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.
Scavengers were employed in Cornwall until the end of the 19th century to gather up metal and glass so that it could be remade into something else.
Nick was born in 1948 and I was born in 1956. When we were young there were still rag and bone men with horse drawn carts collecting door to door and local dumps where kids could find what they needed to make a go- cart. Toys were still made of wood, cardboard, metal, plaster and cloth when Nick was a child but by the time I was 9 years old plastic components were becoming a part of most toys.
His family checked the beach early each morning for wood and fishing gear. The first thing he found on a beach was tin of sherbet, ‘I ate the lot and was sick in the river.’
When I was the same age I gathered small green sea urchins from a beach in Norfolk. Near my home there was a derelict house with broken windows where I found two glasses engraved with flowers in a cupboard. Nick took his bike up to the dump next to an abandoned airfield a mile from his home and found old radio equipment and oranges. When I was a teenager I bought clothes from jumble sales and adapted them. I still have a dress made from Chinese silk I bought for 2 pence. After we met we went through skips for anything useful. We bought everything we could from charity shops. If someone was getting rid of something they would come to us because we would probably take it off their hands. We trawled together through junk shops and reclamation yards and built a wooden house from what we’d found. We moved into it with the children. It was very like a white wooden shack his grandfather the sea captain built on a cliff in Cornwall and where we stayed we could. And this was the thing- the more time we spent by the sea the more we wanted to live there. Nick wrote about it in his plays and I painted it. We were pulled back to Cornwall, it called relentlessly. So we gave in. And it was then that we began to turn a habit into an obsession.
Everything that washes onto a beach is owned as it hits the shore of the British Isles by the Crown – everywhere except Cornwall, here it’s owned by the Duchy. Some say this is because Cornwall was never formally made a county of England.
In the days when it was faster for everything to travel by ship the value of wrecked cargo could be huge and the Revenue still claim anything of value.