Sunday 4 June 2017

113 Wrecking

113 Wrecking
Some remains of shipwrecks are still visible around the Gower coast – most notably in Rhossili Bay is part of the Helvetia, the Norwegian barque which ran aground in 1887 with a cargo of timber, though, thankfully, no loss of life.  Further along the bay during the Spring tides the remains of paddle steamer City of Bristol from 1840 become visible at low tide, while near Port Eynon Point is the anchor of the Happy Return (1879), and in a cove below old castle in Rhossili are parts of the iron-hulled Vennerne (1894).  Many of Gower’s 360 recorded shipwrecks are mentioned in the books by George Edmunds and Carl Smith, who point out that there are others of which we are ignorant if no trace of wreckage was found.
As in Gower, Devon and Cornwall’s rocky coastline, along with strong prevailing onshore winds, brought many merchant ships and warships to grief.  Coastal dwellers could profit from goods salvaged from the wrecks – such as the cargo of oranges washed ashore from the Francis and Ann at Overton in 1865!
It was rumoured that some ships were deliberately attracted by false lights on the shore to lure them to disaster, though evidence to support such allegations is scarce.  In 1735 a law was passed making it an offence to make false lights, but no one was prosecuted as a result.
Those who have read Daphne Du Maurier’s 1936 novel “Jamaica Inn”, or watched the 2014 television adaptation (which drew complaints about indistinct dialogue), will know of this tale of ships in Cornwall being lured by false lights onto rocks so that the cargo could be plundered.  The most sinister aspect was that any crew or passengers who managed to struggle ashore would be deliberately killed or drowned lest they give evidence to the authorities.  As to whether this happened in Gower one would assume that it was unlikely, for the coast was dangerous enough to shipping without human intervention.  Yet stories of deliberate wrecking do get passed down, often embellished in the re-telling.
The nineteenth century clergyman who wrote the carol “Good King Wenceslas” and translated the Advent hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel” provides some evidence – albeit hearsay, and therefore inconclusive – regarding nefarious activities on Rhossili cliffs.  This clergyman was Dr J.M.Neale, a high churchman like his contemporary Rev. J.D. Davies, rector of Llanmadoc and Cheriton, and historian of west Gower.  Dr Neale was told by a South Wales prison chaplain of the confession of a dying man who had been involved in luring ships to their doom off Rhossili cliffs.  The gang of wreckers employed a young girl named Kate from the Ship Inn – whether that was what is now Middleton’s Ship Farm (owned by the Beynons when it was licensed premises during the nineteenth century), or the Port Eynon hostelry, is unclear.  Kate’s task was to carry the lantern in order to ignite false flares, but on one occasion, moved by the rector’s sermon on the evils of wrecking, she instead set alight a warning beacon of sticks and furze to illuminate the scene and reveal the advancing gang, thus warning off the struggling ship.  The prisoner confessed to the chaplain that he had struck Kate with his boathook, and flung her body over the cliff.  But it is said that that was the end of wrecking at Rhossili.
In “Gower Gleanings” Horatio Tucker writes that there are “legendary stories of wreckers who lured ships to destruction on the rocks, of lanterns hung on a cow’s horn, and of mysterious lights bobbing on the headlands”.  Nevertheless I concur with the late Nigel Jenkins, who in his book “Real Gower” states that “Stories about wreckers – depicting, for instance, the luring of ships to their doom by positioning lanterns along a treacherous headland to suggest a port’s haven – are the fanciful stuff of popular fiction”. 

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