The Dangerous Nautical Past of Cornwall
Published: Thursday 29th Oct 2015
Written by: Charlie
Cornwall is a place of great natural beauty.
But, hidden amongst those sunsets and stunning sea views across the Atlantic, lie the remains of hundreds of shipwrecks and their precious cargo. Over its vast nautical history, the rocks, gales and stormy seas around the county have claimed the lives of thousands of sailors, seamen and passengers.
For those of you planning an idyllic cottage holiday in St Ives, Cornwall offers amazing food, sights, and cheer. If you have an interest in history – especially the vast maritime history of the South West – here are some bits of nautical lore and danger to pique your interest.
The lure of Lizard Point
Britain’s most southerly point, Lizard Point offers amazing cliffs, nature walks, and the locally famous Serpentine Rock. Named “Lis-ardh” – Cornish for fortress – this stretch of land, rocks and water is one of the most dangerous and notorious shipping lanes in all of Northern Europe. The site of dozens and dozens of wrecks, for sailors, Lizard Point has been considered extremely dangerous for centuries.
During the 1700s, there were several well-known wrecks around the Point. In October of 1707, the Royal Navy’s HMS Devonshire sank after a battle with the French just off the Point in the English Channel. The ship was escorting a naval convoy to Lisbon with supplies for the war in Spain. Of 500 personnel on board the Devonshire, there were only three survivors.
Just over 14 years later, in 1721, the wreck of the HMS Royal Anne became one of the most infamous events in Cornish maritime history. The ship was considered the last oared fighting ship in the Royal Navy’s arsenal. It struck the rocks off Lizard Point in a mission to deliver the newly appointed governor of Barbados, Lord Belhaven. And again, just three survived the event.
The event became the stuff of local legend when the recovered bodies from the Royal Anne “disappeared” soon after. Ballads and stories were written in remembrance. Thanks to recent work by the National Trust, archaeologists may have answered the mystery of the missing crew.
Even in more modern times, Lizard Point has claimed several ships. Five years before the Titanic, another White Star liner found itself in trouble off Lizard Point. In 1907, the SS Suevic accidentally struck the rocks while cruising towards Plymouth in a dense fog. In the single biggest rescue in local RNLI history, 456 people were saved from a possible watery grave.
In 1962, the transport ship MV Ardgarry was lost in a storm on the Point. All 12 crewmen were lost and never found. The ship’s bell was finally recovered in 2006.
Only 11 years ago, in 2004, the French fishing trawler Bugaled Breizh sank, killing five aboard. The cause of the wreck was debated shortly after. Despite the area’s vast history of shipwrecks, French authorities claimed the ship’s fishing nets got tangled with a submarine taking part in NATO exercises in the area. The ship sank during daylight hours in calm seas.
Porthleven and the Doom Bar
Although most of the fear of sailors in the region is saved for The Lizard, there are other places of nautical peril.
Prior to some engineering and environmental improvements to the bay, the waters around Porthleven had a reputation for shipwrecks. In its most famous shipwreck, the HMS Anson sunk in 1807. In hopes of returning to Falmouth, the ship anchored itself to outlast a gathering storm. At the height of wind and rain, the anchor cables to the ship snapped. The captain tried to run the ship into the sand, but caught the rocks instead. It is estimated that as many as 190 lost their lives in the wreck.
Now possibly best known for the best-selling Sharp’s Brewery product, the Doom Bar near the Camel Estuary developed a reputation for dragging many ships to the depths. There are dozens of records of ships in distress when trying to enter the fishing port of Padstow. In 1816, a Royal warship HMS Whiting wrecked on the Doom Bar. The crew was able to escape from the ship, but many of the officers were court martialled for negligence for running aground in such a well-known area for danger. In 1874, the cargo ship Antoinette was destroyed at the bar. It had encountered trouble off the North Devon coast after sailing from Brazil. The ship was being towed when it struck the Doom Bar.