Canon Diggens Archive

Ship Wrecks
There could not be a more suitable name for the St. Keverne Reef than the Manacles which means Church Stones. Maen Eglos was the old Cornish term from which Manacles is derived. These stones were visible from the Church, and mariners passing them, easily recognise their position by noting the spire of the Church. This Spire has been their sign-post for many generations.

Many and great however have been the disasters on the same rocks, one of which stands out exceptionally pitiful.

It occurred at a time when Britain was carrying out her determination to strike a bold stroke for the rescue of Europe, Wellesley and Moore were struggling with Bonaparte in Spain, winning and losing alternately, but eventually compelled to retire on Corunna.

After a long and arduous march, accompanied by privations unsurpassed in history, our soldiers waited for the ships which were to convey them home. The transport "Dispatch" was in the harbour, and in it part of the 7th Dragoons embarked. They had lost many men - numbers of horses, worn out, had fallen by the way, and had been mercifully shot. The Company itself was overcome by fatigue and semi-starvation - the enemy, in hot pursuit, was gathering its forces about Corunna - the fleet, which should have been there, was absent - anxiety for St. John Moore, and their cornered fellow warriors, added distress to a disheartened band - and there was nothing to relieve their depression excepting the fact that they were going home.

They started on the 14th January, two days before Sir John Moore laid down his life for his country. The weather at the time was bitterly cold and rough, but the Bay of Biscay was passed in safety and the Lizard was rounded on the night of the 21st.
What happened later was described in the old Church Register:

“Jan 22nd, 1809. On Sunday morning about half past three o'clock the "Dispatch" Transport (George Fenwick, Master) having three Officers and seventy men of the 7th, Light Dragoons (on her way from Corunna in Spain) was driven on the rocks near Coverack, and all on board perished except seven private Dragoons. The three unfortunate Officers who had survived a disastrous campaign to perish on the English Shore were, Major Cavendish. Captain Duckinfield, and Lieutenant Waldegrave.”

An Act had been passed the previous year which'required that the bodies of those cast up by the sea should be buried in the parish graveyards, and not on the cliffs as hitherto.

But the Act was unnecessary in the case of St. Keverne for many records in previous centuries tell how Church-town men bore shipwrecked bodies to St. Keverne where they had Christian burial and were reverently laid to rest under the shadow of the old Church.

The victims of the awful calamity which befel the "Dispatch"' were interred by the North Wall of the old graveyard, and a marble tablet was raised in their memory. Subsequently, however, this tablet was removed to the interior of the Church. Upon it are engraved the names of the Officers who perished and the circumstances of the wreck with the following lines:

When Britain sends at liberty's command
Her ready youth to free a stranger land,
She bears her slain in triumph to the shore,
And the proud parent shows the wounds before.
But when her sons, each form of danger past,
Strain their glad eyes to view her bills at last;

If then the tempest rolls the foaming flood,
And her own ocean 'whelms her bravest blood,
When there a Bukenfield, a Cavendish here,
And youthful Waldegrave press a wat'ry bier;

Their mourning comrades feel a moisten'd cheek,
And bid the marble their dumb sorrow speak.
Tyranti the barrier of thy rage, the deep
Aids thy fierce boast, and English mothers weep.

but its removal left the grave without a monument, and its site was evidently for a time forgotten. Another wreck, and the digging of another gigantic grave revealed the spot forty-six years later. The soldiers had been buried in uniforms, and the cloth of their coats had retained its original colour while the buttons left no doubt on the matter.

A granite cross now stands above them erected by Sir Arthur Vivian of Bosahan who generously came forward a few years ago and placed it there at his own expense.

As recorded in the old registers it was half past three when the "Dispatch" was driven ashore (One Dean's Point). An hour and a half later on the same Manacles another ship was foundering, and one hundred Officers and Men and six passengers of His Majesty's Brig of Was "Primrose" were grappling with the waves. It was an awful contest which could have but one result, and despite the fact that the brave fishermen of the parish went to their rescue, only one boy, John Meaghen - emerged from it alive. Connected with this youth is a strange pathetic story.

Meanwhile the coast was converted into a vast mortuary, where the dead awaited burial and the living a shelter. The Vicar and men of St. Keverne took part in the performance of the last rites.

The week of the "Primrose" is recorded beneath the wreck of the "Dispatch" and the following lines complete the entry:

Memorial to The Primrose On the same morning about 5 o'clock the Brig of War "Primrose" (James Mein, Esq., Commander) was wrecked on the Manacle rocks. Her complement of Officers and Men consisted of 120 besides six passengers, only one poor lad was preserved from the dreadful catastrophe. From these wrecks (including the "Dispatch") 104 bodies were buried in the churchyard of the parish between Jan 24 and April 2.

The Rev. William Whitehead was Vicar at the time and the records are signed by his hand.

Happily among the living was Lieut. Col. Vivian, and we turn with relief from a scene of woe to one of chastened gladness. No sooner did Mr. John Vivian hear of the calamity than he hastened with Cap. Treweeke to Coverack. There he found the gallant Colonel, and the seven surviving privates, whom he took to his home, (with the exception of one too ill to be moved) where they received every care and attention. Between this dragoon and the boy saved from the "Primrose" there was a pathetic friendship formed.

In other documents we are glad to read the the bravery of the Porthoustock fishermen is highly praised, the Government recognizing their self-denying effort granted each helper a handsome gratuity on this sad occasion.

Mr. Grylls, Cap Norris with part of his troop of the 13th Dragoons under Sergeant Connor from Helston, aided by Lieut Cock of Coverack Signal Station rendered valuable assistance. It is said that fifty coffins were sent from Helston for the internments

From the “Dispatch” a number of horses were washed ashore. They were buried on the Meirs near the Coastguard rocket poles. The mound ridge is quite conspicuous.

Editors note:-
We have yet to transcribe about ten pages of Rev. Diggens text on wrecks and they include a sad tale of the emigrant ship “The Barque John”. The story is told on this website through the original newspaper articles and the transcript of the subsequent trial. We hope to transcribe Rev. Diggens original pages when time permits.

Clan Alpine" struck a rock off the Black Head and went to pieces. Seventeen persons were drowned.

Following this disaster the "Mary West" went ashore the same year, and the "Sultana Southdown" two years later, but these were minor calamities compared with the havoc wrought in 1891 by a blizzard which swept both sea and land in the month of March.

While the storm was at its height a smack was seen close to Porthoustock Cove in such a perilous position that the safety of those on board depended on beaching her. James Henry Cliff, second coxswain of the Life Boat offered to carry a line through the surf. He put a rope round his body, gave one end to the watchers on shore, and plunged into the boiling surf. His efforts were successful, and one by one the three sailors were landed, almost as soon as they were saved "The Dove" went to pieces.

A more melancholy fate awaited the occupants of two other vessels which were seen to be in distress at the mouth of the Bay. Not near enough to beach they were cut off from help. The waves were thundering at the door of the Life Boat House, and to launch a boat was an impossibility - and so the smacks went down in sight of shelter, and all on board were drowned.

The Bay of Panama Nor does the tale of horrors end here, another and more awful sight met the eyes of the St. Keverne men the following morning. Between Pennare Point and Porthoustock lay the "Bay of Panama" a ship of 2,282 tons register.

She was covered with snow and icicles, and some of her crew were frozen to death in the rigging and on deck. One local man volunteered to swim across to her with a line. Later the rocket apparatus was used and 19 of her crew were saved, eighteen persons however perished, from cold exposure and drowning.

What was to be done with the beautiful disabled ship and her cargo of seventeen thousand bales of jute, and how to communicate with Falmouth were questions which then arose amid the mournful accompaniments of wreckage and required an answer, but telegraph wires and poles alike lay broken by the way side and snow drifts rendered traveling a seeming impossibility. In face of such overwhelming difficulties however Joseph H. James of St. Keverne set out to accomplish the task, and on foot reached Falmouth utterly exhausted, but capable of delivering his messages, a purse of gold was publicly presented, to him for his bravery.

The survivors were removed to Falmouth and the dead were borne to the old graveyard.

Later in the year "The Baron" a French Brig was totally wrecked on the Lowlands bringing up the number of disasters to five in eight short months.

Fortunately however 1892 stands out brightly against the proceeding year, and no wrecks are recorded till 1894 ("The Clifton Grove" having in the meantime "got off" from the Lowlands).

The "Forester" and the "Dryad" were the next two wrecks, both on the Manacles, and both in the month of November.

Then followed the destruction of the "Andola" in January 1895. As daylight began to dawn she struck on the Carclew Rocks, and the Porthoustock Life Boat was called to her assistance. Twenty eight of her crew were happily saved, but the ship registering 5,000 tons perished where she struck. This happened at the beginning of the year.

On Nov 26th the Manacles claimed another victim the "Anne Elizabeth" a barque from Christiana, which foundered inside the Lowlands, and although the Rocket apparatus was the means of saving four of her crew, five men were drowned.

The "Liffey" and the "Crokai" were the next to strike. These however were re-floated - unlike the "Plantagenet" which listed almost as soon as she received her first impact, and subsequently became a total wreck. Her crew of fourteen were happily landed on the Blackhead without the loss of a single life. This happened in 1897.

In 1898 the "Mohegan" went down. This disaster resulting in the loss of 107 lives, and the total destruction of the vessel was one of the most appalling and, at the same time one of the most inexplicable wrecks, which ever happened on the Cornish Coast.

Mohegan on the Manacles 1898

She struck as the last glimmer of daylight faded at a quarter to 7 on the 14th day of October, and in less than 20 minutes she was under water, with only her masts, funnel, and davits above to mark her whereabouts. What brought her in such a perilous position will ever remain a mystery. After passing the Eddystone the Captain who wishes to clear the Manacles and the Lizard usually steers west-south-west but Cap Griffiths the Commodore of the Atlantic Transport line (by some error of compasses or judgment) drove his ship in a West by North direction right on to the Minstrel rock, in the heart of the Manacles.

An ominous, grating sound told the passengers and crew what had happened, and there was a general rush from dinner tables, cabins, and engine rooms, to the upper deck. The situation was awful, and was rendered trebly so by the sudden extinction of the electric lights. Darkness above, a swell on the sea around, a mournful tolling of the warning bell - the rising of water in the ship, all contributed to swell a cause for panic. But of panic there was none, and clear, encouraging and commanding was Chief Officer Couch's voice as he gave orders for the women and children to be saved first. The Captain too was active and cool, but the moments were passing and each one brought the "Mohegan's" doom nearer.

She had been struck on her starboard side forward, her fore part was becoming engulfed, her ship's boats were launched with difficulty and one containing many passengers upturned as she touched the water. Much remained to be done when with a mighty plunge the vessel went down and was locked on the reef, never to rise again.

Then came the time of anguish and the shrieks which arose from masts, boats and broken spars will ever be associated in the minds of the hearers on shore with that terrible night. By that time however the Life Boat from Porthoustock (under the guidance of James Hill, Coxswain) had been launched, and the Rocket Apparatus (in charge of Mr. Jeft'ers) also was on its way to Manacle Point.

All were eager to help, and had there been light instead of darkness more lives might have been saved, but the position of the vessel was a matter of conjecture, and it was most difficult to decide which course to take. Meanwhile the Life-boat threaded her way among the deadly rocks continually sending out her signals, at length cries of distress guided her to the ship's boat which was three parts full of water, and from this boat she rescued twenty seven, and picked up from the water Miss Noble. These were landed at Porthoustock about eleven, and were conducted at once to the cottages where fires, beds, and food awaited them. While they were being tended the Life Boat was once more piloting her way on the dark heaving waters. It was 2 o'clock in the morning when it returned, and the saved were in a worse condition than those in the first boat, having been 7 hours struggling for very life.

The next few days no pen can adequately describe, The Vicarage and Church were places of mourning and joy. Bereaved friends wept while relatives of the rescued ones rejoiced.

It was a time for cabling, interviewing, identifying, a time of inquiries and inquests of sheltering and hospitality. From the Squire at Lanarth to the humblest cottager, all opened their doors to the stranger, and did what they could to those who needed help.

Unhappily 107 were past human ministration and 48 of these were laid in the Church, at one time. Some of them destined to be carried across the Atlantic. For the others one vast grave, and a few smaller ones were being prepared in the old Churchyard.

Sunday intervened between the wreck and the burial, and the Services conducted by Canon Diggens took place in the presence of the dead and the living.

The following Wednesday, the great funeral took place. The Service was read by the Vicar assisted by the Rev Dr. Eajar of Manaccan and the Rev.F.R. Sell, The committal sentences were said as each separate coffin was being lowered into the big grave. Loving hands had made wreaths for every coffin (with flowers supplied from Lanarth), Life Boat men and survivors were the bearers. The following Sunday Memorial Services were conducted by Archdeacon Cornish (afterwards Bishop of St Germans) and Canon Diggens.

A beautiful stained glass window now occupies a place above the altar. It was presented by the Atlantic Transport Company, and dedicated by Archdeacon Cornish, in the presence of a vast congregation, who contributed for the erection of a large Granite Cross which now marks the site of the grave on the North Side of the Church, with the simple word "Mohegan" on it.

After the wreck of the "Mohegan" the necessity for a light was strongly urged by the Vicar, both in the TIMES Newspaper and Trinity House, but no notice whatever was taken of the appeal until a larger and more important ship went ashore the following year on the same reef.

Happily no loss of life was occasioned by the stranding of "The Paris", but it might have been otherwise, and in the face of what might have been the Brethren of Trinity House acted with promptitude. Such a ship on the Manacles was "like a great town" said a farmer who saw her lights as the mist shifted on Whit-Sunday morning 1899!
The Paris Her size may be gathered from the fact that she carried 800 souls, who were roused from their sleep by the booming of a gun, and other signals of distress at 1.30 a.m. These signals were answered by Socket Apparatus and Life Boat, but unlike the "Mohegan" the "Paris" had steamed on to a bed of rocks, and the elements of imminent peril were missing. All were able to leave without haste, and were taken in safety to Falmouth by the "Dragon".

A Service of Thanksgiving followed immediately after their arrival, and never was there greater cause for gratitude. Had not a pilot boat been hovering near which immediately showed a warning light, and thus turned the Liner's course, a disaster far exceeding in magnitude that of the "Mohegan" had been the result.

As it was the stranded "Paris" provided entertainment for the Whitsuntide holidays and thousands of people from different parts flocked to see her. Such a ship, with her 20,000 horse power engine, her fans which could revolve at the rate of 400 times a minute, her furnaces which consumed 500 tons of coal per day, her enormous rudder, her spacious decks, and stately saloons were a rare sight, and men wondered if she could possibly ever be refloated. Divers were at once engaged to find out the extent of the damage, with a view to saving her, and lightening operations began.

The Liverpool Salvage Company took the matter in hand and six powerful tugs exerted all their strength to move her, but day after day passed leaving the ship in the same position despite every effort, and there she remained until a German firm released her for a quarter of a million pounds, they agreed to take that sum or nothing in case of failure- In the gloaming of an early summers day, she steamed quietly away.

But not so quietly was the question of lighting the dreaded reef allowed to pass. The Trinity House Brethren were again reminded of a responsibility too great to be ignored by the publication in the TIMES of facts supplied by the Vicar after the "Mohegan" sank. We quote one or two lines:

"One fisherman who is still in middle life recalls 36 (casualities). His list however is incomplete for more than 50 have happened during the past 50 years. Of these considerably more than half may be classed as total wrecks".

To turn to the Life Boat records it seems that the Porthoustock boat has, since the year 1872 been on active service 16 times, and has effected the rescue of 112 persons. The same records show that 119 lives were lost from the vessels to which the Life Boat went out. There were at least 16 other wrecks during that period resulting in the loss of 44 lives to which the Life Boat could render no assistance.

Four wrecks alone in the last 90 years have resulted in the drowning of no less than 470 persons.

The Vicar then begs for a Life Boat to be placed at Coverack, and happily both the light and the boat were provided.

The latter was presented by Mrs. Hills of Penshurst Place, near Tunbridge Wells who was present at the launching of it. It is a splendid boat, perfectly equipped with a reliable crew.

Both Boat and Light have been of great service to the public, the former was called into action almost immediately to rescue the crew of the "Glenberrie" which went ashore.

No Maritime parish in England possesses a more dangerous coast than St. Keverne and from time immemorial Nare Point, the Manacle Reef, the Hebba Point and Blackhead have in their turn claimed their sacrifices of living victims. But more notorious than the rest, the Manacle Reef stands out, as the most rapacious of them all, and is ever waiting for a mist or strong east wind to exact the excessive toll which our country men are compelled to pay for their insular position.

Unfortunately a greater part of this reef is submerged, and although two miles and a half wide, with a projection from the shore of a mile and a half, little is seen above the water, except a few crags.

The whole bed of rocks is a continuation in the sea of a large dyke of green stone which crosses St. Keverne, and give to it its extraordinary fertility. In its course this dyke is studded by boulders which become more numerous as the coast is neared. Beneath the water they are very uneven and in some places wide enough apart for a vessel to pass through, but these channels are only navigable to those who know them well.

Commander Lory, in command of a Falmouth Packet Boat (probably carrying mail) was chased by a French Privateer (War between Eng. & France). Knowing -the inner channel of the Manacles he safely navigated his boat through. The Frenchman attempting the same feat was wrecked. (See W. Michell or James Hele).

Each of the principal rocks has its distinguishing name, and to these rocks Falmouth owes its safety in gales from the Southward. They are its breakwater and the students of navigation are taught in their first lessons to avoid them, To facilitate this the Lizard lights are kept burning to the South West. St Anthony’s light illumines them from the North East, and on the Bell Buoy The Trinity House Brethren have placed an intermittent light which has lessened the number of wrecks considerably. The Bell Buoy itself was moored at a cost of £1,100.

There is little danger now of ships going down as they often did in former times.

Speaking of the Manacles in 1620 Sir John Killigrew wrote

"Neither is yet possible to get parfett notice of the whence and what the ships are that yearly do suffer on and near The Lizard, for yet is seldom that any man escapes, and the ships split in small pieces".

Royal Cornwall Polytechnic. Report 4 1836 P. 21.

"Before this Report shall be in the hands of the public, your Committee hope to have supplied a desideratum long wanted, by the accurate determination of the true Meridian. Thus will be furnished a standard by which the variation of magnetic, from the true meridian, may be readily ascertained, and any change in the declination of the needle easily detected. By it compasses and other mathematical instruments may be accurately adjusted; and mine agents and surveyors will be enabled to lay down their plans to the true meridian.

The spire of St. Keverne Church has been fixed on, as the Southern extremity of the line; and it is intended to erect a granite pillar in a field to the Westward of Beacon Hill, to mark its other extremity near Falmouth. This will give a base line of about 40,000 feet, and it is hoped that it will be continued through the County to the Bristol channel".

To the Solicitor of the Board of Trade. Wreck of the S .S. MOHEGAN.

I, William Alfred Diggens, Vicar of Saint Keverne in the County of Cornwall, having made many voyages at sea, and having been most intimately acquainted with the events that occurred immediately subsequent to the week of the S.S. Mohegan beg to make the following observations based on the experience thus acquired.

(1) That in all human probability if a light-house had been in existence at the Manacles, the above valuable ship with more than a hundred still more valuable lives would not have been lost.

(2) That such a light would have prevented a very large number of the casualties that have unfortunately taken place in this locality.

(3) That if such a light is not provided measures much more ample and efficient for the saving of life and property than those adopted existing in this neighbourhood should be taken. For instance:-

(4) Since life boats from distant places cannot work safely and effectually in them (to them) strange and dangerous waters, a second life-boat should be placed at Coverack. The fishermen at this village are familiar with the Manacles and the boat could be launched in all weathers.

(5) There should be a life-saving apparatus at St. Keverne (say), from whence an easy descent could be made to any position of the adjacent coast. If the Coverack Rocket Carriage is employed on the shore near the Manacles, it has first to be brought (probably pushed) up a long steep hill, a mile in length, before it can be conveyed to its ultimate destination. The delay thus occasioned has proved disastrous in at least one instance.

(6) A Coast-guard Station, instead of being established (as seems to be the intention) in Porthoustock Cove, should be established at or near the old Watch-house on Manacle Point. Vessels approaching the dangerous rocks might then perhaps be warned off in time to avoid disaster.

(7) Life-boats in search of wrecks and survivors should on dark nights carry powerful lights. Briefly, more lives sight have been saved if this had been done on the night of the "Mohegan" wreck.

(8) There should be some system of signals by which people ashore can convey messages to life-boats at sea. Such a system would have been of great value on the night of the wreck,

(9) That the Mast-Head and side lights on ships should be altogether independent of any general system of illumination.

(10) That a scheme for rendering each separate iron deck a horizontal water-tight bulkhead might prevent such losses as that of the "Mohegan".

(11) That practical tests of the boat lowering apparatus of vessels should be made at frequent intervals in the presence of Officers of the Board of Trade, and that weekly boat drills on ships should be made compulsory,

I have only to add that I should like to have given evidence at the Board of Trade Enquiry as I think that my evidence might have been of some value especially in the matter of life-saving,

signed W. A. Diggens.

November 2nd, 1898,