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13 November 2014

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You are in: Cornwall > History > Local History > Caledonia Remembered

The restored figurehead from the Caledonia

Caledonia Remembered

This year is the 166th anniversary of the sinking of the brig, Caledonia of Arbroath, which was wrecked in a storm off Morwenstow in north Cornwall. It will be marked by the return to the village of the ship's figurehead. Hear our report.

On Sunday 7 September, 166 years ago a disaster occurred in the waters off Morwenstow in north Cornwall.

The 200-ton Caledonia was en route from Odessa in the Black Sea via Falmouth to Gloucester with a cargo of wheat. She was driven onto rocks beneath Morwenstow's towering cliffs in a fierce north westerly gale.

Listen to BBC Cornwall's Michael Taylor reporting from Morwenstow:

Her Captain, Stevenson Peter, and seven (or possibly eight) crew members lost their lives, but a young Jerseyman called Edward Le Dain survived, clambered up the cliff and was nursed back to health in the village. There are also reports that a local lad found a live tortoise washed up on the beach near the wreck.

Rocks near Bude by Gerry Burton

Rocks off the north Cornwall coast

The victims lie in the churchyard with the bodies of up to 40 other shipwrecked sailors, many of whom were given a Christian burial over a period of several years by the then Vicar, the Rev. Robert Stephen Hawker.

Morwenstow villagers will be joined by visitors from throughout the UK and overseas on Sunday 7 September 2008 for a church service commemorating the tragic shipwreck.

They will also celebrate the fact that the vessel's world-famous figurehead has been saved and returned to their Parish Church for the enjoyment and inspiration of local people and visitors.

For generations the distinctive white figurehead - a carved wooden figure of a Scottish female in kilt, sporran and tam o'shanter, and brandishing a shield and claymore sword - was maintained and occasionally repaired by local parishioners. However, a detailed inspection in the autumn of 2004 revealed near-irreparable internal damage caused by rot and decay (a fate that has befallen most other externally-displayed figureheads around the UK in recent years).

Cliffs in Morwenstow

Morwenstow by Dan Edge

A fund-raising appeal called 'The Caledonia Conservation Fund' was launched by the present Vicar, the Rev. Peter Abell. The figurehead was removed, carefully dismantled and subjected to a slow drying out process.

Following scientific analysis of  the paintwork, a small team led by one of the UK’s leading conservers of carved wooden artefacts, Hugh Harrison, from Exmoor, undertook the restoration. It took more than two years to complete.

It was not known if there were any surviving descendents of the Caledonia sailors who lost their lives. This summer, a report of the figurehead's restoration in a Scottish newspaper attracted the attention of Maureen Cant of Montreal, Canada. She has brought a heart-warming new dimension to the whole story.

The great, great, great niece of a young seaman called Alexander Kent, she revealed that a family archive which she and her father had assembled included an original, hand-written letter from their ancestor, posted to his parents just before he set sail on the Caledonia’s ill-fated voyage.

So touched were they by the arrangements being made by the people of Morwenstow, that they will fly to the UK to visit Alexander's grave and Maureen will deliver the first public reading of the letter during the service, on Sunday 7 September.

last updated: 28/08/2008 at 14:49
created: 28/08/2008

You are in: Cornwall > History > Local History > Caledonia Remembered

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