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Cornish Wrecking, 1700-1860

Cornish Wrecking, 1700-1860: Reality and Popular Myth

Cathryn J. Pearce
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 278
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt14brrc3
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  • Book Info
    Cornish Wrecking, 1700-1860
    Book Description:

    Although the popular myth of Cornish wrecking is well-known within British culture, this book is the first comprehensive, systematic inquiry to separate out the layers of myth from the actual practices. Weaving in legal, social and cultural history, it traces the development of wreck law - the right to salvage goods washed on shore - and explores the responses of a coastal populace who found their customary practices increasingly outside the law, especially as local individual rights were being curtailed and the role of centralised authority asserted. This groundbreaking study also considers the myths surrounding wrecking, showing how these developed over time, and how moral attitudes towards wrecking changed. Overall, the picture of evil wreckers deliberately luring ships onto the rocks is dispelled, to be replaced by a detailed picture of a coastal populace - poor and gentry alike - who were involved in a multi-faceted, sophisticated coastal practice and who had their own complex popular beliefs about the harvest and salvage of goods washing ashore from shipwreck. CATHRYN J. PEARCE holds a PhD in Maritime History from Greenwich Maritime Institute. A former associate professor of history with the University of Alaska Anchorage's Kenai Peninsula College, she is now with University Campus Suffolk where she continues to research on the relationship of coastal people with the sea.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-876-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Figures, Maps and Tables
    (pp. vi-viii)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-xi)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xii-xii)
  6. Introduction: A Reputation for Wrecking
    (pp. 1-16)

    In February 2002, BBC News issued headlines on its website: ‘Timber galore for Cornish wreckers’. The Russian cargo shipKodimafoundered in heavy seas, spilling thousands of timber planks into the sea, which washed up on the beaches around Whitsand Bay. ‘Scavengers have swarmed over a Cornwall beach to retrieve timber from a grounded cargo ship’, the News announced, ‘risking death in the waves. Tight laws control salvage, but the Cornish wreckers have a long heritage.’ The articles go on to repeat oft-told tales of Cornish wreckers: the clergyman who asked his parishioners to wait for him to remove his...

  7. 1 Cornwall and the Sea
    (pp. 17-40)

    The dictionary definition of wrecking does little to illustrate the gruelling labour and danger involved; neither does it truly portray the conditions. Wrecking, salvaging and lifesaving – concomitant activities – were particularly dangerous when they took place at the height of a gale, often in the hours of morning before dawn. Curtains of wind and rain lashed at the wreckers, obstructing vision and making footholds on the cliff face perilous. Cold and wet hands grasped at the rocks for balance as they tried to reach for the slippery hands of survivors or for the bodies of those who died or for the...

  8. 2 ‘Dead Wrecks’ and the Foundation of Wreck Law
    (pp. 41-59)

    The news reports from the wreck of theKodimain 2002 show us that even in the twenty-first century, people still believe in the precept of ‘finders keepers’ when it comes to items found on the beach. Indeed, this is one of the core tenets of wrecking – people believe they have the right to goods that have washed ashore – that it was a ‘custom’ practised ‘from time immemorial’. In the mid-nineteenth century, David Williams, the Coastguard’s Inspecting Commander at Padstow, testified during the Select Committee on Shipwrecks that the ‘country people’ called shipwrecked goods a ‘godsend’. He defended them emphatically:...

  9. 3 Wrecking and Criminality
    (pp. 60-81)

    On Tuesday, 14 December 1708, several men representing the East India Company left its sumptuous headquarters on Leadenhall Street in the City of London. Making their way through traffic, pedestrians, and filth laying in the gutters of the narrow, grimy streets, they headed to the House of Commons, then situated in a modest two-storey, turreted ex-chapel, part of the old Palace of Westminster. Upon arriving, they placed before the members copies of three letters sent post-haste from Cornwall, delivered to Secretary Thomas Woolley as he had been working late on Saturday night. The letters described a ‘melancholly Account’ then occurring:...

  10. 4 The Cornish Wrecker
    (pp. 82-103)

    In 1907, Henry Shore, a retired Royal Navy commander who had served in Fowey with the Coastguard, published a collection of stories after he had interviewed the locals about smuggling. In Shore’s fictional ‘society’, created, he said, to protect their identity, the men huddled together over their pints to reminisce about smuggling in the ‘old days’. Wherever there are tales of smuggling, there are tales of wrecking, and thus the story is told:

    I mind when I was a bit of a nipper, mother used to teach us hymns of a Sunday afternoon. But the one I remember best was...

  11. 5 Wrecking and Popular Morality
    (pp. 104-122)

    While serving as second mate aboard theBritannia, William Falconer was shipwrecked off Cape Colona in the Levant. He returned home to write and publish his most famous poem,The Shipwreck, in 1762. While ostensibly reflecting his experiences, he used his pen in his third version to castigate and shame those who populated England’s shore. Northumbria, he opined was:

    Where the grim hell-hounds, prowling round the shore,

    With foul intent the stranded bark explore:

    Deaf to the voice of woe, her decks they board,

    While tardy justice slumbers o’er her sword.¹

    Although Falconer singled out Northumbria, and other writers have...

  12. 6 Wrecking and Enforcement of the Law
    (pp. 123-144)

    On 9 October 1767, theSherborne Mercuryreported that ‘Last Monday was executed at St. Stephens, near Launceston in Cornwall, Wm. Pearse [sic],¹ who was condemned at the last assizes for that county.… He persisted to the last moment that he was not guilty of the crime he died for.’ William Pearce became the only individual in Cornish history to be executed for wrecking under the act of 26 Geo. II c. 19, believing to the last that he had only acted according to custom. He was executed as an example to deter the rest of the populace from wrecking...

  13. 7 Lords of the Manor and their Right of Wreck
    (pp. 145-166)

    In 1835, western Cornwall saw the death of one of the great scions of the local indigenous gentry, Francis Basset of Tehidy, Baron de Dunstanville. Dunstanville’s funeral procession took twelve days, travelling from London to Tehidy, and the hearse ‘plumed, with pennons bearing the Basset Arms, was drawn by plumed horses carrying velvet cloths’. Behind it were two other mourning coaches, carrying Lady Basset and Sir John St Aubyn of Clowance, the head of another great family. When the procession reached Truro, 800 tenants gathered to follow it into Tehidy. It was probably the largest, most grand funeral ever seen...

  14. 8 Wrecking and Centralised Authority
    (pp. 167-188)

    On 27 December 1755, John Harvey, master of the pilchard sloopMary and Alice, along with his crew of eight, put to sea from Penzance pier to cast their nets. Shortly beyond the pier, they spotted two casks of brandy, which they pulled into their boat. All of a sudden, eight Customs officers burst on the scene; they ‘bore down upon ’em & order’d them to bring to’. With ‘horrid Oaths and Imprecations declar’d they’d fire at ’em, & blow their Brains, and did discharge 2 volleys of Horse Pistols the Wadding of one of which scorch’d John Sampsons Wigg...

  15. 9 The Wrecker, the Press, and the Pulpit
    (pp. 189-212)

    In 1751, theSherborne Mercury, one of the first regional papers in the West Country, reported the loss of a vessel near Porthleven on 18 March:

    the cliffs, as usual, were covered with hundreds of those greedy Cormorants, waiting for their Prey, which no sooner came within their Reach but was Swallowed up by them, more barbarous in their Nature than Cannibals … Amongst these greedy Wolves there were many of their Kind that made so free with the Spirit, and were so exasperated with each other, that they stripped even to their Buff and fought like Devils.

    Thus begins...

  16. Conclusion: Myths and Reputations Reconsidered
    (pp. 213-216)

    With the typecasting of the Cornish as wreckers in popular consciousness, their actions in relation to shipwrecks have been interpreted in terms of that identity, no matter their record of lifesaving. Indeed, the stereotype has been magnified in the popular press even in the early twenty-first century: witness the BBC headlines that opened this book – ‘Timber galore for Cornish wreckers’ after the 2002 wreck of theKodima. The Cornish are conflicted about their wrecking past, and have contradictory reactions regarding their labelling as wreckers. As other marginalised groups have done, they have attempted to ‘own’ the myths through a retelling...

  17. Appendix 1 Wreck Bills and Statutes, 1700–1854
    (pp. 217-218)
  18. Appendix 2 Cornish Wreck Returns, Constabulary Report 1837
    (pp. 219-221)
  19. Appendix 3 Presentments, Manor of Connerton, 1704–59
    (pp. 222-224)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-252)
  21. Index
    (pp. 253-266)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 267-267)