Cornish Wrecking, 1700-1860

September 2010
13 line illustrations
278 pages
23.4x15.6 cm
ISBN: 9781843835554
Format: Hardback
Library eBook
Boydell Press

Cornish Wrecking, 1700-1860

Reality and Popular Myth

Cathryn J. Pearce

Shows how the image of Cornish wreckers as villains deliberately luring ships on to the rocks is a myth.
Although the popular myth of Cornish wrecking is well-known within British culture, this book is the first comprehensive, systematic inquiry to separate out the layers of myth from the actual practices. Weaving in legal, social and cultural history, it traces the development of wreck law - the right to salvage goods washed on shore - and explores the responses of a coastal populace who found their customary practices increasingly outside the law, especially as local individual rights were being curtailed and the role of centralised authority asserted.
This groundbreaking study also considers the myths surrounding wrecking, showing how these developed over time, and how moral attitudes towards wrecking changed. Overall, the picture of evil wreckers deliberately luring ships onto the rocks is dispelled, to be replaced by a detailed picture of a coastal populace - poor and gentry alike - who were involved in a multi-faceted, sophisticated coastal practice and who had their own complex popular beliefs about the harvest and salvage of goods washing ashore from shipwreck.

CATHRYN J. PEARCE holds a PhD in Maritime History from Greenwich Maritime Institute. A former associate professor of history with the University of Alaska Anchorage's Kenai Peninsula College, she is now with University Campus Suffolk where she continues to research on the relationship of coastal people with the sea.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: A Reputation for Wrecking
Cornwall and the Sea
'Dead Wrecks' and the Foundation of Wreck Law
Wrecking and Criminality
The Cornish Wrecker
Wrecking and the Popular Morality
Wrecking and Enforcement of the Law
Lords of the Manor and their Right of Wreck
Wrecking and Centralised Authority
The Wrecker, the Press and the Pulpit
Conclusion: Myths and Reputations Reconsidered


A painstaking, well-considered and persuasively argued account of wrecking that shatters the well-established image of the wreckers, and that engages with some of the central issues of crime and the law in Hanoverian and early Victorian England. [...] Pearce's book constitutes a significant addition to knowledge and understanding in a variety of areas that are of considerable interest to contemporary students of history. JOURNAL FOR MARITIME RESEARCH

Cathryn Pearce has done a masterly job in challenging the traditional stereotype of the Cornish wrecker. ... Cornish Wrecking is full of interesting and well-chosen anecdotes, matching the violent with the humane. [...] This book can be warmly recommended. THE LOCAL HISTORIAN

This pioneering work is helpful for legal and administrative historians, suggestive for social and literary historians, and necessary for maritime historians. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF MARITIME HISTORY

Maritime historian Cathryn Pearce has produced by far the best - in fact the only - authoritative study of wrecking in Cornwall.

Provides one of the most detailed explanations of the Law and Rights of Wreck that I have read in any non-legal work, and written in clear and concise language. [...] This book really is an excellent piece of research on a subject which is more often told on the basis of myth. SOUTH WEST SOUNDINGS
Must surely be the definitive study of the subject. [...] Well-researched, well-written and well-presented, Cornish Wrecking is a model study of a controversial practice in Cornish - and British - history which continues to this day. CORNISH BANNER
A highly readable and intriguing examination of an often misunderstood subject. PIRATES AND PRIVATEERS