This is an extract from Jane’s book HELD BY THE SEA on the history of wrecking in Cornwall.
Cornwall was a separate place for thousands of years, easier to reach by sea from the coasts of France and Wales than by land from England. The Cornish language is closely linked to Breton and Welsh, all Celts. There are many who learn it now and teach it to their children, as a second language.
The people were tough and resourceful. Fishing and farming and mining sustained them in the past. Small communities of people defined by land and sea lived side by side. The coasts were more important then for transportation of goods and people, and for war. Every harbour was filled with the decks of wooden boats for pilchard, mackerel, herring and the crab and lobster. Trading vessels from all over Europe were moored alongside them. Underground deposits of tin were extracted and traded three thousand years ago with people in the Eastern Mediterranean. When the mines went bust in the 19th century they left for work in America, Australia, Africa. Some never came back. They took their experience and Cornish words to new communities. Others returned and told of where they’d been.
The people who lived here always had fish and shellfish, seaweed for fertilizer and wood that washed up for the fire and building. When everything travelled by boat the sea provided for those on the shore. Most were poor and necessity required resourcefulness, they knew every cove where things ‘fetched up’.
It’s been written that people lured ships onto rocks by waving a light on a cliff, a static light a warning of land, a moving light another boat and open water. There’s no record to show this ever happened.
There were many courageous rescues recorded from land and sea, small boats launching in a gale to help, ships changing course to save another. In a fierce gale the Captain of a vessel with sails had no control, many ships came ashore without assistance.
When a cargo was on the beach then it was different. If the finder returned it to its owner they were rewarded, legally. If there was no one around then crates and kegs washing into quiet coves would disappear. It’s not difficult to imagine a few desperate people taking what they wanted first and looking to the dying later. Perhaps that’s how the ‘wrecker’ got his reputation.
Hundreds of coal ships ran aground up and down the coast. Oranges washed in, in crates, clothing, wine barrels, some full. Until the 19th century there were people called ‘Scavengers’, paid street cleaners, who wandered everywhere collecting anything that could go back into the system, metal, cloth, glass. Gathering from the shore was one step away from this, an everyday activity but an important supplement to their meagre incomes. Men would fight over a plank of wood sometimes. They would ‘go cliff’ in the morning, leave anything they found above high water and come back after work to pick it up. It’s still the rule that anything put above the highest tide is left alone.
Nick’s Grandfather, Captain Darke, was wrecked twice off The Cape of Good Hope. When Nick’s father Bob was a boy he went wrecking with him. The Captain made him guard a barrel of Whiskey on the beach while he distracted a Revenue Officer who looked for it.
In Boathouse, a small cove near here, there’s a secret room, hidden in the cliff. The North coast is jagged and the sea too unpredictable for smuggling. The cargo could be left attached to buoys at sea, but someone else might pick it up. Smuggling has always been a south coast occupation. But you would need to hide valuable wreck from the revenue, fast. When the room was discovered a few years ago, no one knew of it. Though there was always talk of a tunnel from the beach to the nearest farm the room had been forgotten. In it were a box and a bottle. There are few places where a secret like this would be possible, most of the cliffs are sheer or crumbling.