Southwell is a small village located in the northeast of Portland Bill, an island on the south coast of the UK.
Its position in the English Channel surrounded by shallow reefs and clashing tides made it a nightmare for ships' navigators, so much so that three lighthouses were built there.
SS Avalanche was a 1161-ton, three-iron-masted clipper. Built in Aberdeen, she had made three successful round trips carrying many colonists safely to the other side of the world.
On a stormy night on 11 September 1877, the Avalanche, carrying 63 passengers home to Whanganui, was accidentally struck by SS Forest of Windsor, Nova Scotia, and sank within three minutes.
As a result, 106 people, including whole families, perished. Three crew members were the only survivors. The disaster became international news, and a national campaign was launched, raising £2000 in donations for a new church to be erected as a memorial.
Built in Southwell in 1879, the Avalanche Memorial Church commemorated the victims as well as the bravery of local fishermen.
The church features memorials to those drowned and testimonials to the bravery of the local fishermen who attempted to rescue the shipwrecked victims.
Some of the windows, the lectern and the pulpit were funded by relatives and friends of those who drowned. There is also a brass tablet listing the names and, where known, the descriptions of the passengers and crew of the Avalanche.
A notable piece of memorabilia is the large anchor of the Avalanche, which was raised and donated to the church in 1984.
One of the drowned passengers was Margaret Watt, much-treasured daughter of William Hogg Watt, businessman, family man and mayor of Whanganui.
There are many memorials to Margaret Watt around Whanganui, not least the Watt Fountain and the Margaret Watt Memorial Orphanage, later renamed the Margaret Watt Home.
The Whanganui Regional Museum has a glass ashtray depicting the rescue of survivors of the SS Avalanche and SS Forest, which was presented to the Matron of the Margaret Watt Home in September 1977 by the Whanganui Historical Society on the anniversary of Margaret Watt's death.
A pair of ceramic dessert bowls and six tallow candles recovered from the wreck in 1984 were recently donated to the museum. The bowls were recovered from the wreck of SS Avalanche and came into the possession of the Watt family.
Jim Watt donated them to this museum, which has many other collection objects and archives associated with the Watt family and the sinking of SS Avalanche, including a scrapbook of the history of the Avalanche compiled by Judith Crawley between 1997 and 2007.
The scrapbook contains printed text, photocopies, photographs and newspaper clippings. Topics covered include the passengers, the inquiry, memorials, the establishment of the Margaret Watt Children's Home in Whanganui and commemorations.
Kathy Greensides is the collection assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.