Sabine Baring-Gould ~ The Cornish Wreckers

When the Rev. R.S. Hawker came to Morwenstow in 1834, he found that he had much to contend with, not only in the external condition of church and vicarage, but also in that which is of greater importance….

“The farmers of the parish were simple-hearted and respectable; but the denizens of the hamlet, after receiving the wages of the harvest time, eked out a precarious existence in the winter, and watched eagerly and expectantly for the shipwrecks that were certain to happen, and upon the plunder of which they surely calculated for the scant provision of their families. The wrecked goods supplied them with the necessaries of life, and the rended planks of the dismembered vessel contributed to the warmth of the hovel hearthstone.

“When Mr. Hawker came to Morwenstow, ‘the cruel and covetous natives of the strand, the wreckers of the seas and rocks for flotsam and jetsam,’ held as an axiom and an injunction to be strictly obeyed:–

“‘Save a stranger from the sea,
And he’ll turn your enemy!’

“The Morwenstow wreckers allowed a fainting brother to perish in the sea before their eyes without extending a hand of safety,–nay, more, for the egotistical canons of a shipwreck, superstitiously obeyed, permitted and absolved the crime of murder by ‘shoving the drowning man into the sea,’ to be swallowed by the waves. Cain! Cain! where is thy brother? And the wrecker of Morwenstow answered and pleaded in excuse, as in the case of undiluted brandy after meals, ‘It is Cornish custom.’ The illicit spirit of Cornish custom was supplied by the smuggler, and the gold of the wreck paid him for the cursed abomination of drink.”

One of Mr. Hawker’s parishioners, Peter Barrow, had been for full forty years a wrecker, but of a much more harmless description: he had been a watcher of the coast for such objects as the waves might turn up to reward his patience. Another was Tristam Pentire, a hero of contraband adventure, and agent for sale of smuggled cargoes in bygone times. With a merry twinkle of the eye, and in a sharp and ringing tone, he loved to tell such tales of wild adventure and of “derring do,” as would make the foot of the exciseman falter and his cheek turn pale.

During the latter years of last century there lived in Wellcombe, one of Mr. Hawker’s parishes, a man whose name is still remembered with terror–Cruel Coppinger. There are people still alive who remember his wife.

Local recollections of the man have molded themselves into the rhyme–

Will you hear of Cruel Coppinger?
He came from a foreign land:
He was brought to us by the salt water,
He was carried away by the wind!”

His arrival on the north coast of Cornwall was signalized by a terrific hurricane. The storm came up Channel from the south-west. A strange vessel of foreign rig went on the reefs of Harty Race, and was broken to pieces by the waves. The only man who came ashore was the skipper. A crowd was gathered on the sand, on horseback and on foot, women as well as men, drawn together by the tidings of a probable wreck. Into their midst rushed the dripping stranger, and bounded suddenly upon the crupper of a young damsel who had ridden to the beach to see the sight. He grasped her bridle, and shouting in some foreign tongue, urged the double-laden animal into full speed, and the horse naturally took his homeward way. The damsel was Miss Dinah Hamlyn. The stranger descended at her father’s door, and lifted her off her saddle. He then announced himself as a Dane, named Coppinger. He took his place at the family board, and there remained until he had secured the affections and hand of Dinah. The father died, and Coppinger at once succeeded to the management and control of the house, which thenceforth became a den and refuge of every lawless character along the coast. All kinds of wild uproar and reckless revelry appalled the neighborhood day and night. It was discovered that an organized band of smugglers, wreckers, and poachers made this house their rendezvous, and that “Cruel Coppinger” was their captain. In those days, and in that far-away region, the peaceable inhabitants were unprotected. There was not a single resident gentleman of property and weight in the entire district. No revenue officer durst exercise vigilance west of the Tamar; and to put an end to all such surveillance at once, the head of a gauger was chopped off by one of Coppinger’s gang on the gunwale of a boat.

Strange vessels began to appear at regular intervals on the coast, and signals were flashed from the headlands to lead them into the safest creek or cove. Amongst these vessels, one, a full-rigged schooner, soon became ominously conspicuous. She was for long the chief terror of the Cornish Channel. Her name was The Black Prince. Once, with Coppinger on board, she led a revenue-cutter into an intricate channel near the Bull Rock, where, from knowledge of the bearings, The Black Prince escaped scathless, while the king’s vessel perished with all on board. In those times, if any landsman became obnoxious to Coppinger’s men, he was seized and carried on board The Black Prince, and obliged to save his life by enrolling himself in the crew. In 1835, an old man of the age of ninety-seven related to Mr. Hawker that he had been so abducted, and after two years’ service had been ransomed by his friends with a large sum. “And all,” said the old man very simply, “because I happened to see one man kill another, and they thought I would mention it.”

Amid such practices, ill-gotten gold began to flow and ebb in the hands of Coppinger. At one time he had enough money to purchase a freehold farm bordering on the sea. When the day of transfer came, he and one of his followers appeared before the lawyer and paid the money in dollars, ducats, doubloons, and pistoles. The man of law demurred, but Coppinger with an oath bade him take this or none. The document bearing Coppinger’s name is still extant. His signature is traced in stern bold characters, and under his autograph is the word “Thuro” (thorough) also in his own handwriting.

Long impunity increased Coppinger’s daring. There were certain bridle roads along the fields over which he exercised exclusive control. He issued orders that no man was to pass over them by night, and accordingly from that hour none ever did. They were called “Coppinger’s Tracks.” They all converged at a headland which had the name of Steeple Brink. Here the cliff sheered off, and stood three hundred feet of perpendicular height, a precipice of smooth rock towards the beach, with an overhanging face one hundred feet down from the brow. Under this was a cave, only reached by a cable ladder lowered from above, and made fast below on a projecting crag. It received the name of “Coppinger’s Cave.” Here sheep were tethered to the rock, and fed on stolen hay and corn till slaughtered; kegs of brandy and hollands were piled around; chests of tea; and iron-bound sea-chests contained the chattels and revenues of the Coppinger royalty of the sea….

But the end arrived. Money became scarce, and more than one armed king’s cutter was seen day and night hovering off the land. So he “who came with the water went with the wind.” His disappearance, like his arrival, was commemorated by a storm.

A wrecker who had gone to watch the shore, saw, as the sun went down, a full-rigged vessel standing off and on. Coppinger came to the beach, put off in a boat to the vessel, and jumped on board. She spread canvas, stood off shore, and with Coppinger in her was seen no more. That night was one of storm. Whether the vessel rode it out, or was lost, none knew.


In 1864 a large ship was seen in distress off the coast. The Rev. A. Thynne, rector of Kilkhampton, at once drove to Morwenstow. The vessel was riding at anchor a mile off shore, west of Hartland Race. He found Mr. Hawker in the greatest excitement, pacing his room and shouting for some things he wanted to put in his greatcoat-pockets, and intensely impatient because his carriage was not round. With him was the Rev. W. Valentine, rector of Whixley in Yorkshire, then resident at Chapel in the parish of Morwenstow.

“What are you going to do?” asked the rector of Kilkhampton: “I shall drive at once to Bude for the lifeboat.”

“No good!” thundered the vicar, “no good comes out of the west. You must go east. I shall go to Clovelly, and then, if that fails, to Appledore. I shall not stop till I have got a lifeboat to take those poor fellows off the wreck.”

“Then,” said the rector of Kilkhampton, “I shall go to Bude, and see to the lifeboat there being brought out.”

“Do as you like; but mark my words, no good comes of turning to the west. Why,” said he, “in the primitive church they turned to the west to renounce the Devil.”

His carriage came to the door, and he drove off with Mr. Valentine as fast as his horses could spin him along the hilly, wretched roads.

Before he reached Clovelly, a boat had put off with the mate from the ship, which was the Margaret Quail, laden with salt. The captain would not leave the vessel; for, till deserted by him, no salvage could be claimed. The mate was picked up on the way, and the three reached Clovelly.

Down the street proceeded the following procession–the street of Clovelly being a flight of stairs:–

First, the vicar of Morwenstow in a claret-colored coat, with long tails flying in the gale, blue knitted jersey, and pilot-boots, his long silver locks fluttering about his head. He was appealing to the fishermen and sailors of Clovelly to put out in their lifeboat to rescue the crew of the Margaret Quail. The men stood sulky, lounging about with folded arms, or hands in their pockets, and sou’-westers slouched over their brows. The women were screaming at the tops of their voices that they would not have their husbands and sons and sweethearts enticed away to risk their lives to save wrecked men. Above the clamor of their shrill tongues and the sough of the wind rose the roar of the vicar’s voice: he was convulsed with indignation, and poured forth the most sacred appeals to their compassion for drowning sailors.

Second in the procession moved the Rev. W. Valentine, with purse full of gold in his hand, offering any amount of money to the Clovelly men, if they would only go forth in the lifeboat to the wreck.

Third came the mate of the Margaret Quail, restrained by no consideration of cloth, swearing and damning right and left, in a towering rage at the cowardice of the Clovelly men.

Fourth came John, the servant of Mr. Hawker, with bottles of whisky under his arm, another inducement to the men to relent and be merciful to their imperiled brethren.

The first appeal was to their love of heaven and to their humanity; the second was to their pockets, their love of gold; the third to their terrors, their fear of Satan, to whom they were consigned; and the fourth to their stomachs, their love of grog.

But all appeals were in vain. Then Mr. Hawker returned to his carriage, and drove away farther east to Appledore, where he secured the lifeboat. It was mounted on a wagon; ten horses were harnessed to it; and as fast as possible it was conveyed to the scene of distress.

But in the mean while the captain of the Margaret Quail, despairing of help and thinking that his vessel would break up under him, came off in his boat with the rest of the crew, trusting rather to a rotten boat, patched with canvas which they had tarred over, than to the tender mercies of the covetous Clovellites, in whose veins ran the too recent blood of wreckers. The only living being left on board was a poor dog.

No sooner was the captain seen to leave the ship than the Clovelly men lost their repugnance to go to sea. They manned boats at once, gained the Margaret Quail, and claimed three thousand pounds for salvage.

There was an action in court, as the owners refused to pay such a sum; and it was lost by the Clovelly men, who however got an award of twelve hundred pounds. The case turned somewhat on the presence of the dog on the wreck; and it was argued that the vessel was not deserted, because a dog had been left on board to keep guard for its masters. The owner of the cargo failed; and the amount actually paid to the salvors was six hundred pounds to two steam-tugs (three hundred pounds each), and three hundred pounds to the Clovelly skiff and sixteen men.

Mr. Hawker went round the country indignantly denouncing the sailors of Clovelly, and with justice. It roused all the righteous wrath in his breast. And as may well be believed, no love was borne him by the inhabitants of that little fishing village. They would probably have made a wreck of him had he ventured among them.

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