The S. S. Demerara was a steam ship built by William Patterson Shipbuilders in Bristol in 1851, to the order of the West India Mail Steamship Company. At the time of its completion it was the 2nd largest ship in the world.
The Demerara is most famous in bristol for catastrophically running aground as it attempted to reach the sea for the first time. She was launched in Bristol on 27th September 1851 and wrecked on 10th November on her way to have engines fitted.
On the day of the disaster she left Cumberland Basin in tow of a Glasgow tug to go to the Clyde to be fitted with engines. She was late on the tide, which had begun to ebb. The tug was started at the dangerously high speed of seven or eight miles an hour, in the hope of making up for lost tide.
Mr. Patterson, who was aboard the Demerara, was alarmed, and spoke urgently to the pilot. Speed was then reduced, but not sufficiently, and soon after passing the Round Point the bow of the new boat heavily struck the rocks on the Gloucestershire bank. The strong ebb tide swung the ship across the Avon. The tide left her, and she settled down, rivets starting and the deck twisting. Here was not only damage to the ship, but a blocking of the port, just past where the Clifton Suspension Bridge was being built, as effectual as any that had occurred during the past century or two.
The river was blocked for three tides. The attempts to free the ship got more and more urgent as the loss of trade began to mount. At one point the authorities considered blowing the ship up with dynamite just to clear the passage. In the end the cost of the rescue efforts required the ship owners to sell the ship to cover the cost.
The damage was considered to be too great for the ship to continue as a steamer and the Demerara was converted to sail and renamed the British Empire. It was used for many years in the guano trade.
The Demerara's Figurehead was meanwhile attached the the exterior of Demerara House on Rupert Street and Quay Street, home to the auctioneers George, Nichols, Hunt & Co., where it remained for almost 70 years until the building was demolished in 1931. The figurehead unfortunately disintegrated after removal from the building.
The figure had been carved by Anderson's uncles, the Williams brothers. It represented a mythical chieftain from the caribbean, standing nearly three metres tall. Wearing a tobacco leaf head dress and skirt and brandishing a spear, he holds an unidentified plant, representing the bounty of the West Indies. The figurehead was then presented to Alderman James Fuller Eberle, who was the chairman of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and a member of the Bristol Savages arts society. Despite numerous pleas from the public to keep the figurehead in the public domain, it became the property of the Bristol Savages and was removed to the Red Lodge, where the Savages had their headquarters.
It is something of a mystery what became of the figurehead, although it is known that an attempt was made to place it in the Red Lodge garden. however, "it was found to be so decayed... that it could not be set up there" (Western Daily Press, 8th February 1932).
The crumbed pieces of the figurehead went missing in 1934 until in 1942 Mr Reginald Bussell was offered the surviving plant for the price of a pint of beer in the Somerset Arms pub in Stokes Croft. He looked after it until 1964, when he donated it to the Museum.
A reconstructed figurehead, in the likeness of a Native American, now adorns the exterior of The Drawbridge pub on St. Augustines Parade. It celebrates the sugar industry in the British Colony of Demerara.N.B. the Access Pillar in the Places Gallery can also be seen in the above photo.