Charis Cottage | Tigh-na-Mara | Cornwall | What to do | Festivals & events | History | Prehistory | Present Day | Cornish Language | St Piran & the Cornish Flag |
Shipwrecks, wreckers and smugglers
Wrecking and smuggling are activities that reached a peak in the 18th century in Cornwall. But for centuries before that Cornwall's rugged coastline caused countless shipwrecks which were thought fair game across all sections of society. Sometimes hundreds of people following a ship in trouble along the coast in anticipation of a rich harvest. It is said that many cornishmen and women and even the clergy seized the chance to supplement their lives by plunding wrecked ships and engaging in a little smuggling.
Photo right shows the "Bay of Panama" blown headlong onto rocks in 1891 at Nare Point. She was carrying jute from Calcutta.
Smuggling was a dangerous business. The penalties for being caught were harsh, including heavy fines and, at one point, death for those caught either smuggling or harbouring smugglers. Preserved in Talland Church is a memorial with a rhyming epitaph which tells of the sad death of Robert Mark of Polperro, who was shot at sea by Customs Officers on January 24th 1802:
In prime of life, most suddenly, Sad tidings to relate;
Here view my utter destiny, And pity my sad state.
I by a shot which rapid flew, Was instantly struck dead.
Lord pardon the offender who My precious blood did shed.
Grant him to rest, and forgive me All I have done amiss;
And that I may rewarded be With everlasting bliss.
However, many people feel that contrary to legend, Cornish Wreckers rarely attacked or killed wrecked sailors, or lured ships onto the rocks. They acquired the name because they plundered the wrecks. When the vessel Postilion was driven ashore on the North Coast in November 1732, the ship was certainly plundered, but not until every crew member aboard had been helped to safety ashore. Custom Officers, or "Preventive Men" who tried to deter the locals found on many occasions that when they had successfully retrieved the cargo, their storehouses were broken into later by local people reclaiming what they considered to be rightfully theirs. It was a bloody business. Many wreckers and not a few Customs men were killed in pitched battles over the booty. Once the cargo had been removed, the wreckers would strip the ship of every saleable asset, right down to its timber and sails. The pickings from wrecks could be substantial, and some of the "Preventive" men could not resist the temptation to help themselves at times. One such, Sir John Knill, was Collector of Customs at St. Ives between 1762 and 1782 and Mayor in 1767. Even though he published a scholarly pamphlet on the prevention of wrecking, he is said to have dealt in looted cargo as enthusiastically as the next man.
The Government Auctions
The coastal dwellers felt they had a right to whatever was washed ashore. However, the coastguard kept such a sharp lookout after a heavy storm then it was a case of "cat and mouse". If something was found on the beach it was immedately hidden or placed in an "inaccessible" part of the beach. When the government auction was held on the beach, if the object was spotted it was usually knocked down for a trifle to and the man who found it. But if it was not included, then it was fetched later under cover. It was generally considered too unsafe to try to make off with anything of size immediately, but to obtain by these means. Auctions were not always well attended, and the bidders knew one another so did not compete vigorously.
There is a story that one vicar whose service was interrupted by a man excitedly announcing a wreck is said to have begged the congregation to remain seated until he'd taken off his cassock " so that we can all start fair. " The Rev. Thomas Whitford, rector of Cury, near Helston in Cornwall, was actually caught in possession of 4 casks of wine looted from the 1739 wreck of The Lady Lucy at nearby Gunwalloe. Clergymen like the Rev Richard Dodge of Talland were quite heavily involved in smuggling and Dodge even spread stories of ghosts and demons around the village to keep prying eyes away from his illicit activities. Smuggled contraband would often be hidden in Church crypts, belltowers, pulpits and even tombs! Whilst the village parson would often engage in illicit smuggling, other smugglers too were not quite what they seemed. One of Cornwall's most famous, Harry Carter - the so called "King of Prussia Cove" was a devout Methodist and lay preacher in between running contraband from Roscoff,and whilst in exile there he even held services on the quayside for his fellow smugglers.
A fierce Lady Pirate
Sir John Killigrew erected the first lighthouse at The Lizard in 1619 to the chagrin of local people who had benefited considerably from the wrecking of vessels. His actions not only caused fury in the localsbut also astonishment. The Killigrews were some of the fiercest and most notorious pirates ever to plague the coasts of Cornwall. Much of the wealth he had inherited came from piracy. In people memory was the fact that a mere 37 years earlier, the romantic female pirate Lady Killigrew had seized a Spanish ship sheltering in Falmouth harbour, drowned most of the crew and removed its precious cargo.