with its head into shore, stuck in sand but with dangerous rocks close to its starboard side.  (This is interesting as the picture at Seaford Museum shows the ship with its stern ashore.)  The following morning Captain Knight sent two more reports, the first at 8.45am reporting that the Coonatto’s position was unchanged. The captain and crew were on board and a Brighton steamer was trying to pull it free but it was not moving much. The second message timed at 10.50am reports that the rescue operation had failed and the ship now lies ‘head to seaward’ in a dangerous position. 

Three days later the ship had taken on too much water to move and was straining at the seams during full tide.  The sea was too rough for any further rescue and it was decided to beach the cargo which had been insured for £4,000.  It was pulled up the cliff on a line powered by a steam engine. On Saturday 26th February the ‘Lloyds List’ reported that the previous day 600 copper ingots and some sacks of bark had been salvaged and the wool should follow shortly.  Coincidentally, two directors of the company that owned the Coonatto were staying in Eastbourne at the time and they arranged for local labourers help with the salvage operation. They also arranged with The Eastbourne magistrates and Mr Gardner, the landlord of the Volunteer Inn in Seaside Road, Eastbourne for the pub to remain open to cater for the workers taking part in the salvage. The cargo was taken to Eastbourne where it continued its journey to London by railway.

The ship was never refloated (maybe due to the heavy iron and wood design) and was left to become yet another victim of the seas that are scattered along the Channel coastline.  A week after it was grounded it was reported that the Coonatto  had ‘parted amidships, the bilge on the portside  had broken out and the deck had burst upwards’. Hundreds of sight-seers had climbed onto the cliffs to look down on the wreck and a large quantity of wool bales had been found along the Sussex shores. 

But that is not the end of my story.  The wreckage of the Coonatto is still visible at Crowlink at low tide but one part of the ship was salvaged; the figurehead variously described as a ‘Sailor Girl’ or a ‘Country Girl’.  For many years it stood near East Dean pond before it was moved to the gardens of the nearby Birling Manor House.  

At some stage after 1908 the figurehead was shipped abroad to the USA. Our young wooden lady was later purchased by a man called Richard Headley of California who owned many ships figureheads but after his death it was put up for auction.  

I wrote an article about the wreck of the Coonattoo for the Sussex Express in September 2011 when the Antiques Trade Gazette reported that the figurehead had been sold to an Australian buyer. A photograph showed the figurehead was still quite graceful with red hair and blue jerkin.  Her (detachable) arm was raised pointing the way to  a new happy home ahead of her. I hoped that when she was shipped from America to Australia, the cargo ship kept well away from the rocks!

I am happy to report that she did arrive safely and is now on display at the Jervis Bay Maritime Museum in Huskisson, New South Wales. After travelling thousands of miles in often treacherous seas, she has been restored and repainted and now has a dry warm home.

Note: “Beachy Head lighthouse” mentioned at the time of the wreck was what we now call Belle Tout lighthouse.  It is on top of the cliffs and was often shrouded in mist. The current Beachy Head lighthouse was built at sea-level under the cliff in 1902. 

The village of Coonatto in South Australia was renamed Moockra in 1941. 

Seaford Museum also displays a painting which possibly shows the Coonatto shortly after it was wrecked.  


The Shipping and Mercantile Gazette (various issues)

Lloyd’s List (various issues) 

The Sphere Magazine 14th November 1958

The Antiques Trade Gazette

Seaford Museum (Murray Album)

Ed Jarzembowski (Seaford Museum)

Peter Mason (Newhaven Museum)

The Jervis Bay Maritime Museum


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