Among the boogie boards and flippers, squirrelled away in the back shed of Allen Mawer's holiday house at North Bendalong, is a bucket overflowing with brightly coloured ceramic tiles.
Some are unbroken, others are mere fragments. He's been collecting them for more than 30 years.
"Almost every time I walk on the beach, I find another piece," he reveals.
However, hundreds of tiles aren't the only relics from the wreck of the heavily loaded Walter Hood, a clipper which came to grief in Wreck Bay in 1870, that Mawer has found washed-up on nearby beaches.
A peek into his coastal hideaway is like entering a gallery at the Australian National Maritime Museum.
On the ground floor, professionally curated and presented in glass cabinets, are a wide range of items from the Walter Hood ranging from toothpaste jar fragments to knife handles. There's also a piece of copper that lined part of the wooden hull to protect it from shipworms.
Mawer even has a printed gallery catalogue which meticulously details the backstory of all the items exhibited. Impressive.
But the glass cabinets are just the start of Mawer's Walter Hood gallery, the stairway that winds up to his tree-top eyrie which overlooks the waters of Wreck Bay is lined with an impressive array of framed photographs, lithographs and other rare Walter Hood mementos and collectibles.
Taking pride of place on the landing of the stairwell is a dramatic painting titled Walter Hood shortening sail off Macquarie Light which Mawer commissioned celebrated marine and seascape artist Eric McGraffin to paint.
"The flying jib is down, and the main topgallant studding sails are being struck," explains Mawer, clearly more au fait with sailing lingo than your akubra-clad columnist.
To say Mawer, a Canberra-based historian and author, is obsessed with the Walter Hood would be an understatement. He's even penned the most comprehensive book on the plight of the doomed clipper.
In Fast Company: The Lively Times and Untimely End of the Clipper Ship Walter Hood (Plainwords Press, 1994, revised 2004), Mawer colourfully chronicles the early days of the clipper from its launch in Aberdeen in 1852, until its untimely end on rocks about a kilometre to the north of North Bendalong on April 26, 1870.
"During her last 17 years, the Walter Hood circumnavigated the world 18 times as part of the London-Sydney route in which she carried general merchandise to Australia, returning with wool and other primary produce," reveals Mawer, who offers to take me down to the beach to explain what unfolded on that stormy day 153 years ago.
It's a regular beachcomb for Mawer.
"The walk is a good excuse to look for stuff from the wreck and looking for stuff from the wreck is a good excuse for the walk," he muses as we scramble down a steep bush track from his yard and onto the deserted stretch of sand.
After a 10-minute stroll he stops and points out to sea.
"About 130 metres and in about four metres of water is the last resting place for the Walter Hood," he solemnly states, explaining "furious winds and horrendous seas drove her into the shore where she drifted out of control before coming to rest on rocks near the entrance to Nerrindillah Creek".
Like much of the South Coast at the time, Wreck Bay was remote and sparsely populated and a rescue effort didn't start until April 29, three days after the initial incident. "The fact the area had experienced significant floods didn't help," adds Mawer.
In fact, in sheer desperation, while awaiting rescue, those on board the stricken ship "killed a small dog belonging to their dead captain, ate its flesh raw and drank the blood". Heck
After the rescue effort was completed, some of those who had gathered on the shoreline to help or rubberneck turned to scavenging the Walter Hood's spilt cargo, which included a significant stash of beer, wine and spirits, much of which was spread along miles of uninhabited shoreline.
The intrepid scribe for the Town and Country Journal (May 14, 1870) reported "many persons were guilty of the most reckless indulgence in drink, the most wanton destruction of property, and the most wholesome plunder of the cargo".
According to Mawer, "what the crowd could not consume they tried to carry off. Goods of all kinds were spirited into the scrub, sometimes to be lifted by parties other than those who had secreted them there".
"One drunken wrecker collapsed head-first into a cask of ale," reveals Mawer. "He would have drowned had his legs not been seen."
And what about those tiles? Well, that's a bit of a mystery. The crippled clipper's manifest oddly doesn't list tiles, but it is rumoured they were destined for the second St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, a temporary replacement for the original that had been destroyed by fire in 1865.
"There is, however, indirect evidence of the story in that the floor of what is now the sacristy, a structure older than the current cathedral, is of geometric tiles," explains Mawer.
In total, the captain, 10 crewmen and one passenger lost their lives in the wreck. While some of these victims found watery graves at sea, others washed ashore sometime later, where they were buried in an appropriately marked bush grave.
Watery grave: The wreck of the Walter Hood lies about 130 metres offshore, near where the Nerrindillah Creek flows into Wreck Bay which is about a kilometre north of North Bendalong.
Speedy ship: In her home port of Aberdeen in Scotland, the Walter Hood was regarded as one of the largest and fastest ships ever built. On her maiden voyage in 1853 she recorded the fastest ever time from London to Sydney - 80 days (20 days faster than the previous record).
Railway legacy: The Walter Hood played an important role in the development of Australia in the mid 19th century, not only through passenger transport but also trading and the shipment of materials for major infrastructure projects, including the construction of the Sydney to Parramatta railway line.
Ill-fated voyage: On what was to be her last voyage, the Walter Hood departed London on January 20, 1870, under the command of Captain Andrew Latto. She carried 31 crew members and three passengers and her cargo included beer, wine, iron bars, copper wire, railway irons, cork, cement, and theatrical costumes.
Ringing relic: Apart from Allen Mawer's remarkable private collection, The Jervis Bay Maritime Museum in Huskisson holds some other relics, which are sometimes on display, including bottles, cutlery and the ship's bell.
Have you got any tiles? Allen Mawer isn't the only beachcomber with a collection of tiles from the Walter Hood. According to Patti Bartlett, who recently co-authored a book (Five Villages, Red Head Villages Association, 2022) on the five communities around Manyana and Bendalong, "many people in the Milton-Ulladulla area have a tile or two from the wreck". I wonder if any Canberrans have collected tiles from nearby beaches, unaware of the origins. Please let me know if you have.
Read more from Tim the Yowie Man here.
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