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Lost off Trevose
The Shipwrecks of Cornwall's Trevose Head
By Brian French
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Brian French
All rights reserved.
THE IRON SHORE AND THE LIGHTHOUSE
The ship that will not obey the helm must obey the rocks.
Old Cornish Proverb
The north coast of Cornwall is famed today for its tourist potential with wide sandy beaches and excellent conditions for the relatively recent sport of surfing. Holidaymakers flock to the region throughout the year to take part in or watch this ever-growing pastime. This industry is flourishing on the pounding Atlantic waves which race into land unchecked after a journey of some 2,000 miles, these selfsame waves that in years before pounded ships to matchwood on Trevose's lee shore.
Ships on these waters are now monitored constantly by sophisticated radio, radar and computer systems operated by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's regional headquarters at Falmouth, which is also the International Distress Centre. Immediate protection is afforded by the RNLI's latest and most powerful lifeboat, Spirit of Padstow, operating from its state-of-the-art boathouse on Trevose Head. The entire coast is signalled by a succession of lights and daymarks all the way from the Longships lighthouse off Land's End to Hartland Point light in the north. The newest recruit to sea safety is the National Coastwatch Institution, which has re-established visual watch stations in north Cornwall at Boscastle, Padstow, St Agnes and St Ives.
Yet even today the Nautical Almanac gives fairly bleak advice to the sailor:
The N coast of Cornwall and the SW approaches to the Bristol Channel are very exposed. Yachts need to be sturdy and well equipped since if bad weather develops, no shelter may be at hand ... Bude dries and is not approachable in W winds ... Boscastle is a tiny harbour (dries) ... Padstow is a refuge but in strong NW winds the sea breaks on the Bar and prevents entry ... Off Trevose Head beware the Quies Rocks ... Newquay dries and is uncomfortable in N winds ... off Godrevey Light are the Stones, a drying rocky shoal extending 1.5 m offshore ... St Ives to Land's End is rugged and exposed ...
From our relatively safe (and sane) vantage point of the twenty-first century it is astonishing to read that when in 1619 Sir John Killegrew of Arwenack, Governor of Pendennis Castle, petitioned the King that a lighthouse be built at the Lizard Point, Trinity House, the present controller of our lighthouses, opposed the erection, stating 'It is not necessary or convenient to erect a lighthouse there, but per contra, inconvenient having regard to pirates and enemies whom it would direct to a safe place of landing'. Killegrew himself added the telling comment: 'They (the locals) have been so long used to reap profit by the calamity of the ruin of shipping that they claim it (the wreck) as hereditary.'
There is no doubt that the mindset at the time was that well-built vessels would have no need of help or refuge as they could sail well off the coast and ride out any gales. In fact any move towards increasing the safety of vessels, both in those early days of sail and well into the nineteenth century, was looked on as unwarranted interference by Government in the ship owners' domain. It is perhaps a salient point that anyone can, even in today's safety-conscious society, put a boat onto water without any check on their competence or the suitability of the vessel. This freedom of operation has unfortunately led to inevitable tragedies in these waters.
Richard Larne goes further:
What is remarkable and scarcely credible, is that no emphasis whatsoever was placed upon the need for a light at Land's End. At the very south-west 'toe' of England, ship's masters required sight of this headland, a landfall if possible, before continuing up the English or Bristol Channels or across the Atlantic or Bay of Biscay. Attempting to round Land's End at night carrying coal from North Wales must have been a nightmare.
Killegrew did get his wish however, and was allowed to display a light at Land's End provided, as Trinity House decreed, 'that it should be extinguished at the approach of the enemy'. More consternation was to follow when James I allowed Killegrew, now running low on funds, to set a fee of one halfpenny per ton on all vessels passing his light. Uproar ensued, Killegrew's patent was revoked, the light was extinguished (permanently) and the lighthouse demolished. It was not to be rebuilt until 1752.
Perhaps at this point the opposition of Trinity House should be explored further. As ever, political and financial issues were to the fore. In order to retain their near monopoly on local (Thames) navigation by the provision of pilots, a guild of mariners petitioned Henry VIII in 1513 for a Royal Charter as 'it would be dangerous to allow foreigners, including the Scots, Flemmings and the French, to learn the secrets of the King's streams'. This was granted and in 1514 the guild became known as the Brotherhood of Trinity House and Deptford Strond. Based at the Royal Dockyard at Deptford, the Brethren of Trinity House were to collect all the dues of pilotage on the Thames. So initially Trinity House was in the business of selling its expertise to protect vessels on the Thames, not in the fostering of private lighthouses, which just might afford vessels a different type of protection, which might catch on – to the Brethren's financial disadvantage. No less a personage than Samuel Pepys, Master of the Brotherhood in 1607, approved the decision of the Elder Brethren to refuse to allow a light to be established on the Goodwin Sands as it would result in shipmasters not paying for pilotage. He considered lighthouses to be a burden on trade.
Charles II, on the restoration of the monarchy, saw the building of lighthouses as a good way of rewarding his supporters and granted patents to private individuals who, in consultation with Trinity House, were to establish private lights, and of course take levies. For the next two centuries this policy of decentralisation continued with Trinity House sanctioning the building of all lighthouses on any part of the British coast. It was only in 1836, following complaints by ship owners of exorbitant dues, and lighthouses that were not fit for purpose, that 'private lights' were abolished by Act of Parliament. Trinity House was empowered to buy up all the existing lighthouses and given full responsibility for lighthouse construction and development in England, Wales, Gibraltar and the Channel Islands.
This Act only increased the burden placed on Trinity House. At the time of the Act there were few men on the Board with the scientific knowledge to develop lighthouse technology. The English tried-and-trusted approach was simple: build a big tower, put a lot of lamps in it (126 oil lamps at Lowestoft) and use reflectors (4,000 mirrors at Lowestoft) to generate the beam. This approach was completely out of date. While the Brethren of Trinity House had been plodding on in years of complacency, those crafty Frenchmen had developed a revolutionary approach based on optical science. Reflectors actually dissipated and attenuated the light source. The French, guided by the pioneering work of Fresnel, were using refracting lenses to concentrate the beam and their scientists were well funded by the French government (how unfair). Business and manufacturing were also involved and in short the French were, one could say, light years ahead. As we will see, the building and development of Trevose Head lighthouse was part of the fightback.
On the north Cornwall coast in those earlier times, the only 'mark' for early mariners was the St Eval church tower which collapsed in 1727 Its importance can be gauged by the fact that the merchants of Bristol and ship owners contributed half the cost of its restoration. In 1829, the Padstow Harbour Association for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck caused to be built the first coastal 'mark'. The daymark, situated at Stepper Point to mark the entrance to the estuary, and still standing today, is 254ft above sea level, visible from 24 miles out at sea. (The work of the Harbour Association is fully detailed in Wrecks and Rescues around Padstow's Doom Bar by this author.)
One man who would not have welcomed the lighthouse – or any other aid to shipping – was the legendary 'wrecker of Trevose', Tom Parsons. His cottage still stands on Booby's Bay and looks down on the rusting remains of the Karl of Hamburg, a 1,993-ton steel ship, believed to be a former German minelayer, which broke tow and beached on Constantine on 17 October 1918. Its spectacular skeleton is still visible after certain scouring tides, a tribute to her makers, Ribson & Co. of Maryport (1893). The story goes that a local wrecker (Tom's grandson perhaps?) was seen sneaking on board by a vigilant coastguard. The coastguard clambered up the side of the ship and jumped over the bulwarks only to land on top of the crouching felon who stood up and catapulted the officer overboard. True or false, it is a good tale. It is perhaps ironic, but a sign of the times, that Tom's Cottage is now a holiday let.
Parsons was also credited with luring ships onto the rocks by the use of 'false lights', tying a lantern to his donkey's tail. But in truth all the wrecker had to do was wait for the gale to bring home the booty. On 21 November 1808, the Integrity sailing from Quiberon broke from her anchor cables as she was attempting to ride out the gale and beached on Constantine, her crew being rescued by the Padstow cutter Speedwell, and on the same morning the sloop Elizabeth (Waterford to Shoreham) went to pieces on Treyarnon losing her crew of two. Her cargo of bacon and butter was most welcome to the locals.
FOR THE WANT OF A LIGHTHOUSE ...
'On Monday last,' wrote the Royal Cornwall Gazette of 16 November 1811,'when the vessel came into the breakers, the crew took to their boat which soon filled and melancholy to relate they all drowned. On the following tide the vessel went to pieces and the cargo was lost.' The vessel in question was the Star, a brig of 96 tons, sailing from Oporto to Cork with salt and lemons. 'This,' continued the report, 'is another very striking proof of the great necessity for the speedy erection of the proposed lighthouse on Trevose Head, for the want of which many valuable lives and property are continually lost.'
The need for the lighthouse was reiterated by the Gazette when a Dutch galliot was wrecked near Padstow on 5 December 1815 with the loss of all her crew:
Had the so long proposed lighthouse been erected on Trevose Head, it is scarcely to be doubted that this melancholy catastrophe would have been averted, and the lives, ship and cargo preserved. This sad circumstance is another and powerful plea for the immediate erection of the proposed building.
The first recorded application, made through the Admiralty, was submitted in August 1809 by Capt. E. Penrose, and renewed in 1809 by the MPs of the County of Cornwall on behalf of the trade of its ports. In 1815 the Sherbourne Mercury reported the 'intention' to make an application to erect a lighthouse.
The years rolled by however and the wrecks and their dead piled up on Trevose and its rocks: the Concord, 1821; the Pearl, 1823; the Lyme Packet, 1824; the Francis, 1824; the Fly, 1832; the Agenoria, 1835; the Brilliant, 1841; lost with all hands. The Gazette thundered its message:
It is an extraordinary circumstance that the merchants at Lloyds, who are so deeply interested and must every year have suffered materially for the want of a lighthouse on Trevose Head do not exert themselves and their interests with the Trinity Board and get it done, which would be the means of preventing not merely the numerous losses they sustain in their property by the wrecks but will be the means of saving valuable lives.
Finally in July 1843 the Trinity House authorities instructed their steamer Vestal, with Sir Henry Pelley, Deputy Master of Trinity House, on board, to sail up the northern coast and survey the area round Trevose Head with the intention to place a lighthouse there. This mission, as Cyril Noall tells us, was a tragic one. Whilst the steamer waited offshore, two of the Elder Bretheren took a boat to the shore but on returning the boat was taken on a strong tide under the Vestal's bow and capsized. The two dignitaries drowned but the remainder were saved.
But no action was forthcoming, so the sea engineered a few more reminders. In the severe gale of October 1843 the Hope, the Ceres, the Leititia, and the Wildberforce were wrecked on the coast. 'The losses occasioned by every succeeding severe gale of wind, shows the necessity of a lighthouse to point out to mariners their situation and prevent their getting into bays from which they can seldom work out again' (RCG). During May 1844 a petition was prepared at Penzance to be forwarded to Trinity House 'praying that the Hon Body to cause a lighthouse to be erected on Trevose Head, near Padstow' (Penzance Gazette, 22 May). The authorities still procrastinated (or probably said they would do it 'drekly'?) but a plan was submitted in November 1844 and approved in February 1845.
As work was beginning on the approach road, the last, and most celebrated wreck occurred, that of the Samaritan of Liverpool bound for Constantinople, wrecked at Bedruthan Steps on 22 October 1846 with the loss of eight of her crew of ten. She was loaded with all manner of goods: cotton and calico, as well as copper, iron and tinplate. The Samaritan, 'the good Samaritan', brought a great bounty to the inhabitants of the surrounding parishes:
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.
The West Briton put it a little more starkly, 'her cargo was then scattered all along the shore at Bedruthan and hundreds of locals gathered on the beach to plunder. Customs and coastguard officers as well as a Lloyds agent attempted to stop the looting and some fifteen men were placed in custody, given sentences of one to four months' and worse, 'it was lamentable that there should be found among these miserable wretches men who stand up in the pulpit to preach the word of God.'
Another local bard used his verses, 'On the loss of the Good Samaritan of Liverpool which was unfortunately wrecked on St Eval Cliff on the night of 22 October 1846' to make a further political statement about the much awaited lighthouse:
Each mother cries, 'Your father's gone.
Who will for us provide?
While soothing friends perhaps may say,
'The Lord will that decide'
Oh! Heavy news for owners too
And merchants 'tis indeed
Perhaps they've lost their very all
With nought to serve their need
But had the Lighthouse been complete
The time it was begun
Eight precious lives might have been saved
And 'Good Samaritan'
May tradesmen on that fabric all
Their time quite well employ
And may they on that structure raise
The topmost stone with joy
And soon the spacious lantern place
On that stupendous pile
With brilliant light, a guide for ships
That in this channel toil
The which I trust will wrecks prevent
That we may hear no more
Of lives being lost or vessels wrecked
In pieces on our shore
THE LIGHTHOUSE AT LAST
We build on firmer base, with loftier hope
The granite shell sits broader on the rock
The light will search the sea with larger scope
And tenfold beam. All mists that veil and mock,
All winds and tides that baffle, shoals that shock
Must yield them to the giant lenses might,
Which flash their splendours soon across the waste of night.
Manager of Chance Lighthouse Works
Trevose Head lighthouse, standing 27m high and visible from 20 miles, was opened on 1 December 1847. The tower was of an unusual design, having two concentric walls in its upper part with a 2in space between. There was no explanation of this feature and one can only assume it would be for insulation. The outer wall was 4ft 2 ½ in thick at the base narrowing to 2ft 8 ½ in at the top. True to the Trinity House tradition, the light was an oil lamp backed by six reflectors. But as Trinity House itself commented: 'The area ... is constantly threatened by sea mists that make even the most powerful lights seem like candles.' This makes it difficult to understand why a fog signal was not installed at that time. Prior to 1882 there were two fixed white lights; the high light in the tower and in front of this a low light, which was put in place in June 1847 in order that Trevose should not be mistaken for another lighthouse. The high light burned at an elevation of 204ft above the high water mark, the low light was at an elevation of 129ft and placed 50ft to seaward of the tower. The tower light could be seen from 19 miles and the low light from 16 miles. Dwellings for the lighthouse keepers and their families were built. The total building cost was £7,331 4s 6d. In 1861 Trevose had two keepers paid £65 and £45 per annum.
Excerpted from Lost off Trevose by Brian French. Copyright © 2013 Brian French. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Terms of Reference,
1. The Iron Shore and the Lighthouse,
2. Ship Losses 1700–1914,
3. 1914–18: the U-Boat Menace,
4. Ship Losses 1918 to the Present,
Tables of Losses,