Stroud's historic memorial stone for lost sailors given new home

CAREFUL: Stonemasons, led by Arthur Whyte-Butler on the right, transport the historic memorial stone into Church of Saint John the Evangelist at Stroud. Picture: Jonathan King

CAREFUL: Stonemasons, led by Arthur Whyte-Butler on the right, transport the historic memorial stone into Church of Saint John the Evangelist at Stroud. Picture: Jonathan King

As the years and the elements were rubbing away the inscription on a historic memorial stone outside Church of Saint John the Evangelist in Stroud, Jonathan King felt ever more sharply a family responsibility to preserve it.

After all, it was his great-great-grandfather, the explorer and Commissioner of the Australian Agricultural Company, Rear Admiral Phillip Parker King, who had commissioned the carving of the memorial in 1842 to honour five sailors who died in a shipping disaster off the coast of Port Stephens.

"He could never have imagined that 179 years later, it would be so eroded that his heartfelt gesture could be lost for all time," said Dr King, a well-known historian and author.

The words on the memorial recall the loss of Captain Joseph Woodlands and his crew on board the A.A. Company's ship, Carrington, on the night of May 19, 1842, "when that vessel was wrecked in a terrible gale and was irreconcilably lost on the northern head of Port Stephens".

Stroud was an A.A. Company town, so the disaster would have shocked the residents, and it rocked Phillip Parker King, a revered man of the sea who had surveyed much of Australia's northern coastline before joining the massive pastoral organisation.

"The Carrington disaster would have hit hard," said Jonathan King. "He would have said, 'That could have been me so many times'.

"It was possibly the biggest disaster the A.A Company had experienced since it came here [to the Port Stephens area] in 1826.

"They lost the captain, crew, they lost the ship, and they lost supplies.

"So it was a massive setback, which is why my ancestor ... decided to pay for a memorial."

PRESERVED: Historian Jonathan King inspects the memorial stone in its new position inside the church.

PRESERVED: Historian Jonathan King inspects the memorial stone in its new position inside the church.

As a mariner himself who was central to the First Fleet reenactment voyage as part of the Australian bicentennial commemorations in 1988, Jonathan King said he felt a connection to those lost sailors, providing him with further incentive to do something about the deteriorating memorial.

"I felt the souls of the shipwrecked sailors had been lost at sea, and I didn't want them lost to history," Dr King said.

So to save the memorial, Jonathan King proposed it be moved inside the church.

In pure distance, it was not far at all, less than 50 metres. But, according to Dr King, the journey took about five years and a lot of discussion and planning with church authorities and stonemasons.

Finally, last week a team of four stonemasons, led by Arthur Whyte-Butler, undertook the operation to transfer the memorial stone from the grounds and into the church, which itself is a piece of Stroud's colonial history, dating from 1833.

The team leader said the transfer of the fragile sandstone memorial took about eight hours, using a small crane and trolley to transport the 120-kilogram monument into the church.

"With the history of the stone, more than anything, we didn't want to damage it, getting it from one location to the other," said Mr Whyte-Butler.

"Just the nature of the beast, you've got to be so careful."

Jonathan King said Mr Whyte-Butler was so careful, he held the stone "like a child", with his team gently manoeuvring it into the church and onto a stringybark plinth, crafted by a local man who, coincidentally, had sailed with Dr King on the First Fleet reenactment voyage.

Once the memorial was in position in the church, Dr King said he "actually fell back onto a pew, sighing, just breathing with relief".

"It could have easily split," he said.

For Arthur Whyte-Butler, the operation was a milestone in his career.

After about 36 years as a stonemason, this job was one of Mr Whyte-Butler's last, as he retired this week. Arthur Whyte-Butler was pleased to play a role in helping ensure the memorial was offered more protection from the ravages of time and the weather.

"It's important, because if you don't look after your history, your past, you don't really have a future," Mr Whyte-Butler said.

The cost of moving the stone, which was just over $600, is being shared by Jonathan King and the Australian Agricultural Company, which is approaching its 200th year since it was formed.

After the memorial stone was in position inside the church, it was blessed by Bishop Sonia Roulston from the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle. Bishop Sonia also said a prayer and remembered the five sailors lost at sea in 1842.

"It forms part of the unique heritage footprint of Stroud," Bishop Sonia Roulston said of both the church and the memorial.

The memorial stone is to be formally unveiled at a service on Sunday.

Jonathan King has been spending a lot of time lately with his ancestors.

The historian is writing a biography of Phillip Parker King, who, as well as being a naval officer and hydrographer, was the son of the colony's third governor, Philip Gidley King.

In helping save the memorial stone in Stroud, Dr King believes his great-great-grandfather would nod approvingly.

"I think he'd say, 'Son you've carried out your duty as a descendant of the Governor King family, and you have responded to your historical responsibility, and I'm proud of you'," said Jonathan King. "I feel a warm glow inside."

This story Saving Stroud history first appeared on Newcastle Herald.