“Cornwall . . .that disordered county!”
Privy Council Report 1589
I have a glass bead which is very precious and somewhat magical to me, not only because it reminds me of camping holidays on the beautiful Isles of Scilly, a small archipelago of islands just off the coast of Cornwall, but because it is my very own shipwreck treasure.
In the 17th century a Dutch ship of unknown name went down off the coast of St Agnes, the southernmost populated of the islands. It’s cargo was strewn across the ocean floor and this included thousands of glass beads which soon began to wash up on beach on St Agnes. That beach became known as Beady Pool and that is where I found my little glass treasure.
Around the Cornish coast it is estimated that there have been more than 6000 shipwrecks in the last roughly 800 years, that is more than any other part of the British Isles. And with a wreck there is always wreckage. There are many tales of Cornish wreckers, most of them exaggerated for dramatic effect and to sell newspapers and books but no Cornishman would ever deny that we didn’t take advantage of what might have washed our way or bobbed up on a beach.
Unsatisfactorily most of what bobs up these days is the smelly and often poisonous flotsam of our over-populated world (see thousands of pink bottles, winter 2016) but there are a few beautiful, amusing and just plain odd exceptions to this. Recent times have seen parts of space rockets and bucket loads of Lego bricks wash up on our beaches, bringing new meaning to ‘lets build a sandcastle’. Daily there are finds of the magical creatures that can be found in the waters around our coast and many far-flung visitors too, including jellyfish, whales and the odd Amazonian coconut. These finds are great for a picture on Instagram but in the past the value of salvage meant so much
more. Many people forget that Cornwall, for all its advantages of climate, way of life and natural scenery, is one of the poorest areas in Europe. Historically there have been times of great deprivation and hardship and people saw shipwrecks, rightly or wrongly, as a gift from God. It brought them free cargo that they could trade, sell or make use of. A wreck was a spectacle too and often hundreds of people would turn out to watch the impending disaster. Many of course did risk and loose their lives trying to save the unfortunate crew and passengers, a fact the wreaker-tale-tellers often forget to mention.
When the SS Minnehaha ended up on rocks on the Isles of Scilly in 1910 she became the focus of great attention. Boats even made the crossing from the Cornish mainland to ‘take a look’. The ship was carrying a rag-tag cargo of everything from motor parts and tobacco to typewriters and lead pencils. Much of it was ‘saved’ including a large quantity of Paris millinery. After the wreck the Scillonian ladies were often to be seen sporting fabulous headwear, when asked ‘where did you get that hat?’ they would simple wink and reply ‘Haha’. The New York Times, where the ship had been bound, reported that “the islanders will remember this as the greatest day in their history”. There have been similar wrecks on the Scillies in my lifetime, after the container ship Cita came to grief in 1997 everyone could be seen sporting Nike trainers.
Wrecks brought the new and exotic too, after a ship broke up off the Lizard peninsula in the 19th century thousands of oranges came ashore at Nanjizal cove and people came from miles around to harvest the strange crop. New tastes were also acquired as Mrs Bonham reported in 1896:
“The tea-wreck, in particular, was a wonderful piece of good fortune for the folks, very few of whom could ever indulge in such an expensive luxury. There was also the coffee-wreck, when many tasted that stimulant for the first time.”
Not all was gentle sport though when in 1818 the Brig Victoria got into trouble with a cargo of wine on board the Yeomanry guard had to be called when hundreds of looters tried to swarm the ship and the Riot Act had to be read after the Le Landois also carrying wine and brandy was besieged by a ″drunken mob of over 4,000 people″ at Whitesand Bay near Gribba Point. Apologies, sometimes we Cornish can be a right disorderly lot.