Was It Really a Wreckers Coast?
Cai Waggett’s now annual ‘Cruel and Curious Sea’ exhibition at Stowe Barton pays testimony to the tempestuous waters around Bude, which has a reputation for its treacherous coast.
Nautically, north Cornwall is a rocky lee shore, which means boats will drift into it by prevailing south-westerly winds. The Padstow to Hartland Point stretch – of around 40 miles – which incorporates Bude (despite the title Haven) was obviously a struggle for mariners. We’ve all seen Bude’s rough seas, and its tides can also be a little awkward, too, so one would expect to see a history of shipwrecks and sea struggle.
Dudley Stamp and Bere mentioned (1980) that ships rarely came willingly into Bude. They were generally aided by ‘hobblers’ in an open rowing boat, who would pilot and help to moor the boats – quite a skilled task – requiring a good knowledge of the seas. Other vessels were, to their peril, blown in on prevailing winds and often suffered as a result when they hit rocks.
Was it a wreckers coast? Well, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Records of wrecks near Bude go back many centuries. Dudley Stamp and Bere cite the case of the Raphael in 1467. This vessel was driven ashore near Duckpool, close to the large house at Stowe. £1000 worth of gear fell into the hands of three local men, who then refused to return it. More was removed by others, though it is open to question whether this boat was actually by then a wreck or not. There seemed to be something of a history of taking anything which turned up, regardless of who it belonged to. Alcohol, for example, was often removed from boats, whether wrecks or still sailing, the locals having a merry old time on gin and brandy!
So, the area developed something of a bad reputation for mariners. Not only was the navigation difficult, but if you did hit the rocks, you’d have the locals to deal with. The captain of the Juanita, for example, which was driven onto rocks at Duckpool not long after the Bencoolen was wrecked, apparently stood, sword in hand ready to fight off the notorious wreckers from his vessel’s sugar load. He was reassured by the coastguard and the crew were saved; indeed, rewarded by the Spanish.
The most famous Bude wreck is probably the Bencoolen in 1862, a 1415 ton steamer. She had no connection with Bude but was en route from Liverpool to Bombay, with a cargo of iron telegraph poles on board. Heavy seas meant her demise, with the captain uselessly ‘off his face’ in his cabin, and an under-led crew. When she sank off Summerleaze, 29 men drowned from a crew of 32, including the inebriated captain; the word Bencoolen achieved a place in Bude’s local history. A rocket-line was used when the boat hit the rocks, though the lifeboat could not be launched. Now, bits of the Bencoolen are said to be all over the town.
Between 1862, and 1900, it is said that there were over 80 strandings in Bude Bay, with the loss of at least 70 lives, including boats like the Capricorno, a coal barque. Last century was less dramatic on the wreck front, but even then, in February, 1904, the Wild Pigeon was carried away from a place of safety, moored on the canal, when waves broke the inner lock-gate. The breakwater is not always protective.
So, who were these vicious characters known as wreckers and smugglers? Are they fact or fiction? There were some, it seems. Perhaps the most famous wrecker was Cruel Coppinger the Dane, said to operate in a schooner called Black Prince, from Marsland Mouth near Morwenstow. Real enough, though whose reputation grew into legend, he was said to have arrived during a furious storm, which the locals turned out to watch (the local entertainment?) Coppinger was a giant among men, reminiscent of the old Viking invaders, said to be of Herculean height and build. He was said to have married a local woman, called Dinah Hamlyn, a girl he had ‘carried off’. There were tales of abduction and even a beheading at the hands of Coppinger and his gang. Hardly ideal husband material, it is said he extorted money from his mother-in-law by tying his wife to the bedstead, and threatening to whip her with a sea-cat unless her mother paid up. His reward was a deaf and dumb son who allegedly murdered another child at the age of six. Not sure what happened to him.
In terms of smuggling, it wasn’t ideal smuggling territory, unlike the sheltered creeks of south Cornwall, but it did occur, and there is said to be a smugglers’ cave at Crooklets. Heavy surf and exposed coast offered its own problems but was less closely monitored by the customs officers than the secluded coves of the south.
Despite this, there were a few run-ins between smugglers and customs men, although there is a lovely tale of a craft pursued for brandy and tobacco which contained only salt herrings. You can imagine the chase and their faces when the master – allegedly – thanked the customs’ preventive men for helping his weary crew bring the vessel to port!