Wrecking is the practice of taking valuables from a ship which has foundered close to shore and most associated with the 18th and early 19th centuries.
‘The term ‘wrecking’ means collecting up the sea’s rich bounty.’
Like smuggling and coining, wrecking involved whole communities who relied upon it to survive the hardships and vicissitudes of life. Cargoes and goods washed ashore from wrecked ships were regarded as common property, a kind of ‘finders keepers.’
‘Wrecking’ has been a way of life for many people around Britain’s seven thousand mile coastline for centuries, and in areas like Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, where wrecks were plentiful and money scarce, it was, in years past the principal source of income after fishing.
The sight of a ship foundering would bring the nearby population to the beach and before long, using pick-axes and hatchets, the ship would be dismembered and any goods on it carried away.
The law in those days was quite explicit, it was illegal to claim salvage from a wrecked ship if anyone was left alive on it. Therefore, it would seem that the law virtually condemned any survivors to death!
However, despite the wealth of popular tales, wreckers rarely attacked or killed survivors, or lured ships onto the rocks. The strong winds and treacherous seas around the British coastline pretty much did the job for them.
Indeed, when the vessel Postilion was driven ashore on the North Coast of Cornwall in November 1732 the ship was certainly plundered, but not until the crew were safely ashore. However, in the more desolate and lawless parts of Britain there are, on record, a number of cases where survivors managed to get ashore, only to be murdered, stripped of all their valuables including clothing, and chucked back into the sea.
This seems extremely cruel, but it must be remembered that in the not so distant past, fishermen and their families lived close to or below the bread line. If the opportunity arose to stave off hunger, grab a little warmth and enjoy the odd luxury through pillaging a shipwreck, the presence of a few wretched sailors was unlikely to deter them.
Devon and Cornwall
The coasts of Devon and Cornwall were notorious for wrecks, and the local people did not hesitate to ransack any ship unfortunate enough to be smashed on the rocks. Ownership of the cargo from wrecks was hotly disputed, not least because dutiable goods washed ashore had to be declared at the local customs house.
On sighting a wreck the Custom House officers would rush to the scene and seize dutiable goods that washed up on the beach. This often proved a fruitless task because they were usually greatly outnumbered by the hundreds of villagers plundering the broken ribs of the beached ship. Once the cargo had been removed they would strip the ship of every saleable asset, right down to its timber and sails.
Many Custom Officers, or “Preventive Men”, who were able to retrieved cargo either from wrecks or from the hands of wreckers, often found that their storehouses were later broken into by local people reclaiming what they considered to be rightfully theirs. It was not uncommon for fights to break out between wreckers and customs men resulting in deaths and injuries on both sides.
The pickings from wrecks could be so substantial that some of the so called “Preventive” men could not resist the temptation to help themselves too. One such, it is believed, was Sir John Knill, Collector of Customs at St. Ives between 1762 and 1782. Although he published a scholarly pamphlet on the prevention of wrecking, he is said to have dealt in looted cargo as enthusiastically as the next man.
A major industry
Wrecking was a major industry as far back as the 16th century, when ships returning from the New World with rich cargoes took advantage of the Gulf Stream, which passes by the south west of England. However, reaping the benefits of cargoes washed ashore was not restricted to Devon and Cornwall. Ships frequently floundered off Stroma Island in the Pentland Firth and on the Goodwin Sands off the south east coast of England, where over 2000 wrecks have been recorded.
The boatmen of Deal, who took supplies to ships at anchor off the coast, would plunder any wrecked vessel and off the Wirral Peninsula, near Liverpool, wrecking continued to be reported well into the early twentieth century.
The early 20th century? More like the early 21st century and very close to home.
Tonnes of timber spilled from a Russian cargo ship is expected to wash ashore in the coming days but, as BBC News finds out, it may not provide a windfall for those who claim it.
To some it will be a blight on the coastline, to others an environmental disaster.
But when the 1,500 tonnes of timber spilled from the stricken Sinegorsk cargo ship washes up somewhere along Britain’s south coast, it is likely to prompt a rush among scavengers.
Almost exactly a year before the Russian-registered vessel hit trouble, much of the 2,000-tonne load shed by another timber carrier – the Ice Prince – began washing ashore along the Sussex coast.
The beach at Worthing, in West Sussex, proved a magnet for chancers seizing the opportunity to make a quick buck by harvesting the unexpected crop for sale, or to use at home. BBC News
The MSC Napoli.
In Branscombe in Devon hundreds of people ignored safety warnings to flock to the beach to collect items spilled from the deck of the grounded MSC Napoli.
The booty ranged from BMW motorbikes and electrical goods to King Edward potatoes, beauty cream, carpets, exhaust pipes and casks of wine.
‘Jane and Mary huffed and puffed as they rolled the oak wine cask across the shingle towards the Sea Shanty car park. “Honestly, we just came for a walk and a chat”, said Mary, a retired teacher, “but then we saw all this stuff here and the police told us we could help ourselves. So we did.”
They were not the only ones.
Branscombe Beach, usually deserted at this time of year, was heaving yesterday with hundreds of – depending on your point of view – looters, salvagers or beachcombers.’ The Guardian 2007
Scavengers have swarmed over a Cornwall beach to retrieve timber from a grounded cargo ship, risking death in the waves. Tight laws control salvage – but Cornish wreckers have a long heritage. The tale is told of a man bursting into a Cornish church and shouting, “Wreck! Wreck!”
The clergyman is said to have barred the door to prevent his flock from rushing for the shore – while he removed his robes “so we can all start fair”.
This week scavengers plundering timber from Cornwall’s Whitsand Bay say they are following in the ways of the old wreckers. BBC News
It’s in our blood
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 wreck 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’.
False Lights A Tale of Salvaging History from the Wreck of Cultural Myth
Smugglers and Wreckers by Ellen Castelow
Smugglers and Wreakers Cornish Legends and Myths Cornish Links
Smugglers Britain Guide book SW England