I am currently working my way though a great book by Bella Bathurst, ‘The Wreckers’ about the practice or myths of people around the coast of Britain luring ships to their deaths, in order to plunder them. It is an intriguing notion because this practice, like piracy and highway robbery, was a capital crime, but in this instance, it was allegedly done by whole communities, many of whom too huge risks in reaching the ships, and all of whom gained from the practice – if it happened. whilst prosecutions for wrecking are almost non existent, there were lots of laws to deal with it. If it was a myth, why would it be illegal?
She spoke to many people in communities such as Deal in Kent, near the unstable sands of Goodwin, the raging seas of the Pentland Firth, and the rocky outcrops of the Scilly Islands and most famous of all, Cornwall. She found varying responses to her enquiries, in Cornwall, where the practice was known via Daphne du Maurier’s novels such as Jamaica Inn, was the most intriguing. Despite the region making lots of tourist money from tales of wreckers, locals generally deny it ever happened, or at least that nobody was ever killed by the practice. So, they like to have it both ways. Some claimed that wrecking was done by outsiders, or that people did ransack ships in trouble, but always saved lives.
What seems to be clear is that the number of wrecks on the coasts plummetted when the Royal National Lifeboat Association was established in the early 19th century. This established a precedent for saving lives, rather than salvage of goods.
The practice of deliberately wrecking ships, of drowning people in order to make money is truly horrific, but all these areas had high levels of poverty. Many had few trees, so building materials and firewood were largely from the sea. Much of their food came from dangerous fishing, and they were incredibly close knit communities. Why should they risk their lives to save strangers?
And until recent times, British law did not value lives very highly. It was all about money. A ship could be plundered only if it was deemed a wreck, but this was only possible if all humans and animals on board were dead, so not only was there no incentive in law to save lives, in effect, it actively encouraged murder.
Rape was only considered serious if it was of a young unmarried woman with a god inheritance, so she would be prevented from marrying, causing financial loss to her family. Likewise, the law did not give rewards for saving lives, so there was no reason beyond altruism, for risking your life to save a stranger. For a man struggling to feed himself and his family, this was a luxury few could afford.
The notion of wrecking also goes against the description of the Cornish people in W H Hudson’s book on the region. He considered them happy, sociable, hard working. Doesn’t sound like murderers. But he was writing in 1900 when the railways had significantly reduced the region’s isolation, and provided access to markets in London for their fish and flowers. They were no longer the starving coastal folk of the past.
But in her interview with a lifeboatman at Cromer on the Eastern Coast was a revelation. He claimed that the wreckers and the men who manned the lifeboats were the same people. They had the skills to visit wrecks, but now they were given the means to save lives as well. The founding of the RNLI merely meant that they were saving people first, then were free to remove goods. though not officially of course, as this is a charity. But the lifeboat men are not paid, so why shouldn’t they collect a few souvenirs of what was probably going to be lost anyway? Like the many people who flock to the coast when a container ship runs aground. The goods -often clothing – are not going to be sold by their original owners, and reclaiming them is not worthwhile anyway, so why not help themselves?
So, how widespread was the practice of wrecking, and how many people unnecessarily lost their lives as a result of it? The answer is quite simply we will never know. Like the accounts of piracy there is always a conundrum – if they witnessed such events, then they were criminals, at risk of being hanged, and anyne from outside the community, such as the lord of the manor, customs officers or police would be at risk of being murdered for reporting the crimes.