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Timewatch: The Wreckers

Updated Friday 14th September 2007

The Open University teamed up with BBC Two's flagship history strand to explore the legacy of those who led ships astray

Wreck of the Glenberie Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Historian Bella Bathurst has been enthralled by the mythology and history of wrecking ever since she came across a passage, penned by Robert Louis Stevenson in the nineteenth century describing “wreckers callously awaiting the harvest of the sea”.

Bella had come across pirates, privateers and pressmen, but she hadn’t heard of wreckers – men, women and children who stood with their arms folded waiting for ships to die. Who were these malevolent spectators standing so silent on the beach?

Timewatch goes in search of The Wreckers. It is a quest of an epic journey around the British coast, to some of its remotest communities, south to the ‘ships graveyard’ beyond the Isles of Scilly; north to the Pentland Firth and the Orkney Isles; and east to the notorious Goodwin Sands. And along the way new light is shed on the dark history of the coast’s notorious, ingenious, and sometimes murderous wreckers.

Daphne Du Maurier’s book Jamaica Inn demonised the wreckers of Cornwall as drunken savages and mob-handed murderers who lured their prey onto the rocks with false lights. Timewatch confronts this mythology, uncovering a complex social history involving tin miners and aristocrats. Yet it finds that it is the wreckers of Cheshire and Liverpool that have earned the reputation as the most brutal of plunderers – not averse to biting the ears off shipwrecked corpses to purloin their precious earrings.

Travelling north to the Orkneys, we come across the bravery and skill of the infamous Stroma Pirates, and their legendary leader Crooked Jack, while finally in Kent and Norfolk Timewatch finds that far from a dirty secret, wrecking became a full-blown industry, and paved the way for the lifeboat movement.

Prompted by historical sources, archaic legal texts and literary clues, and guided by leading academics in maritime history, Timewatch brings us face to face with the descendants of Britain’s wreckers, to uncover the extraordinary social history of a much misunderstood profession.

Take it further: Books

Admiral Shovell's Treasure
Peter McBride and Richard Larn, Shipwreck & Marine

The Wreckers: The Story of Killing Seas, False Lights and Plundered Ships
Bella Bathurst, Harper Perennial

 

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