SS Eltham relics join Museum’s maritime collection

Picture of the SS Eltham washed up on Chapel Porth beach
The SS Eltham washed up on Chapel Porth beach

Some of you may have heard of the wreck of the SS Eltham at Chapel Porth on 18 November 1928. According to Clive Carter’s book Cornish Shipwrecks – The North Coast, she was a 687 ton Liverpool coaster launched by the Dublin Dockyard Co. in April 1915. On the night in question, under the command of her captain, Ellis Foulkes, she was en route from Swansea to Rouen with a cargo of coal, and was found derelict on the beach during a north-westerly gale early in the morning.

The circumstances of her loss were shrouded in mystery. No distress flares were seen by the Coastguards, although some local residents had seen lights which were thought to be lightning, and two of her boats were washed up later, one at Chapel Porth and another at Perranporth. The mystery deepened, as described in the Canberra Times of 3 January 1930, when the wreck was boarded, no papers, log book or cargo were found on board, and the anchor and chains were found stowed away. Speculation arose that the ship had been abandoned out to sea and drove ashore later. But what had happened to the cargo?

The ship soon broke in two and all fourteen of her crew were lost and no trace of them ever found. However, an answer to a question in the House of Commons reported that there were only 11 crew. All that remains is her boiler which can sometimes be seen at very low tides protruding from the sand.

The ship’s log and rotor, and the letter E from her name
The ship’s log and rotor, and the letter E from her name

Or so we thought! Fascinatingly, almost 90 years after her loss, some relics have been donated to the Museum. These consist of the ship’s log and rotor, and the letter E from her name and had been retrieved from the wreck by Ernest Landry who lived at Factory Farm, Porthtowan. The story goes that he waded into the sea to salvage the first two letters of the name, his own initials, but while struggling to get the letter L off, he was washed into the sea and nearly drowned. When he returned later at low tide, the letter had gone.

The log, a Cherub II, was made by Thomas Walker & Son of Birmingham and would have been similar to the Mark III version shown below, held by the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, (Object NAV 0719). It was made of brass with a ceramic dial with the main scale measuring up to 100 miles, and the two smaller ones recording up to 1 mile and 1000 miles respectively.

Mark III log held by the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich
Mark III log held by the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich

The log would have been fitted on a plate, allowing it to swivel, and fixed to a rail at the stern of the ship. This rail was known as the taffrail and hence the log was often known as a taffrail log. The rotor was attached to the log by a line and towed behind the ship, the fins on the rotor causing it to spin and hence the revolutions to be recorded on the dial. Taking two readings over a known time span allowed the ship’s speed to be calculated.

These items will form an important part of our growing maritime collection and they will be on display for the coming season.