Boscastle: A history of shipwrecks and wrecking?
Cornwall is full of stories of smuggling and shipwrecks, with literature like Poldark and Jamaica Inn capitalising on this rich and mysterious history. But in reality, how much of this is true?
The coast around Boscastle, with its jagged rocks and dangerous currents, has long been a danger to seafarers. One example of this is the wreck of the Jessie Logan which struck rocks below Willapark in January 1843. The ship had contained buffalo horns and hides, cotton, shellac, raw sugar, flax, rice and dyewood…”the latter coloured the water red for a considerable distance”. Unusually, all the crew were able to safely escape.
“They were not thieves…”
Newspaper reports at the time claimed that 100 locals from Boscastle had been involved in the violent plunder of the wreck, and had come up against customs officers attempting to protect the cargo. The articles say that the wreckers were gradually beaten back, with 10 of the ringleaders being detained.
However, in contrast, David Williams (the Inspecting Commander of the Coastguard) challenged these sensationalist accounts, arguing that no violence had taken place and that “plunder always takes place where this is a wreck”. He claimed the issue was that there was simply too much cargo too widely spread to be protected by a handful of officers, and that the locals would only take goods that had been scattered along the shore. “They were not thieves”, he said. Only two men were actually found guilty, and not of ‘plundering the ship’, but of ‘stealing cotton’, and were sentenced at Bodmin to 12 months hard labour. Nevertheless, the Jessie Logan marked a turning point in law, with movements made towards holding an entire community responsible stolen cargo.
The Hungry Forties
At the time of the Jessie Logan wreck, Cornwall was experiencing the ‘Hungry Forties’, where the inhabitants suffered the effects of the same potato famine as that which famously struck Ireland. Working classes of Cornwall could rarely afford anything more than food and accommodation, so when a cargo ship floundered on the shore, it was often considered providence.
One wreck down at Mullion Cove was known as the ‘tea wreck’, and it was recorded at the time that many locals experienced their first and last opportunity to sample what was an expensive beverage, with similar stories told about ships carrying oranges, coffee, and other luxury goods..
A final example, ‘The Good Samaritan’, was wrecked at Bedruthan Steps, and thus was born a well known rhyme:
The Good Samaritan came ashore,
To feed the hungry and clothe the poor,
With barrels of beef and bales of linen,
No poor soul shall want for a shilling.
So, while it seems unlikely that the Cornish ever attempted to deliberately lure boats onto the rocks, it seems indisputable that they made the most of anything washed up on these shores.
If you love maritime history, you will love to stay in Boscastle. The local visitor centre has many artefacts, and displays charting the history of our harbour.