Welcome to the first issue, for July 2006, of our occasional newsletter. We hope it will be a quarterly event, but our plans always seem to slide a little, so we thought ‘occasional’ might be more accurate.
The occasion that has prompted us to start up a newsletter is that we have returned to writing books jointly, after an experimental period of going off in separate directions. Lesley’s book Empires of the Plain was published in 2003 and Roy’s book Trafalgar was published in 2004, but although both books were successful, the writing of them was not as enjoyable as we had anticipated. We are now back working together with a new book, The War for All the Oceans, which will be published in the UK this autumn.
Being based near Exeter is a real privilege, as apart from the surroundings it is easy to go along the south Devon coast or venture over the border into Cornwall. The far south-west has a great deal of maritime interest, and with the weather looking fair we headed west for a few days to track down some of the sites associated with the stories in our next book. Of the places we
visited, the most dramatic was Loe Bar near Helston. On a fine day in early June it looked calm and idyllic, and it was hard to imagine it being the scene of so many shipwrecks, but of course that is what made it so dangerous. What appears to be a soft beach is actually a hard sand bar that cuts off a freshwater lake from the sea. Many sailing ships being blown inshore by storms have tried to beach on Loe Bar and have been caught by the strong currents that run just offshore, with the ships being pounded to pieces on the edge of the bar.
Monument to those who lost their lives
in the Anson wreck, with Loe Bar beyond
Why the Anson frigate, wrecked here on 29 December 1807, was any different from all the others is hard to say. For some reason, perhaps because the ship had been seen to be in trouble long before it was wrecked, it caught the public imagination. In attempting to gain the beach, the Anson was blown broadside-on to the bar and rolled over with the mainmast forming a bridge towards the shore that was just too short. Many people managed to work their way along the mast to safety – others were swept away and drowned. The sight of a shipwreck so near the shore, with so many willing bystanders helpless to assist those on board, inspired a local man, Henry Trengrouse, to invent a rocket-propelled line to enable life-saving ropes to be stretched from ship to shore. It was the treatment of the victims of the wreck, though, that caused the most uproar. At that time there was no proper provision for dealing with dead bodies washed up on shore. Such bodies were the responsibility of the parish in which they were found, and parish officials dealt with them in the cheapest way possible. In the case of the Anson, as with most other wrecks, the bodies were buried in unmarked graves, in unconsecrated ground and without funeral rites, on the low cliffs overlooking Loe Bar.
Because the parish had to pay for the cost of burying bodies washed ashore, there were cases of corpses being moved from a beach in one parish to a beach in another. Such practices doubtless added colour to the legends about ‘wreckers’, who for the most part were passive salvagers rather than people luring ships on to dangerous coastlines by various tricks. At Loe Bar there was no need to lure ships, because the prevailing winds blew sailing ships into Mounts Bay, making it very difficult for them to clear Lands End to the west or Lizard Point to the east – Mounts Bay, with Loe Bar at its centre, is a natural trap for sailing ships.
The high-profile case of the Anson wreck led local politicians to take action and push through ‘The Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1808’, which made proper provision for the burial of shipwreck victims. For the first time records were kept of the huge number of people drowned in shipwrecks around Britain’s coast. Much of the Anson wreck itself was salvaged in 1902, and a cannon stands outside Helston Museum. Inside the museum is an account of the salvage operations, as well as Henry Trengrouse’s rocket-propelled life-saver.
Monument of the Month
Whenever we are travelling, we try to make time to look at some of the churches and churchyards that we pass. Often these have monuments dating back four or five centuries. If these were letters or other pieces of paper in a record office, they would be considered exceptionally rare, but as gravestones or church monuments, they are seldom noticed. You do not have to travel great distances, or look very far back in time, to find interesting monuments. Right on our doorstep at Topsham, a little port south of Exeter, we found a monument to a seaman who had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar.
The inscription reads:
WHO WAS MANY YEARS
IN THE ROYAL NAVY
HAVING SERVED IN SEVERAL SHIPS
AND AS QUARTERMASTER
ON BOARD THE VICTORY
AT THE BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR
JAN. 2ND 1851
Thomas did not originally intend to make a career in the navy. There was always a desperate need for recruits, and most men who wanted to join the navy at that time were signed up in their teenage years – some were only 10 or 11 years old. Thomas was forced into the navy by a press gang in London in May 1803 when he was 39 years old, by which time he was a settled married man. He is buried alongside the wall of St Margaret’s Church in Topsham, within sight and sound of the changing tides in the estuary of the River Exe.
In the Next Issue
The beer ration in Nelson’s Navy, Monument of the Month (which we hope to make a regular feature), and all our latest news.