False Lights

A Tale of Salvaging History from the Wreck of Cultural Myth

picture credit: BBC’s ‘Jamaica Inn’ (2014) fictional wreckers on location at Holywell Bay

Despite having lived in Cornwall for a while now I am still intrigued by the romanticism suggested by its rugged coastline and find myself drawn to the fantastic stories that accompany it. Here is a landscape that lends itself to adventure. To someone raised on a literary diet that began, pre-school, with Captain Pugwash, leading on – via Swallows and Amazons – to Daphne du Maurier’s gothic coastal romances involving shipwrecks, plunder and bodice-ripping encounters with pirates, every cove is a smugglers’ haven, every cliff path a desire line worn in through years of wreckers wreaking mischief with their lanterns on stormy nights. Barrels and caskets stacked in a sea cave above high water mark. Brandy for the Parson, ’baccy for the Clerk. Curtains drawn over the lighted windows of a nearby village. What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve over: so watch the wall my darling… 

It is these distinctive coastlines and the unique geographical location of Cornwall that have shaped its narrative, both in terms of facts and folklore; fostering and helping to conceal and preserve a far less salubrious side of the local maritime culture. The popular myths of wrecking and smuggling that have become as much a part of the Cornish sense of identity and place as the fishing and shipbuilding, are in reality as significant a part of the cultural history of the area as their legal counterparts. Untangling the history enmeshed in this maritime mythology is, however, a trickier business than it first seems. Much of these goings-on took place in the murky waters between legality and illegality: facts were unrecorded or hidden between more official lines, truths tangled up with the ripping good yarns passed on by word of mouth. Them that asks no questions, isn’t told no lies and all that. These are treacherous waters in which to attempt to salvage fact from fable, and in which it’s all too easy to be lured by false lights on the headland and founder.

Shipwrecks of Cornwall: St Ives to Dodman Point (source: cornwalls.co.uk)

Wherever you are in Cornwall you’re never more than eighteen miles from the sea, and this is a fact reflected in a rich maritime culture and history. The region’s maritime economy peaked during the Industrial Revolution, when Cornwall became a major centre for trade, particularly in the export of fish and minerals. The Cornish coat of arms reveals the importance not only of these trades but of the sea to the whole of Cornwall’s identity: the heraldic shield is flanked by a fisherman and a miner, set on a background of blue waves. Even though the largest Cornish ports were considered very small in the South West, let alone the rest of the country, it was Cornwall’s location that made them so important. Stuck out like a rocky toe into the western seas, this was the first and last landfall for the Atlantic shipping routes. Royal Navy and merchant vessels used Cornwall as a rendezvous point for exchange of information and final instructions from their owners or commanders, giving rise to the saying ‘Falmouth for Orders’. Although Penryn was originally much more important for trade in Cornwall, Falmouth overtook it in the seventeenth century to become the most significant port on Cornwall’s south coast. Having the advantage of the third deepest natural harbour in the world it became a centre for south Cornwall’s Customs; and in 1689 the Post Office set Falmouth up as the base for the Packet Ships. As well as carrying mail these ships were heavily involved in trade around the world, and their upkeep and replacement kept the Falmouth shipbuilding industry afloat.

Cornwall is also very remote. Its rugged terrain and temperamental weather add to the feeling of isolation – first port of call for not only the ships, but also the Atlantic surf, prevailing winds, and clouds ripe with rain harvested over the ocean and ready to drop. Being a peninsula there is only one way in by land: it’s not hard to imagine just how much further Cornwall must have felt from the rest of England before motorised travel. This not only fostered but helped conceal and preserve a far less salubrious side of the local maritime culture.

Gell Point, Veryan Bay, South Cornwall (c) Merryn Robinson 2014

Twenty-first century Falmouth seems a long way from all that. Just below the remains of Henry VIII’s coastal artillery fort on Pendennis Point a watchful eye is kept on 16,000 acres of sea from the Coastguard Station. And in the docks behind the headland work is continuing in the shipyard and marina on the numerous repairs required in the aftermath of this winter’s storms which wreaked havoc even within the relative shelter of this harbour, let alone the more exposed parts of the coast.  Technology might have improved, and the Coastguard’s radar maintains human order along these shores, but the sea and the weather remain reassuringly unmanageable.

Better navigational charts and on-board sonar equipment, an efficient coastguard service and constant radio contact with the harbour masters around the coast of Cornwall have reduced the likelihood of shipwrecks ending in disaster, but this hasn’t always been the case. The Cornish near-shore is littered with rocks both visible and submerged, with the tides in the bays and inlets creating strange currents and sudden changes in water depth. Cornwall is second only to Kent in the number of ships that have been wrecked along its treacherous waters, with over twenty shipwrecks per mile of coast. With this in mind it is easy to see how the area came to be notorious for cultivating the very Cornish ‘tradition’ of wrecking whereby timber, goods from the cargo, anything remotely useful would be salvaged or scavenged either from a shipwreck of from where wreckage washed up on shore. Many tales go on to tell how this practice was so endemic that ships would be deliberately wrecked in order for the cargo to be plundered, with the favoured method of luring a ship into danger being a walker on a cliff top, swinging a lantern – as described and distorted in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn:

‘It’s lights a vessel looks for, when she’s seeking harbour. Have you ever seen a moth flutter to a candle, and singe his wings? A ship will do the same to a false light.’

These sensational stories, which often include the murders of the shipwreck’s victims either to rid the scene of witnesses, or so the bodies could be robbed along with the wreck, have provided grist o the mill of many a writer over the years. Because most myths have their basis in fact many have been lead to believe that deliberate wrecking was genuinely a common practice in Cornwall: but was this so?


The problem begins with the definition of the word ‘wrecking’, which could either be taken to refer to the process of removing goods either directly from a shipwreck or from where they have been washed up on a shoreline; alternatively it could refer to the process of actively causing a ship to become wrecked in order for that to take place. Despite the wealth of popular tales there is actually no evidence that deliberate wrecking of ships by lanterns on the cliff tops ever occurred, according to maritime historian Cathryn Pearce. She conducted a comprehensive investigation into the muddle of myths and histories and legal complexities within which the practice has become enmeshed. In the high numbers of shipwrecks off the Cornish coast very few were deliberate wrecks, and the majority of those that were would most likely have been for insurance reasons.

The stereotype of the nefarious Cornish wrecker with his lantern and murderous intentions had become firmly established by the mid-eighteenth century, with much of the folklore familiar today becoming ingrained in the popular consciousness through Victorian religious fables. These works made example of the supposed barbarities of the past, the deliberate luring of ships to disaster and murdering of the crewmen for material gain, to stress both cultural and religious evolution of the Cornish people. However these accounts originated prior to the establishment of realistic and objective historiography, with articles often cyclically referencing the same unreliable sources. This confusion was further compounded – or perhaps confounded – by writers such as folklorist clergymen R. S. Hawker and Sabine Baring-Gould, who wrote on local history but also worked historical events into their fictions.

wreck of the ‘Ben Asdale’ near Maenporth, Cornwall (c) Merryn Robinson 2012

This is not to say that no wrecking ever occurred, but it was much more focused on the small-scale and localised smuggling of goods to get the better of the authorities in a region where abject poverty was (and arguably still is) rife. Recent academic studies have drawn parallels between the peaks in Cornish wrecking and smuggling activities and periods of economic downturn. For many, these ‘condonable offences’ were a means of supplementing a meagre income and obtaining a modicum of luxury in a lifestyle that would have been unable to afford little more than the basics. Smuggling was locally referred to as ‘fair trading’, and although it is often associated with the Cornish, it was a practice endemic along most of the English coastline. The eighteenth century was the peak of smuggling activity, with a highly organised network involving all levels of society. Once again Cornwall’s crannied coastline threw up opportune hiding places, with many coves’ and caves’ names surviving today as a memorial: Brandy Cove, Lucky Hole, Prussia Cove – named for the self-styled King of Prussia, John Carter, one of the most famous Cornish smugglers. The local maritime trade network proved quite handy for smuggling too, with many fishermen and even the Packet Ships doing a side-line in ‘fair trade’ goods. A large proportion of the shipbuilding industry was sustained by the building and repair of smuggling cutters up until the beginning of the 1800s.

Despite the centuries of laws stating that salvage of ‘gifts of the sea’ washed up from wrecks is illegal, people are still as eager to reap the supposedly free benefits of a shipwrecked cargo today: as witnessed at the wrecks of the Maltese cargo ship the Kodima off Whitsand Bay 2002. Cornishman Ed Prynn who was interviewed when timber washed up from a vessel off the North Coast was quoted as saying ‘they won’t stop us doing it – it’s our culture: it’s in our blood’. Wreck Law, which concerns goods washed ashore, floating, or trapped within a foundered vessel, is exceptionally complicated. Finds that are reported to the Office of the Receiver of Wrecks in Southampton within 28 days remain legal; and in some cases, like that of the Kodima, the vessel’s owners can actively waive their rights of ownership if it proves too expensive to pursue the legal alternatives.

Salvage from the ‘Napoli’ at Branscombe, Devon (source, Daily Mail 24-01-2008)

What is also interesting is the way the press goes on to describe the salvaging activities in Cornwall as wrecking, citing the local folklore alongside the contemporary goings-on, whereas when people flock to glean gratuities from shipwrecks elsewhere in the country – from the Napoli off Devon, 2007; the Ice Prince off Sussex, 2008 and the Sinegorsk off Kent, 2009 – which they appear to do with equal enthusiasm as in Cornwall, it is labelled ‘scavenging’. Here it is clear that the cultural legacy of folklore that has grown up and expanded on historical fact and hearsay seems to have much more of a lasting impact on contemporary perceptions of local identity than historical facts. As Cathryn Pearce concludes in her book, Cornish Wrecking 1700-1860:

‘It is the conflation of the myth with the reality that is at the heart of Cornish concerns, a conflation that does not take into account the sheer complexity of wrecking activities, the ubiquity of the practice in other coastal regions, or the historicity of the custom.’

Contemporary culture also taps into this local association and takes advantage of the wealth of folklore and maritime mythology for the twenty-first century coastal enterprise of tourism. Many of the reasons that made Cornwall such a perfect location for illicit littoral activities – the secluded coves, rugged scenery, quiet flooded rivers and rural fishing villages, all so remote from London – are the same reasons why the region is such a popular holiday destination. In many ways the Cornish landscape is a landscape of escapism, which is also why the romanticised versions of smuggling and wrecking remain so popular. People buy the novels and watch the films as an entertaining diversion from everyday life, a life now so far removed from the realities of an existence which genuinely revolved around the interplay between people and coast that we don’t appreciate the realistic significance of these activities – crimes, free-trades, condonable offences, however we choose to classify them – for the people they actually involved. What remains is a romanticised view of what would have been a difficult past. But then, as Cornish historian A. K. Hamilton Jenkin put it:

‘It is, perhaps, only natural that with the passing of time, the realities of a life which is now receding into the background of the past should become overlaid by the imaginative conceptions of the later day.’

After all, wherever your location, there’s bound to be some folkloristic reminiscence for ‘the good olde days’, but which place can actually boast a past as rosy as folklore remembers it? If Cornwall’s maritime mythology boasts a wealth of controversial practice entangled in its rigging, now referred to with equally unrealistic nostalgia, perhaps we should be grateful it’s being remembered at all. After all, these illicit activities as much as the lawful maritime trades and enterprises have shaped the Cornwall we have come to inherit today.



More on this?

For more facts: Cornish Wrecking 1700-1860 – Reality and Popular Myth (2010) by Cathryn Pearce ISBN: 978-1843835554 is published by the Boydell Press. Dr Pearce comprehensively explores the social, political and legal history of wrecking and salvage, and debunks many of the myths surrounding wrecking, showing how these developed over time, and how moral attitudes towards wrecking changed.

For more fiction: a new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn airs on BBC One on 21st-23rd April and her gothic novel, set on Bodmin Moor and the North Cornish coast in the nineteenth century, is widely available.

For more poetry: couldn’t recognise the smuggling quotes from Rudyard Kipling? Then you clearly missed THIS in your misspent youth.

You may also like on Open the Curtains:

Happy St Piran's DayHappy St Piran’s Day      

I know that no person will ever get into my blood as a place can, as Cornwall does.
People and things pass away but not places.
 (Daphne du Maurier)


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