BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: UK: England
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Monday, 4 February, 2002, 22:07 GMT
Timber galore for Cornish wreckers
Cornish wrecker
Wreckers clamber among jettisoned timbers
Scavengers have swarmed over a Cornwall beach to retrieve timber from a grounded cargo ship, risking death in the waves. Tight laws control salvage - but Cornish wreckers have a long heritage.

The tale is told of a man bursting into a Cornish church and shouting, "Wreck! Wreck!"

The clergyman is said to have barred the door to prevent his flock from rushing for the shore - while he removed his robes "so we can all start fair".

This week scavengers plundering timber from Cornwall's Whitsand Bay say they are following in the ways of the old wreckers.

Whisky Galore poster
The film Whisky Galore toasted Scottish wreckers

The episode is reminiscent of the comic film Whisky Galore, based on a true story of Scottish islanders' attempts to hide drink washed ashore in wartime.

But Cornwall's wrecking history has a dark side.

The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, a celebrated Cornish folklorist, told how men waved lanterns on clifftops to lure passing ships on to rocks.

The story is doubted by Captain George Hogg of the National Maritime Museum, which opens soon in Falmouth.

"Stories of tying a lantern to a donkey's tail just don't stand up."

Sailors robbed

Even so, many Cornish people believed the bounty of storms was theirs by right, and some were ruthless in claiming it.

There are accounts of half-drowned mariners having clothes ripped from their backs.

There is only one known instance of anybody being sentenced for wrecking in Cornwall

Richard Larn, historian
Tin miners on The Lizard, in West Cornwall, reputedly became "mad people, without the fear of God" when a ship came to grief.

Sailors were said to recite a nervous prayer:

God keep us from rocks and shelving sands
And save us from Breage and Germoe men's hands

The wreckers reputedly had their own prayer - in dialect:

"Oh please Lord, let us pray for all on the sea
But if there's got to be wrecks, please send them to we."

Dead admiral

Admiral Sir Cloudsley Shovel survived the wrecking of his entire fleet on the Isles of Scilly in 1707 - but not for long.

"Legend has it he was found on the beach, and somebody killed him for his gold rings," said Captain Hogg.

Helicopter over Kodima
Salvage experts have boarded the Kodima
Coins from a mystery wreck still turn up on Praa Sands, near Penzance.

"There's also a cove on Scilly known as Beady Bay, after a ship went down carrying trading gifts," Captain Hogg recalled.

"You could go to Beady Bay and find these little glass beads for hundreds of years - and probably still can."

Despite hi-tech navigation and lighthouses, the wreckers still enjoy the occasional bonanza.

In 1997, the container ship MV Cita broke up off Scilly, filling the sea with "gifts" for islanders. A fisherman towed ashore a container full of training shoes.

Cornishman Ed Prynn, of St Merryn, near Padstow, recalled a shipload of timbers washing ashore at St Agnes.

"Everybody was down there with their diggers, right out in the surf.

"Nearly every house built after that had oak and teak beams.

"They won't stop us doing it - it's our culture. It's in our blood."

Modern-day plunderers can stay within the law if they report their finds to the Office of the Receiver of Wrecks, at Southampton.

Historian Richard Larn, of Charleston Shipwreck Museum, said: "There is only one known instance of anybody being sentenced for wrecking in Cornwall."

But he added: "That person was sentenced to death."

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more England stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more England stories