The Cornish shores are widely (and rightly!) viewed as among Britain’s most idyllic holiday destinations but the Cornish coastline is also Britain’s most dangerous, claiming the lives of thousands of mariners since records began in the 14th century. The reasons for the mass of shipwrecks in Cornwall are manifold.
The Duchy’s shores have a profusion of solid, shallow and sharp rock reefs lurking in wait for unwary sailors beneath the surface. In days gone by the inadequacies of navigational aids, combined with dangerously unreliable navigational charts, meant ships had to sail coastwards in order to gain a secure knowledge of their position.
Another crucial reason for the number of wrecks, historically, is the huge volume of shipping in the area. From at least as early as the Bronze Age, Cornwall has been actively trading in tin and copper (the constituents of bronze) with the wider world. Added to this is Cornwall’s location as a convenient resting place for sailors, pilgrims and traders journeying between the northern and southern hemispheres.
Many sailors have been caught by the coast’s rapidly changeable weather, where a sunny, clear, still day with more than 10 miles of visibility can quickly transform into dense fog with only 20 feet of ocean visibility. (We know it well!) It has been alleged that during such periods of low visibility, ships were purposefully deceived by ‘wreckers’, who caused ships to be wrecked in order plunder the spoils that washed up onto land. Such wreckers would supposedly extinguish the light of beacons or, conversely, would swing a lantern high on the shore in imitation of another ship, leading crews to believe that the shore was more distant than it actually was.
Despite folkloric accounts or, for instance, the wreckers featured in the novel by former local resident, Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn, there are no actual convictions for this crime on record, though charges were brought.
In 1841 two local men, Hall and Luke of St Levan, were charged with wrecking a Belgian ship that had come ashore at the small cove of Porthgwarra. but were eventually acquitted. A previous accusation made in 1680 involved the lighthouse keeper of St Agnes in the Isles of Scilly, who was accused of failing to light his lighthouse, resulting in the wreck of a Virginian trading vessel, which he personally went on to loot.
This resulted in his sacking and the subsequent barring of any Cornishman from employment at the lighthouse. Disgraceful!