The world famous gardens at Tresco Abbey on the island of Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, are bisected by a long straight path culminating in a flight of granite steps leading up to an imposing classical head. The steps are known as Neptune’s Steps and seem to confirm a classical connection, but there is a double deception here. Despite appearances, the head is not a stone sculpture but is made from wood, and the subject is not of classical origin but represents Father Thames. It is, in fact, the salvaged figurehead of the SS Thames, a 500 ton paddle steamer that sank on the Western Rocks (just off the coast of St Agnes) in 1841.
The story of the loss of the Thames is tragic and is an example of the hardship and dangers experienced by seafaring communities in the 18th and 19th centuries. The event was fully recorded by the minister of St Agnes at the time, the Rev George Woodley, and can be read on http://www.tresco.co.uk/what-to-do/abbey-garden/valhalla_thames.aspx
In a corner of the Abbey Gardens there is a museum of other figureheads from vessels wrecked in the waters around the Isles of Scilly. It is known as Valhalla and I have written about it in a previous post (see https://lagill6.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/shipwrecks-and-valhalla/)
The list of wrecks in Scilly waters numbers more than 530 and in the 18th and 19th centuries there was an urgent need for improved navigational aids. In addition to those mentioned in the previous post, several lighthouses and lightships were added, especially in the expanse of water between the Islands and the tip of Cornwall. On a clear night, from Peninnis on St Mary’s it is possible to see the beams from nine other lights.
Of the many shipping disasters recorded by far the greatest occurred in 1707 when Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell and his fleet were returning to Plymouth following the failed siege of Toulon. Having been driven off course strong winds, navigational errors led to his ship, HMS Association, and three others crashing on to rocks just south west of where the Bishop Rock lighthouse now stands, with a loss of almost 2000 lives. Ironically, this greatest of peacetime maritime disasters in British history happened before the advent of telecommunications or even newspapers as we now know them, and it was several days before the scale of the disaster was reported.
The Association also carried in its cargo silver and gold coins, together with cannons plundered from an earlier mission. The site of the wreckage was eventually located in 1964 and some of the treasures were auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1969.
In recent times, in 1967, the Torrey Canyon ran aground on the Seven Stones reef, about eight miles north east of St Martin’s, loaded with 120,000 tonnes of crude oil. The spillage of almost 31,000 gallons was washed up on the Cornish coast with devastating consequences for seabird and marine life.
Around 1840, Augustus Smith, the ‘Lord Proprietor’ of Tresco, began to assemble a collection of retrieved memorabilia, mostly figure heads from wrecked sailing ships and early steam ships. He created a gallery – appropriately called Valhalla – in the Abbey Gardens on Tresco. The pictures below are from the collection.