It's rare to have a group of items survive a shipwreck and pass down through the ages together. In this case the artifacts are from a mid-nineteenth century British schooner and were passed down through the family of the ship's last captain, primary of which is the ship GRACE's original figurehead of an elegant lady in fine clothes.
The Schooner GRACE was built 1869 in Kingsbridge, South Devon at the shipyard of William Date, located on Kingsbridge (aka Salcombe) Estuary, off the English Channel. Basil Greenhill, former Director of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich wrote that William Date was "One of the greatest of all the builders of small sailing ships in the West Country. The Date family, (grandfather, father, and two sons) built right through the period and were at the forefront of the development of the merchant schooners."
At a length of 82' and breadth of 21', GRACE weighed in at 103 tons. Like many schooners of the period she was sheathed in Yellow Metal- a version of brass alloy that protected the ship's wooden hull from rough seas and clinging marine life. Officially the ship was listed as belonging to the home port of Salcombe, six miles to the south of Kingsbridge.
The GRACE's figurehead has unusually fine carving, particularly in her delicate facial features and in the undulating lines of her jacket and skirt which give the appearance of fabric rather than solid wood. She wears a small brimless hat adorned at the front with a large brooch which holds an impressive white feather plume that curls around the crown of her head. Her hair is arranged in a chignon with two long ringlets trailing from either side, all tied with a yellow ribbon which trails down her back.
Another brooch fastens the collar of her red fitted high collar jacket, bordered in gold and white ribbon trim, with blue and gold epaulettes at the shoulders. At the waist the jacket flares over a full blue skirt which continues down to flourishes at the base, typical of figureheads of this period. In her right hand she clutches a small bouquet of flowers. The curves and proportions feel natural and balanced throughout the figure; clearly the work of a skilled craftsman. She is in excellent condition, with no dry rot.
GRACE had a long career at sea, carrying cargo between various ports for nearly 40 years. In 1907 she sailed from Labrador with a load of cod and in the fall arrived to offload at the port of Exeter. On October 16th she was to be towed the short distance from Exeter to Teignmouth to pick up a load of clay to be taken to Gateshead.
Seas were rough that day and while under tow from the tug QUEEN OF THE EXE, the GRACE struck a sand bar with such force that her rudder post was forced through the wheelhouse, breaking the tow rope. The tug tried to get another line to her, but couldn't cross the bar and was nearly grounded herself, having to be towed away by a second tug. Meanwhile the GRACE drifted toward The Ness- a red sandstone headland near the village of Sheldon, and was soon on the rocks. Captain George Wyatt, his wife and the crew were rescued by the Coast Guard, helped by onlookers from the shoreline with no loss of life. The ship however, was too far gone to be repaired, and the owner at the time, a Mr. Balkwill of Kingsbridge instructed Wyatt to salvage what he could from the wreck and sell the rest, for which buyers would pay one shilling for all they could haul away in one load.
This figurehead was one of the things the Captain took from the ship, along with his telescope and a small watercolor painting done by one of the crew, a Mr. F. Trout who documented the scene of the wreck. Trout's older brothers were on the lifeboat pictured, rowing out to the GRACE. The painting is framed and included as is Wyatt's all brass telescope, signed "Taunton, London - Day or Night". An excellent collection of historical artifacts from a stalwart vessel of the age of merchant sail.
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