Wood from a shipwreck

Photograph by Jim Wileman

On Sunday, February 3, strong winds blew the Maltese-registered ship Kodima aground at Whitsand Bay in Cornwall. The Russian crew had to be rescued and salvage abandoned as fierce gales mashed the hull open, scattering its timber cargo across miles of sea and shore.

But this was no ordinary shore. This was Cornwall, for more than six centuries home to wreckers - those who entice ships aground or take their pick of beached cargo - and the local response was instant. "They won't stop us doing it, it's our culture, it's in our blood," Cornishman Ed Prynn told the BBC as his countrymen scrambled into huge piles of timber, sawing and hauling despite the heavy seas and treacherous footing.

Legally, the wreckers haven't a leg to stand on. But, historically, the poorest of English counties has enjoyed "gifts" brought by shipwrecks, be they casks of smuggled brandy or container-loads of trainers. It is said that once a man burst into a Cornish church shouting, "Wreck! Wreck!", whereat the clergyman barred the door to prevent his flock rushing out while he removed his robes, "so we can all start fair".

In Jamaica Inn, Daphne du Maurier's famous novel, smuggling, anti-government politics and wrecking are linked in a nefarious web, centring on the eponymous pub with its sinister landlord. As the characters in the novel remark, if a Cornishman doesn't want to dig for tin or clay he must risk his life at sea - and wrecked ships yield richer bounty than lobster pots.

Smuggling there was aplenty. Under the Hanoverian kings (1714-1837) heavy duties on tea, wine and spirits offered fat profits for those running contraband: it is estimated that between 1780 and 1783 alone two million pounds of tea and 13 million gallons of brandy were smuggled into England. It was not confined to lowlife criminals: local parsons stored goods in their churches and political dissidents used the proceeds to foment discontent.

But Jamaica Inn is fantasy, albeit based on 18th-century history. And so, according to local historians, are the most lurid of the tales surrounding wreckers. Although the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, a noted Cornish folklorist, recounted in the 19th century how men lured sailors to their deaths by waving torches on clifftops above hidden rocks and simulating lighthouses by tying lanterns to the tails of donkeys, there is no evidence of any deliberate wrecking.

But once a wreck had foundered, like the Kodima, pitched battles between Customs men and wreckers led to many deaths, with wreckers breaking into Customs safe houses to retrieve what they considered rightfully theirs.

In 1707, the celebrated admiral, Sir Cloudesley Shovel, was wrecked off the Isles of Scilly with his entire fleet. Legend has it he survived and was found on the beach, only to be murdered for the gold rings on his fingers.

An entire museum at Charlestown, Cornwall, is devoted to shipwrecks. Its website gives a taste of salty yarns, including the wreckers' prayer: "Oh please Lord let us pray for all on the sea, But if there's got to be wrecks, please send them to we".

Victoria Neumark Weblinks Breaking news: www.bbc.co.ukHistories of Cornwall: www.cranstar.co.ukHistory of shipwrecks in Cornwall: www.gandolf.comcornwallwreckers

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