wreckers and smugglers
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.
right shows the "Bay of Panama" blown headlong onto rocks in 1891 at
Nare Point. She was carrying jute from Calcutta.
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:
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.
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
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 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.
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
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.
short history of Cornwall