Valhalla - Friar Tuck 1863
On 27th November 1863, a 662 ton, fully laden tea clipper found herself in St Mary’s Pool, Isles of Scilly. The ship and her crew were returning from the Chinese port of Foochow or Fuzhou and had nearly completed their voyage back to Liverpool. As the ship had entered British waters weather had begun to worsen and the Friar Tuck had sought shelter amongst the islands, She was not alone. Around five hundred ships were riding anchor in The Roads alone, a stretch of relatively deep and sheltered water between St Mary’s and Tresco. The storm grew and grew, until it raged into a hurricane. On 1st December, on St Martin’s Flats a schooner ran aground, to sink at anchor later. Two brigs, Diana and Lavinia, were driven ashore on Rat Island by St Mary’s quay, not far from where the Friar Tuck was at anchor. The Diana survived the indignity but the Lavinia was judged to be worth more as timber than a brig and was subsequently taken apart.
The following day, 2nd December, the storm rose in strength and ferocity. With so many ships at anchor, in such appalling conditions, the parting of chains or cables was perilous not just for individual vessels. In St Helen’s Pool, a couple of miles north of the Roads, the tempestuous conditions began to take their toll. The Anna & Egoda, a French schooner, had her anchor chains break amidst the howling winds. She then collided with another French vessel, Adolphe. The force of this collision resulted in the Adolphe becoming a total wreck, foundering in St Helen’s Pool. The storm had now reached hurricane strength. St Helen’s Pool traditionally provided a sheltered anchorage for shipping but the tempest was tearing in from the North-north west, pushing the gusts almost directly into the pool. It was here too that the schooner Euphemie found herself in serious difficulties in St Helen’s Pool. Loaded with coal, she dragged her anchors, running foul of the ketch, St Helen’s. Euphemie’s master, faced with being dashed on to rocks or blown out into the tumultuous seas, scuttled his ship. The anchors of another schooner, Oscar, proved incapable of holding their charge and the vessel was driven on to the nearby island of Tean.
Further out to sea, another ship heavy with its cargo of coal was struggling to reach the relative safety of Scilly. Factory Girl, a full-rigged ship, had been dismasted and her cargo had shifted. Nine of those on board had been successfully taken off by the brig Albatross, including the captain’s wife and child. The Albatross was to return for the remaining eight crew but Factory Girl suddenly plunged beneath the seas never to be seen again. All aboard were lost.
Back in St Mary’s Roads, the Friar Tuck’s straining cables finally gave way. The foaming seas drove the clipper on to Newford Island, a rocky appendage to St Mary’s at the mouth of St Mary’s Pool. From the nearby shore coastguards fired a line by rocket on to the Friar Tuck. All the crew were safely rescued from the ship, nineteen via the Coastgaurd line and four on a boat. Once the storm had abated sufficiently the task of salvaging anything of value from the wreck began. The cargo of tea was one valued as highly by the islanders as it was by the insurers of the Friar Tuck. Scilly’s Receiver of Wreck, one Mr Coll, immediately dispatched for extra personnel from the mainland in order to secure the Friar Tuck and her watery holds.
Three small ships were required to transport the salvaged tea back to London but there is no doubt that substantial amounts illicit leaves found their way into Scillonian teapots, larders, pantries, attics and cellars. Some St Mary’s houses were said to have reeked of tea long afterwards and even as recently as the 1980’s it was believed that their remained one or two homes where Friar Tuck tea would be brought out on special occasions. Bonfires were made of tea on the beaches of St Mary’s Pool by Custom and Excise men. (Larn. Bowley. Scillonian148/267 T.Moyle)
Tea, no doubt, made its way on to Tresco as well as St Mary’s but it was not tea alone that was salvaged from her wreck. In Tresco’s beautiful gardens is a collection of ships’ figureheads or Valhalla as it is known. The majority of this splendid exhibition have been taken from local shipwrecks. The figurehead from the Friar Tuck is particularly fine. The tonsured brother bears little resemblance to the rotund and florid character we now associate with Friar Tuck. The figurehead looks admirably restrained, a visage full of gravitas and more akin to a nineteenth century Dean of St Albans than the roistering friar of Nottingham Forest. He clasps neither a tankard of ale nor a comely wench but a staff topped with a cross. The quality of the work, the detail of the brandished cross, reflect the levels of profit produced by successful tea clippers. The Friar Tuck had made its owners a large sum of money before 2nd December 1863.
The second lasting memorial to the hurricane that raged through Scilly, to a storm that forced over 500 ships to huddle behind these low fragments of granite for shelter, six of which sank in the space of two days, was another comestible. The great achievement of tea clippers, such as the Friar Tuck, was to cut the journey from China to Britain from one hundred and twenty days to around ninety. Ninety days at sea still required a large amount of provisions to be kept on board for the crew. The Friar Tuck had left Fuzhou not only with her holds brimming with china tea but also carrying a number of Chinese geese.
The Chinese goose is not endowed with a huge amount of meat but it is known to be the most prodigous egg layer of all domestic geese. As good layers the geese might guarantee safe passage to England. As the voyage went on their numbers may have diminished slightly but by 2nd December there was still a small flock on board. Along with the figurehead, the geese were brought to Tresco, where they and their descendents remained for over one hundred and thirty years.
Three or four pairs of Chinese geese were still resident in the early 1990s. The distinctive knob, like a great tumourous forehead, made them easy to spot amongst all the other wild fowl on the Great Pool. By the mid-nineties it was clear that they were no longer breeding. An attempt was made to revitalise the gene pool with the introduction of some new birds but to no avail. By the end of the decade the last Chinese goose had disappeared.