Death Roll of The Manacles
A Crowded Churchyard
From "The Western Morning News," April 30th. 1901
Far away on the wild coast, high up among the lonely hills and within sound of the murmuring sea, a cluster of thatched and whitewashed cottages around a church steeple; distant many miles from town and railway, and with the regularity and retirement of its rural life only disturbed by the shipping disasters which occur below the frowning cliffs - such is the village of St. Keverne, which stands, the monitor of the grim Manacles beneath, at the southern extremity of Falmouth Bay.
Had the parish, with its fertile soil, been in the heart of the country instead of on its fringe it would have been known only for its husbandry and its choice herds and flocks, but its contiguity to a deadly coastline has given it a unique and sombre place in history.
Its most interesting possession is its churchyard. A curious statement this, it may be said, but it is perfectly true, for the "God's acre" around the fine parish church contains the memorials and the relics of tragic events which have led people to associate shipwreck with the very name of St. Keverne.
Interest in such a phase of parochial history is, of course, mournful, abut as you walk in the churchyard and react the lines on headstones which tell of memorable catastrophes, or stand within the spacious interior of the church and gaze upon the beautiful memorial window and the cold marble tablet on the wall, you come under the power of a pathetic spell, and feel the tragic fascination of the spot.
The manners and conversation of the people - particularly the older folk, who are in large proportion on these healthy uplands, tinged with the fading colours of superstition and antique thought - support the impression which grows in the mind of the stranger, that here is a spot where fancy and tradition linger long and die hard.
But the subject of this article is not the folklore of the parish - an extremely interesting question - but the churchyard, in which, it is believed, the bodies of nearly five hundred shipwrecked mariners rest, and which at the present time urgently needs extension. Many churchyards around the rocky coast of Cornwall contain the remains of sailors who have perished - in the sea near by, but St.Keverne is pre-eminent for the number of such burials and for the magnitude of the wrecks with which its history is associated.
The parchment pages of the parish register teem with entries of the burial of unknown bodies washed ashore on St. Keverne's long coastline.
"Woman, name unknown, washed ashore at the Lowlands";
"Three men found drowned at Kennack Beach," and so on, with sorrowful iteration.
But the larger entries arrest attention. Under date January 22nd, 1809, when William Whitehead was minister, we read of a startling tragedy:-
On Sunday morning about half-past three the Dispatch, transport (Geo. Fenwick, master), havinig three officers and 70 men of the Seventh Light Dragoons, on her return from Corunna, was driven upon 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 Duckenfield, and Lieutenant Waldegrave. On the same morning about five o'clock the brig of war Primrose (James Mien, 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 (Dei Gratia) from the dreadful catastrophe. From these wrecks 104 bodies were buried in the churchyard of this parish between January 24th and April 2nd.
In 1855 the memorable wreck of the emigrant vessel John occurred, and 120 bodies were interred close to the church, the burials extending over a long period :-
May 5th, 67 bodies washed ashore ; May 9th, body of boy from the John ; May 12th, 35 bodies ; May 16th, five bodies May 17th, two, and several subsequent entries. Every winter seems to have brought its own quota of graves, some named and many unnamed.
In 1873 eight bodies were recovered from the wreck of the steamer Clan Alpine ; in 1890 several from the Spyridon Vagliano; while the fateful blizzard of March, 1891, wrought havoc to quite a number of vessels.
The most notable ship at that time was the Bay of Panama, of which the captain, chief officer, and five men were cast ashore. Coining to recent times the appalling loss of life by the foundering of the Atlantic liner Mohegan on the Manacles made an impression on the public mind which it will take many years to efface. Canon Diggens, then and now vicar of the parish, made an entry in the register which possesses a peculiar interest in view of the agitation for a warning light on the Manacles
I, the vicar, having seen much of the sufferings of the rescued and the sorrows of the bereaved, earnestly pray that effectual steps may be taken to warn vessels of the position of the dreaded rocks which have been the scene of so many terrible disasters.
The Porthoustock lifeboat saved 44 persons from the Mohegan, three or four were rescued in other ways, and 106 were drowned. Forty corpses were laid out in the church at one time. About forty were interred in St. Keverne churchyard, 36 being placed in a great grave right under the shadow of the church steeple.
It was almost a miracle that saved the great ship Paris from the same fate as the Mohegan, for she passed close by the submerged hull and ran ashore in a position which prevented the loss of the a single life out of her heavy freight of human lives.
The church stands on an altitude above the village roofs, and the burying ground slopes away to ivy and lichen covered walls, and on one side to a boundary formed by roofs of thatch. A wide lych gate gives entrance to the churchyard, and above it is a crude apartment of dilapidated appearance which has often sheltered bodies before burial.
The inscriptions over the graves are sad reading. The place where 120 bodies from the wreck of the John were deposited only a small slate slab, around which the rank grass flourishes. On this diminutive monument are a rough carving of the wreck and the words
who were drowned in the wreck of
The ship John, May 3, 1855.
Erected by one of the survivors."
For a long time this place of interment was unmarked, and the little plain slab which one has now to stoop to read was placed there by a survivor who visited the spot some years after, and was doubtless impressed with the neglect which had been shewn.
Most of the bodies recovered from wrecks lie beneath the grass mounds close by the wall on the north side facing the open sea, and looking right away over the bay to the distant Deadman and white St. Anthony's lighthouse. A profusion of weeds and nettles grows above the remains of several bodies from The Bay of Panama. The only stone relating to that calamity is the one to the memory of Thomas Bullocke, the chief officer. Nearly a century has passed since the soldiers from the Despatch and the Primrose were buried, and no memorial marks their last resting-place. An old villager, whose memory is an encyclopedia of funereal knowledge, pointed ont the precise place of interment to the writer, and said he knew it, because when the grave was dug for those who perished in the wreck of the John the buttons and red cloth of some of the soldiers were turned up quite fresh, although they had been underground for a generation. The Despatch victims are commemorated by a marble which was originally erected in the churchyard, but is now a mural monument within the church. Below the names of the officers and other particulars appear these striking lines
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 hills at last;
If then the tempest rolls the foaming flood,
And her own ocean' whelms her bravest blood,
When there a Dukenfield, 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.
Tyrant! the barrier of thy rage, the deep
Aids thy fierce boast, and English mothers weep
Most of the graves - of Englishmen and foreigners alike are distinguished by stones, and beneath the shades of the sycamore and the poplars may been seen the brief and touching records which tell the grief of broken hearts.
One of the most conspicuous monuments in the whole churchyard is the fine granite cross, erected by subscriptions chiefly from the neighbourhood of St. Keverne, reared above the large Mohegan grave. Single graves connected with that sad event are surmounted by handsome stones. The churchyard is divided into two by an intersecting pathway. The portion away from the church was opened about forty years ago, and it is a singular fact that the man who sold the ground and the man who bought it died suddenly and were the first to be buried in the ground which was transferred by their own act.
A movement is now on foot to extend the churchyard, a work of undoubted necessity. An adjacent garden has been given by the Rev. Sir Vyell Vyvyan, but the leaseholder has to be bought out. The estimated cost of the extension is about £200, towards which Canon Diggens has received £70. The interments arising from shipwrecks are, of course, largely responsible for the rapid filling up of the churchyard, and this has put a strain on the resources of the parish, which the hospitable folk of the locality would not have been called upon to meet had they not chanced to live near such a deadly coast. The responsibilities of their position have been cheerfully faced by the parishioners, and many have been the testimonies to their sympathy and generosity.
Wrecked sailors have acknowledged with gratitude the bravery of their rescuers, who dwell in the cove by the sea and the village above; and bereaved relatives have borne witness to the reverence and care with which the people have treated the remains of those who perished. Kindness of this character often brings its own reward. This is illustrated in a striking manner by a story related by Hals, the historian.
An ancestor in the family of Sandys, noted in the parish, and seven other persons of St Keverne were driven to sea in an open boat by a gale in the year 1702, and after being exposed to the tempest for four days and three nights reached the coast of Normandy, They were made prisoners, but a gentleman who saw Sandys remembered him, and exclaimed, "I know your person, and well remember the kindness you shewed me in my distress many years ago at your house when my ship was cast away and lost on the coast of St. Keverne."
The narrative tells how they embraced each other, and on the circumstances coming to the knowledge of the King, Louis XIV., the Englishmen were released and allowed to return their own country. This is a romantic proof of the value of kindness; but the parishioners do not find such ready results in these prosaic days.
One would regard it as obvious that St. Keverne is entitled to some help from outside sources in bearing the burden of providing for the misfortunes of those who go down to the sea in ships; but the days of romance are gone, and an unsentimental Board of Trade shrugs its shoulders and tells the vicar that it has no funds at its disposal with which to assist such an object. It is to be hoped that some out of the many with whom the claim should have some weight will be found willing to bear a share of the cost. If there is a sufficieny of funds the vicar hopes to make an adequate extension of the churchyard; to provide a proper mortuary; and possibly to place headstones on unmarked graves, and by so doing repair the neglect of a former generation.