History of the high seize

History of the high seize

The way they were ... old-style south-coast wreckers load up their loot

January 24, 2007

SHIPWRECK! It’s a cry that has made the blood run cold since men first took to the sea.

But for centuries in the West Country it meant a chance to get rich quick.

No one in times gone by would have been surprised at this week’s scenes of hundreds of looters descending on debris from the container ship MSC Napoli.

Scavengers at Branscombe beach in south Devon were following a centuries-old tradition that makes bounty washed ashore fair game.

Even the police were conforming to a time-honoured routine in trying to keep the locals away.

Two hundred years ago Customs officers, nicknamed Preventive Men, would have fired warning shots from muskets and waved cutlasses.

In western England wrecks were commonplace in the 1500s and 1600s as trade in Europe expanded.

While Spain and Portugal were creating overseas empires they imported huge quantities of gold, silver and spices. The easiest way to sell these goods on to north Europe was to ship them.

It was quicker than land transport, avoided numerous tolls at national borders and cut the chance of robbery.

But the ships had to go through the English Channel and that meant passing the West Country, where Atlantic gales are frequent.

The treacherous coastline claimed numerous wrecks. Locals known as “wreckers” caused more trouble by setting up lights that fooled navigators as to the location of other ships, lighthouses and ports, drawing craft on to rocks.

Sailors washed ashore did not always find a warm welcome. Some would be murdered to stop them identifying wreckers. Others would be killed to rob them of valuables.

Close ties ... Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn

Seamen from hostile countries, especially Catholic ones such as Spain and France, were particularly liable to rough treatment.

Even British sailors were not exempt. One of them, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, led a squadron of ships on to rocks off the Scilly Isles in 1707.

Almost 1,500 sailors drowned while Sir Cloudesley was washed ashore barely alive, only to be murdered by a woman.

She took two rings and his shirt but went undetected until she confessed on her deathbed, producing the more expensive ring which she had been afraid to sell because it was so distinctive.

Not all wreckers waited for valuables to be washed ashore.

Some would row out to a listing ship and plunder it, often after overcoming the crew.

Clergymen were used to hearing wreckers’ confessions — but many men of the cloth had much confessing to do themselves.

One vicar, whose Sunday service was disturbed by a man shouting “Shipwreck!”, asked his congregation to remain seated. But his plea wasn’t out of respect for the dead. “Let me first take off my cassock so that we can all start fair,” he said, and dashed down the aisle.

Under English law all salvage should be reported to the Receiver Of Wreck, a Government employee.

Salvage remains the property of the original owner but those who find it are entitled to a reward.

On a roll ... barrel find at Branscombe

The Receiver Of Wreck’s duties used to be carried out by Customs officials around the country. Local people feared they would not get a proper reward and, anyway, often went by the informal but age-old code of “finders keepers, losers weepers”.

Popular hiding places for salvage included church crypts and empty tombs. And some vicars, such as the Rev Richard Dodge, who became vicar of Talland, Cornwall, in 1713, actively conspired with salvagers.

He spread rumours of his churchyard being haunted and was said to be able to summon evil spirits.

Customs officers gave Talland churchyard a wide berth, which suited Mr Dodge because he was also heavily involved in smuggling.

Caves made natural hideouts for smuggled and salvaged goods and, sometimes, complex tunnels were dug to a point inland not likely to be watched by the Preventive Men.

Rye, on the Romney Marshes in East Sussex, was long notorious for its warren of smugglers’ tunnels.

They were used to escape Customs dues and store the occasional shipwrecked windfall.
Along the coast from Branscombe an old wreckers’ tunnel links the village of Shaldon with the beach at The Ness.

And even the Preventive Men could not always be trusted. Sir John Knill, Collector of Customs at St Ives for 20 years from 1762, was well known for trading in wrecked goods.

He used part of the profits to build a 50ft high obelisk on a hill overlooking the town.

Sir John left money in his will so that every five years ten girls dressed in white and a fiddle player lead the mayor, a vicar and a Customs officer on a procession around the obelisk while singing the 100th Psalm, All People That On Earth Do Dwell. The ceremony, which is still held, the next due in 2011, ends with a meal in a pub.

By the 1800s the worst aspects of wrecking were over. Better law enforcement, more lighthouses and rising living standards meant illegal wrecking was almost completely replaced with legitimate salvaging.

Boats still put to sea when a ship was seen to be in distress. But now the crew were rescued, although they would not be put ashore until their vessel had been fully stripped.

No wonder a popular saying in Cornwall to this day is: “It’s an ill wind that blows no good to Cornwall.”

Wrecking has caught the public’s imagination over the years.

Daphne du Maurier’s novel Jamaica Inn, turned into a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1939, is about a gang of ruthless Cornish wreckers.

The 1949 Ealing comedy Whisky Galore! is based on the true story of Scottish islanders who tried to salvage 264,000 bottles of whisky from the stricken SS Politician.

Whisky was in short supply because of war-time rationing. Some of the salvagers were jailed for up to six weeks.

Such punishment is unlikely to be handed out to this week’s salvagers.

But to be on the safe side, they should report finds to: Receiver Of Wreck, Spring Place, 105 Commercial Road, Southampton SO15 1EG.

Good one Blackleaf

Good piece, I was talking to my old man what's a master mariner last night while watching the video
of the salvaging on the telly, he corrected me about the looting, seems the regulations have changed, I thought it was still fair game.

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