Crugyll Wreckers - Introduction
- Ship being washed up on shore
There are communities along the coast of Britain where cargo from wrecked ships was regarded as manna from heaven by the penniless inhabitants – Cornwall and the Scilly Isles; the Hebrides and the North of Scotland; the Kent and Norfolk coasts; and many places along Wales’ storm-tossed shore. Those who sought to profit from the misfortune of others are known as wreckers.
One of the common images of wreckers is of the wrong-doers setting up false lights, in order to trick approaching ships into thinking they are near a safe harbour, and thus luring them onto rocks and their doom. Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn contains all the myths about wrecking as practiced in Cornwall: false lights set to deceive the ships; victims struggling ashore being held under the water to drown; rings ripped off broken fingers by the greed-driven robbers.
However, despite the romanticized stories that appear in such books, it appears that there is no hard evidence that any Cornish wreckers ever deliberately set out to cause a wreck. They certainly profited from ships that met their end on Cornwall’s rocky shore every winter, but in all the court cases through the centuries of Cornishmen prosecuted for plunder, smuggling and theft, there are no records of any who were accused of setting false lights. The only such case to be successfully prosecuted relates to the wreckers of Crugyll, near Rhosneigr, on Anglesey’s south-western shore.
This area was already notorious for its inhabitants profiting from the misfortunes of passing ships. A group of men were prosecuted at Beaumaris Court in 1741 for plundering a Liverpool-based ship called the Loveday and Betty. This unfortunate vessel had been driven ashore at Crugyll in late 1740. Although three of the men who stripped the ship bare were caught red-handed, in the subsequent trial a drunken judge set them free.
Then in 1774 charges were brought by Captain Chilcote against three Anglesey men for plundering several cases of rum and brandy, and other goods. During a heavy gale in September 1773, Chilcote’s ship, the 80-ton Charming Jenny en route from Dublin to Waterford was said to have been lured by false lights onto the coast of Anglesey and wrecked. The three crew were killed when the vessel struck, though Chilcote and his wife reached the shore on a makeshift raft.
- A storm hits the Welsh coast
Chilcote was unable to say whether or not his wife was alive when she reached the shore, but confirmed that “she was stripped of her gown, shoes, buckles, cap and handkerchief, and that her pockets were cut off from her sides” – pockets which had contained his own watch and seventy guineas. He reported that he was not himself stripped, but that as he lay exhausted and helpless on the beach, he was robbed of the silver buckles off his shoes. As he lay there defenceless, he saw his ship’s cargo being taken away by a great number of people, who arrived with horses and carts and boats to take away whatever they could carry.
One of the accused was acquitted but the other two were found guilty of luring the ship to its destruction. They were sentenced to death by hanging. One of them, Siôn Parry, was executed, but it seems that his comrade’s sentence was commuted to transportation.
The tradition of taking advantage of goods that washed up on the land persisted long in the area. A 19 year old youth named Owen Hughes from Bodedern died in 1815 from drinking too much rum which he’d picked up from a wreck. As late as October 1867, The Times, reporting the loss of the Earl of Chester noted that “The wreck is now a prey to the notorious wreckers of the coast known to Welsh seafaring men as lladron Crugyll (the Crugyll robbers). Many hundreds of them were there yesterday stealing whatever they could carry away.”
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