Smuggling, privateering, piracy and wrecking have all played an important part, for centuries, in securing the finances of those who lived along the south-east Kent coast. Wrecking, the practice of taking valuables from a ship, which has foundered near or close to shore, was ensconced in Edward I (1239-1307), Cinque Ports Charter of June 1278. The Charter was written in recognition of the importance to Realm of the five ports of Hastings, Romney Hythe, Dover and Sandwich, and the two Antient towns of Winchelsea and Rye. In return for supplying 57 ships, fully manned for 15 days service a year and defining each ports share of the total burden, the Ports were given special privileges. One of these was the right to claim any wreckage found on the sea or on shore. At the time, the entire South Kent coastline was under the Cinque Ports direct control.
Killing survivors or deliberately faking signals, help or other forms of deception, in order to salvage from the wreck of a ship was not part of the remit. Nonetheless, it was well recorded that the Cinque Portsmen were not adverse luring passing ships on to treacherous sandbanks, such as the Goodwins and the Varne Bank, and take possession of anything they could retrieve from the hapless vessels.
In order to try and put a stop to such practices at the same time as protecting English shipping from Continental pirates; successive monarchs employed Cinque Portsmen to provide protection. However, on the king’s order in 1305, one of the Cinque Ports ships, Snake of Sandwich, was cruising in the Strait of Dover supposedly protecting merchantmen from Continental pirates. While on this duty the crew of the Snake of Sandwich chased a London trader into St Margaret’s Bay and took £250 and goods from the resulting wreck.
The problem did not go away so on the Ides of May in 1367, Archbishop Langham granted 40 days indulgence to those in his diocese who contributed towards the maintenance of ‘Brother Nicholas de Legh, of the Hermitage at StMargarettes Stairt, in the Parish of St Margarette atte Clyve.’ Brother Nicholas’ cave was on the west side of St Margaret’s Bay and his job was effectively that of a lighthouse keeper. Of note, the South Foreland lighthouse (ceased operation in 1988) and South Sands House are nearby. The latter was formally called the Hermitage.
William Warde was the Mayor of Dover four times (1612,13,18 and 1619) and also Deputy Lieutenant of the Castle. In 1613-14, during his second Mayoralty, together with the Clerk of the Castle, and the Droit Gatherer General (tax collector), he was accused of embezzling the profits from wrecked ships. The case was heard at the Court of Admiralty, then held in St James’ Church, Dover. The Mayor argued that this was a right under the Charter of Edward I so, on being found guilty, the Mayor sort legal redress through the Privy Council.
The case took three years and the Privy Council upheld the findings of the Dover court saying that in 1602, the Crown claimed wreckage rights throughout the land. However, they recognised that a concession had been made to the Cinque Ports by Edward I’s Charter. The Privy Council therefore ruled that Mayor Warde was correct, such wreckage did not belong to the Crown. However, As the Lord Warden was the most senior person in the Cinque Ports, all wreckage within the jurisdiction belonged to him! Thus Mayor Warde was forced to retract his stance and was forced to accept the Lord Warden’s rights.
Warde was again elected Mayor but the populace ignored the Privy Council’s ruling. Rumour of a wreck was sufficient to bring every man, woman and child hurrying to the beach. If a member of the crew or a passenger of the shipwreck got in the way, they would be dealt with by a fist or a knife. As for the Lord Warden, he probably received a share of the proceeds and ignored how it came about.
However, in 1515, Henry VIII created the Fellowship of the Cinque Ports Pilots or Lodesmen (meaning one who leads the way). They operated under the auspices of the Court of Lodemanage, part of the Court of Admiralty and presided over by the Lord Warden. Following the King’s decree, all ships, except those with native masters and mates, had to use a licensed pilot to navigate the Channel, Thames and Medway estuaries safely to port.
The chances of being wrecked in the Channel decreased but this put a strain on the livelihoods of many along the coast. As time passed another evil variation of the old wrecking practices emerged. Men would go out to a vessel and pass themselves off as a Cinque Port Pilot. Once on board they would signal to accomplices who would help to unload the cargo, and then they would all take it home as bounty. The hapless crew would have been dealt with and the distressed ship would be then left in the hands of Fate.
Matters had come to a head on 8 February 1805 when the Endeavour, a West Indiaman, ran aground on the Goodwin Sands. Her cargo was valued at £23,000 and included rum, sugar and coffee. Peter Atkins, a Deal boatman, offered the captain help to unload the stricken vessel but when the captain accepted, Atkins was alleged to call out, ‘A wreck! A wreck!’ and a number of Deal boatmen came aboard and unloaded the ship. An audit of goods landed showed that only £500 had been legally salvaged and Atkins was prosecuted for ‘felony and piracy on the high seas,’ a capital offence.
The case was tried at the Admiralty Court in the Old Bailey, London, and received a lot of publicity. Representatives from the Dover Court of Lodemanage and Lady Hester Stanhope -the niece of the Prime Minister William Pitt, who was also the Lord Warden – came to Atkins defence. They argued that Pilotage dues on foreign vessels were so extortionate that many ships traversed the Downs without pilots. When the Deal boatmen go out to help, they were often only paid a small reward for the dangerous work they undertake and therefore should be allowed a share of the goods.
The trial ended with Atkins being found guilty and sentenced to transportation. However, before the trial had even started Medmer Goodwin, of the Ramsgate Commissioners of Salvage, approached Lloyds of London suggesting that his firm should act as agents for the Insurance underwriters. The offer was accepted and on 28 August 1811 Lloyds agents were appointed for 140 ports, including Dover.
Lloyds Agents were responsible for the insurance that had to be paid on any cargo lost and Dover’s first Agent was John Friend of Deal, an associate of Medmer Goodwin. He was succeeded by Dover ship owner, banker, senior officer in the Court of Lodemanage and Mayor of Dover (1814, 21 and 1830), Henshaw Latham. In this capacity and also responsible for the discipline of Pilots within the Court of Lodemanage, Latham instituted major reforms to combat wrecking and Pilots taking goods from ships as of right.
The problem of wreckers though, did not go away. In 1843, at Maidstone Winter Assizes Thomas Ladd age 38, John Kingsmill 40, John Norris 33, Richard Marsh 34, Richard Collard 28, John Godden 23, William Fagg 49, John Castle 28, George Marsh 40, all labourers, were accused of ‘Making a signal for the purpose of giving notice to some persons on board a smuggling boat, at St Margaret’s at Cliffe.’ They were all found guilty and imprisoned for six months with hard labour.
On 28 January 1860, the Earl of Eglinton, launched 1854, sailed from London for Calcutta but on 6 February she ran ashore in St Margaret’s Bay, no lives were reported lost. The inventory of goods recovered from the wreck states: 18 bales and sundry pieces of cloth, one cask of blacking, 4 bolts of cloth, 9 cases 5 of which was suppose to be wine, 5 pieces plus sundry pieces of loose linen, three casks of porter, 1 iron safe. Following the accident the number of wooden cottages on the beach at St Margaret’s increased dramatically, one of which was named Eglinton Cottage!
However, the most interesting piece salvaged was the ship’s bell, which did not appear on the goods salvaged list. Instead, it was sold to the Buckland school managers by, according to their accounts, the owners of ship. At the time, the now defunct Buckland School, on London Road, was being built and the managers wanted a school bell. The Eglinton ship bell can now be seen in St Andrews Church, Buckland.
- Dover Mercury: 21 July 2005