The Bencoolen is a name etched into the annals of Bude history. We have Bencoolen Road, the Bencoolen Bridge, the Bencoolen Inn, and even the shanty singers, the Bencoolen Wreckers. Information about the Bencoolen wreck, from which all this emanates, is in the Castle Heritage Centre, Bude, originally built by Gurney. It also contains the figurehead of the ship. Many parts of the barque are said to have been used in houses and other buildings around the town, so the town has been literally built, in part, from the Bencoolen.
While Bude offered some haven from the treacherous seas of the Atlantic, it also offered dangerous, jagged reefs, which have been the downfall of many a sailing ship, including the Bencoolen itself. Given its history, Bude may seem to be no haven, but compared to other parts of the coast towards Morwenstow, and Hartland, the small harbour at Bude offered some protection, plus a breakwater. That said, any haven was minimal, for even the original breakwater was destroyed by a terrible storm back in 1838.
The Bencoolen was Bude’s most famous shipwreck. A 1,415 ton cargo ship, the Bencoolen was wrecked in 1862, during gale force winds, a sight, watched with a mounting horror by those on the shore/cliffs, that we can only begin to imagine. Only six sailors of the crew of thirty three survived.
The boat was wrecked close to Summerleaze Beach, at around 3pm, just yards from safety, but the sea was too rough to launch the lifeboat (two men almost drowned trying) so rescuers (the rocket brigade) relied on rocket apparatus, which broke in the huge waves, and was rendered useless.
Stephen Hawker, Reverend at Morwenstow, wrote at some length about the Bencoolen. He was agitated that the lifeboat refused to launch, attributing it to cowardice and Wesleyanism. This was a rather typical response. Throughout Cornwall, Wesleyanism and non-conformism had taken a hold (we see sizeable Wesleyan chapels in many seafaring areas, such as Mousehole) much to the chagrin of the established church. It did not hold with the rules of the Church of England. Led by a rather charismatic man in the shape of John Wesley, it was blamed for many things.
The reality seems to be that there were no experienced crew available and, indeed, at the later investigation, the lifeboat men were vindicated for refusing to go out on a suicidal mission.
‘A Croon on Hennacliff’ was Hawker’s response, which was highly critical of the actions surrounding the event. To be fair to Hawker, he lived a life at times “as lonely as Lundy” and did endeavour to bury dead sailors, an unpleasant task, paying men for rescuing corpses and body parts from the sea. The sight and stench of a body long dead is not pleasant, so one can understand his agitation and irritation.
However, an alternative view was offered by a writer called Clifton, who described the distress of the villagers, and a strong sense of mourning in Bude following the wrecking of the Bencoolen. He explained how a winter wreck could be quite an exciting event when nothing much else was happening, but only when there was no loss of life.
So, I like to go along with the idea that Bude was (and still is) more humanitarian than Hawker believed.