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Cornish Wreckers

Discussion in 'Chit Chat' started by tabtab13, Apr 7, 2010.

  1. tabtab13

    tabtab13 Active Member

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    I think most of us are familiar with the image of someone on a cliff top, waving a lantern to bring ships in only to be wrecked on rocks and then pillaged.

    How well organised was this? Was there a network in place whereby goods were sold, either locally or up country?

    Were there 'gangs' involved or were certain families known for doing this?

    I'm also wondering if these gangs or families had their own 'patches' where they operated from and these areas were well known - in the sense of "you'd better not go wrecking off (wherever) as that area belongs to so and so and there will be trouble if you do." A kind of 'turf war' if you like?

    Anyone know much about this?
     
  2. treeve

    treeve Major Contributor

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    First Major point to be made; the image of gangs of mercilous cut-throats waving lanterns on a cliff top is the myth of Hollywood, spirited novels and latter day TV 'investigators'.
    Take it all with a pinch of zalla.

    A Wrecker is one who plunders wrecks that have happened as a result of the wayward forces of Nature. There are incidents of vicious attack to protect the wreckers own interests. Many incidents were accompanied/headed by local vicars.

    There are a number of tales I will add here, but yes, there are a handful of tales of lurers on cliffs. I believe most of the tales, of being lured, arise from sea-masters who were unable to manage their ship and have to explain as such to their owner's insurers.

    Another fact is the alignment of Cornwall with politics over the years, anything to blacken the name of the Cornish.

    Incidentally - probably the biggest name connection was the family of the Killigrews.
     
    Last edited: Apr 7, 2010
  3. tabtab13

    tabtab13 Active Member

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    Well there you go! Up until now, I'd always thought it was based on fact and not a myth as such conjured up by books and films.

    Though I was interested to read your comment on vicars being involved. Am I right in assuming they were present in order to save any poor souls washed up from attack, rather than any other dubious motives?
     
  4. treeve

    treeve Major Contributor

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    Part The First

    It is easy for the Crown or the Church to decry the act of wrecking; admittedly justified as regards some reported attacks on passengers and crew were concerned, but frankly many of those even cannot be taken as gospel. The fact of the matter was that there was an 'unwritten law' whereby The Crown seized rights of any ship and its crew upon being wrecked on the shore or off its cliffs. That was true of all country's with a coast. The practice of Right of Wreck began in on the Roman conquest. This was grasped by the Crown. Later transferred to The Church. This was often transferred by the usual backscratching to local churches and on to Land masters, having ben grasped again by the Crown in around 1330. In this background we cannot vision a wreck being politely towed in to shore, the contents offloaded neatly on to the quay, and the crew and other occupants taken carefully to some warm domicile. It was all part of the general policy against pirates and smugglers. Pirates were beheaded after a show trial, smugglers were impounded in shackles and minimum rations in miserable conditions, and crew and passengers were enslaved.
    In this light, can be seen with that abject poverty that this England will never experience in these times, some measure of ‘them and us’ begins. The locals (of whatever country or county) take to helping themselves of the spoils of the wreck, before the Crown seizes it.
    The other side is that casks of brandy or of geneva supplemented the smuggling trade, good money to be made in North France, for example. I have read of distinct cases where a ship was deliberately wrecked for the express purpose of landing the cargo for smuggling trade, whether I can find those reports again is another story. If anyone was guilty of wrecking (ie seizing property fom a wrecked ship) it was The Crown.
     
    Last edited: Apr 7, 2010
  5. treeve

    treeve Major Contributor

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    Part the Tooth

    The Crown had a distinct upper hand in the matter of holding the goods and spoil of a wreck, complaining bitterly to local magistrates of ‘certayn persons have helped themselves to my priveleages’. There was also the shoring, where goods floated ashore off wrecks. Perhaps the inflation of the situation in Cornwall arose from local coastlines, where there was less room for ships to be manoeuvred, a ship heading for some shelter, finds it shrouds clinging to the cliff face, blown by the intense gusts, rigging gets caught, and she is lost. Unlike many other coasts of Britain, her inshore waters are littered with half hidden rocks. Add to that there was the miner, who (unlike his fishing cousin) had to work to pay his tied rent and to buy food, and at times relied on other sources of income.

    Remember that the majority of Cornish folk lived by the nurture of the sea, they knew the hardships of the sailor, and his voyage. A move was there to preserve life and the ship. All along the vicious coast are stories of rescue of life from wrecked ships. The chances of survival, from a ship which has been scarred by jagged rocks and gripped by the wild seas, hurled agains cliffs or even tossed up on a beach, with the fury of sea and wind all around, was remote. There were tales of 2000 miners going to a wreck; but imagine a coast of high cliffs, of roaring winds and a tempestuous raging sea. In that is a ship being torn to pieces, spars, ropes, heavy boards, heaving bowsprit, just how many desperate men could be on that narrow margin of survival. The barrel that is being sought is lifted and can kill a man with one blow. No, the wrecking that was conducted in that large scale would have been undertaken on the morning after the wreck when all but a handfull from the ship had died, others would have been taken in by villagers. There is one horrible tale told of a wrecker having spotted on the following morning a ‘priceless ring’, it being on the finger of a survivor clinging to a rock, he just cut off the finger. We have to ask, was the wrecker aware that the person was alive or dead? Was the observer of this incident a friend or foe? Just how true is it? Was the observer himself trying to get the ring? Only too often the parson was involved looking not only for lost souls, but for a cask of bordeaux, as were local publicans, hoping to get a few casks of brandy. The picture painted is one of pillage and carnage. They repeat tales of miners gathering their knives and axes, not having followed the miners, and imagining killing in a glorious frenzy to get their ill gotten harvest of the sea. The knives and axes were for cutting ropes and to get the sails, to open doors that were blocked, to open hatches, to open crates of goods, full crates were unwieldy, much easier to get the contents separately. Some ships had animals for cargo and others had animals for food. Others had beasts of burden. To deny any killing or injury between an anxious wrecker and a possessive sailor would be foolhardy. But ask yourself this; when a sailor appears eventually at his employer’s desk, being asked ‘where is my geneva?’ ‘Well Milord their were hundreds of them vicious Cornishmen, and it was either them or me, and look at this gash in my arm, they killed me mates’.
     
  6. treeve

    treeve Major Contributor

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    It was not unusual for some ship to have been seen in difficulties and for hundresds of villagers to be on the cliffs following their progress; will it bring that fortune for them? It is quite likely (almost certain) that some would be carrying lanterns. Which could to some be interpreted as luring.

    Daniel Defoe travelled through Great Britain in 1724 and produced his account of the Isles of Scilly in which he reports; the sands are covered in people, they are charged with strange bloody and cruel dealings, even sometimes with one another, but especially the poor distressed seamen who seek for help for their lives and find the rocks for themselves more cruel and merciless than the people about them for their prey’. These were islanders who relied on trade and pilotage. If a master refused to pay pilotage, they were allowed to drift, at their ship’s peril. At the Crown’s example, a wreck was easy pickings. Retribution was more about preventing the Crown getting their dues than preventing locals getting pickings to supplement their meagre living.

    This is Rhodian Law, the ancient law (it dates from Byzantium) to which I referred. It is related to the value of the goods and persons carried, the costs to be paid and the rates at which owners and hirers may claim. For example ….
    Where a ship is sunk or stranded, whatever each one saves out of his own property he can keep for himself, just as in case of fire.
    Those who throw any property overboard for the purpose of lightening a ship, do not intend to consider it as abandoned; since if they should find it they can carry it away, and if they have any idea of the place where it has been cast by the sea, they can claim it; so that they are in the same condition as anyone who oppressed by a burden throws it down on the road, expecting to return presently with others and remove it.
    No estimate should be made of slaves who are lost at sea, any more than where those who are ill die on the ship, or throw themselves overboard.
    Where property which has been thrown overboard is recovered, the necessity for contribution is at an end; but if it has already been made, then those who had paid can bring an action on the contract for transportation against the master, and he can proceed under the one for hiring, and return what he recovers.
    In a sentence, the insurance covers it, so it is for the taking; life itself is cheap.
    That was maritime law.
     
  7. treeve

    treeve Major Contributor

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    George Borlase (brother of Dr William Borlase of Ludgvan), reporting to the owners (the Onslow’s of Guildford) of Lanisley, for whom he is Steward in Penzance.
    13th February 1753. The late storms have brought several vessels ashore and some dead wrecks, in the former case 'great barbarity's' have been committed, which a few soldiers would have prevented. And Considering the coasts here swarm with smugglers from The Lands End to the Lizard by which an immense sum goes yearly to France, I wonder they were ordered off without being replaced by others, as they are in those cases of great use.....
    with pleasure observe leave is given to bring up a Bill for enforcing the Laws against persons who shall steal or detain shipwrecked goods etc,. A forfeiture of every man's wages due to him from any tyn or copper mine who should leave his work to go wrecking ... The act was read in church and chapel four times a year and 'apprehend greatly awe those brutes'.
    In another 5th March 1753 ...he closes with 'But there is all the more reason in the world for part of the detachment be at Helston because just in that neighbourhood lye the smugglers and wreckers more than about us, though there are too many in all parts of this country ... I have often been eye witness of the barbarity used at wrecks and saved some ships myself with other help and think your printed Bill very defective.
    Here he touches on a vital point, to state that Cornwall was any worse than any other part of the country and its growing plunder of coastal wreckage is a distortion. [Derek Parker Historian and Writer states 'The stories of wreckers are in fact libels'].
    Lieutenant General Onslow replies 15th March 1753, and here the Wreck Bill is mentioned; it is general for the country.

    Here Lt Gen Onslow writes to George Borlase, 15th March 1753.
    As to the soldiers, I am sorry smuggling and wrecking are increased in those parts to such a degree as to render them necessary.
    [which indicates that the area did not have a problem before. This is theft against the Crown and Land Owner.]
    The riches of the land and sea is in full gallop to France and the countenance given to the smugglers by those whose business it is to restrain those pernicious practices hath brought them so bold and daring that nobody can venture to come near them with safety whilst they are at work.
    [Here he makes the connection that the goods are for sale in France, the smugglers vessels being armed, are fast and very manoeuvreable].
    As to the sending of a smack you rightly observe it is the business of the Custom House officers to represent the necessity and want of it to the commissioners. But they are languid in that as my neighbours are about the soldiers although our all in manner is plainly at stake for the want of them.
    As to the Wreck Bill I apprehend the adding some preventative clauses would make it an effectual remedy against the practice of wrecking. My situation in life has obliged me sometimes to be a spectator of things in it, which shock humanity and which the Legislature intends some punishments for but some things I fear this Bill will not reach.
    The people who make it their business to attend these wrecks are generally Tynners and as soon as they observe a ship on the coast they first arm themselves with sharp axes and hatchetts and leave the tyn works to follow those ships. Sometimes the ship is not wracked but whether it is or not the mines suffer greatly not only by the loss of their labour which may be about £100 per diem if they are 2000 in quest of the ship but where the water is quick the mine is entirely drowned, and they seldom go less in number than 2000.
    [Bear in mind this gentleman is speaking of experiences in other coasts; he owns Lanisley but is an absentee owner living in Guildford, so would have little experience of tin mines, workers and ship wrecks attended by them. These are second hand accounts; However he is attempting to bring in a Bill to prevent wreckers all over the country]
    Now it is hardly to be imagined how farr the taking this infamous practice in its very budd and laying the loss of all wages due and some further penalty on every labouring tynner who should leave his Tynwork in order to go to a wreck would contribute to keep them home and break the neck of it.
    The forfeitures would be certain loss but the gain uncertain by going supposing no punishment to attend their plundering etc
    Next I apprehend no person should be allowed to attend a wreck armed with axse or the like unless lawfully required. They'll cut a large trading vessel to pieces in one tide and cut down everybody that offers to oppose them. Therefore there should be some provision against this.
    Next I humbly apprehend the Bill does not sufficiently provide against the monstrous barbarity practiced by those savages upon th epoor sufferers. I have seen many a poor man [again he is not referring to Cornwall, though I add a comment from George Borlase later] half dead, cast ashore and crawling out of the reach of the waves, fallen upon and stripped naked by those villains, and if afterwards he has saved his chest or any more cloathes they have been taken from him. Inhuman and barbarous as this is, and although a highwayman is a christian to thinksuch I think whoever should forcibly take any goods out of the shipwrecked sailor by force should suffer as a highwayman.
    ------------
    George Borlase in 1756 writes of his experience in The Isles of Scilly, he saw islanders stripping the clothes off a shipwrecked mariner, who was half drowned. Anything aboard the ship was 'protected' by the Rhodian Law, and was a 'ship' or the 'contents of a ship'; outside of the ship it was nothing.
     
  8. treeve

    treeve Major Contributor

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    Part the Last.

    Law was beginning to change, but the laws on Salvage and Wrecks were less than able to be prosecuted on wreckers, because of the Salvage rules. There was nothing that precluded anyone from stating that they had every intention of offering the goods as having been ‘salvaged’. Many laws were gathered and presented by Francis Ludlow Holt in 1820. In the early part of the 19th century numbers of vessels, ships and cargoes getting larger, more money riding on the voyages, more men needed to crew. Losses reached catastrophic proportions. An Inquiry was set up in 1836 to investigate the causes of shipwrecks in general, covering all aspects. In 1839 another looked at wreck loss of timber carriers, in 1843 one looked into wreck as regard malpractice, construction, overloading, false claims etc,. Eventually in the 1850s a survey was conducted in which it was discovered over a thousand ships were lost on British shores in an average year, with the loss of over 800 crew and or passengers. This had been growing since 1812. From this grew the innovation of designers, inventors, the Royal Humane Society, Lifeboat Services, land and ship borne life saving equipment, a regularisation of ship stability, loading limitations, control of crewing, general qualification. This culminated in the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, followed in 1894 by the same re-considered and set out by Henry Temperley, which forms the basis of modern Maritime Law, Temperley's laws being used in present day courts.

    Cornwall has one vestige of those days, only too often when rum or brandy casks were plundered, the contents were watered as a result of damage, seawater had penetrated the split cask. A Scillonian publican added a distillations of herbs known as shrub and another known as lovage; the cordials masked the bitterness of the saltwater. Brandy and Lovage, Rum and Shrub became a standard order over the bar in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

    Oh yes, for all the stories seen in books and media now, if the Cornish were so heavily involved in the practice of luring ships to their doom, why is it that only one case was ever brought to the attention of a magistrate ... in Anglesey. That is over the entire history of wrecking, with all the pressures of militia, the Crown, local Landowners, Customs Officers, prejudice, hatred.
     
  9. rychp

    rychp

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    "The Wreckers" by Bella Bathurst is a good read.Cornwall and Isles if Scilly are in it.
     
  10. Gina Gibson Francis

    Gina Gibson Francis

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    Thank you Treeve, for taking the time to upload such an important historical thread. I have Scillonian Ancestry dating back to the early 1700's. Having visited the IOS four times from Australia I often think of the impoverished lives of my forebears. It was Not a Tourist Destination then!
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your overview & the sections on the Law, Maritime et al was most enlightening!
    Gina Francis (nee Gibson)
     

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