The coastline of north Devon presents a hazard to vessels using the Bristol Channel and until modern navigation aids, shipwrecks were common. The earliest recorded local shipwreck seems to have been in 1654, when ye John foundered at the mouth of Ilfracombe harbour and 9 were drowned. There were several other wrecks around Ilfracombe towards the end of the 17th century, including the 350 ton Arms of Bristol, with 16 drowned and a transport ship bringing troops home from Ireland, with over 150 drowned. In 1678 there was a strange sighting in the Bristol Channel of a "mair-man...his hair and face being like that of a man with long hair" (1).
In 1796 the transport ship London, carrying prisoners from the West Indies, was wrecked off Rapparee Cove whilst trying to reach the harbour, as shown in this detail (below left) of a painting in Ilfracombe Museum. Some 40 prisoners were said to have drowned, as well as many local people trying to save them. Four chests of treasure were said to have been recovered but one was lost. In January 1978 the beach was particularly low after a storm and several 18th century gold coins were found by people digging in the sand. In 1991 the wall at the back of the beach was breached by the sea and in 1997 some human bones were found there. The story of their discovery and the subsequent 'media circus' and controversy regarding their origin, as prisoners or slaves (not yet fully resolved), is told in Pat Barrow's The Slaves of Rapparee (2).
It was very dangerous, for sailing vessels, to risk the entrance to Ilfracombe harbour in a storm. In 1859 the Peter and Sarah was wrecked on the rocks off Hillsborough, with the loss of her captain, in 1886 the Marie Emilie was caught on rocks just off the pier (above right) and in 1895 the Arabella was grounded on Britton Rock outside the harbour (below left), with the loss of her crew and two local men (David and Frederick Sough) who were trying to rescue them. Vessels may fare better riding out a storm. Phillip Gosse, the local naturalist, wrote of a terrible storm in 1849, which a square-rigged vessel, the Maid of Alicant, managed, against all expectations, to ride out on her anchor in Hele Bay (3).
Many stricken vessels were brought in to Ilfracombe for salvage or repair. The ACL, a French brigantine, went aground off Woolacombe in 1894 and was taken to Ilfracombe (above right). There is an amusing account of this in Ilfracombe Museum (cheekily suggesting that ACL stood for All Crew Legless), describing how local boatman Cooper, though recovering from a major injury, swam out to the ACL, but could not persuade the crew to leave. He almost drowned on the return journey, and had to be hauled to shore unconscious. For his bravery he was awarded the Board of Trade Bronze Medal for Gallantry (what did you have to do to get a Gold ?). In 1897 the Aberlemno was caught on Egg Rocks, outside Watermouth Cove, but managed to escape and was towed to Ilfracombe (below left) for repairs (3).
Collisions were also relatively common. In 1897 the local boat Cruiser, built at Watermouth Cove, was sunk by collision with an unknown steamer and one of the crew, John Hicks, was drowned. The Moewe (above right) and the Nikita (below left) were both salvaged in Ilfracombe harbour in the 1890's, after collisions at sea. The Salisbury split her bow in a collision in 1899 (below right) and was repaired in the harbour (3).
A local shipwreck to make the National headlines, in 1887, was that of the luxury yacht the Monarch (below left), who sunk in fine weather off Tunnels Beach, with 14 drowned. A subsequent investigation found that she had been lengthened by 8’, without changing her ballast and suggested that Ilfracombe adopt more stringent licensing laws in the future.(THE MONARCH STORY)In 1893 the paddle steamer Alexandra grounded on rocks at Samson's Bay, with 300 passengers on board. Many disembarked safely, with the aid of a plank or ladder, but within the hour the Alexandra had freed herself and reached the harbour virtually undamaged (3).
Another wreck to make the national news was the battleship HMS Montagu, of 14,000 tons, built in 1901. Whilst on exercises in May 1906, she grounded on Shutter Rock, off Lundy, in dense fog. The Captain and Chief Navigator were both subsequently court-marshalled and the salvage operation was said to have been bungled by the Navy who called in a civilian expert too late. To facilitate salvage, a spectacular ropeway was erected from the deck to the top of the cliffs (above right) (4).
In 1908 the French Schooner Gracieuse was abandoned off Bull Point after its crew had suffered two days of storms. This photograph (below left) shows her being towed into Ilfracombe. In 1913 the ketch Olive and Mary, belonging to the Irwin's of Combe Martin, was caught in gale off Rillage where her sails were torn to pieces. She made it to Combe Martin and got stuck on a rock but was helped by other boatmen to the beach. Another boat owned by the Irwin's, the Jane, was demasted in 1911, slipped her moorings in 1914 and was wrecked off Lynmouth in 1915. The same year the steamship Bengrove, taking coal to France, was torpedoed about 5 miles north of Combe Martin, she sank but the crew of 33 were saved and taken to Ilfracombe (4).
After the war, Captain George Chanhells, for The Cornish Salvage Company, obtained permission to break up three decommissioned destroyers in Ilfracombe harbour. It seems that the HMS Gossamer, a torpedo gunboat launched in 1890, was dismantled first, in April 1920, and it was planned to take her hull to Watermouth Cove, to make room for the others, the HMS Spanker and HMS Speedwell, both torpedo gunboats built in 1889. It is said that whilst the Spanker was being towed to Ilfracombe by the Falcon, the tow broke, killing a William Leary, aged 30, from Cardiff, who had only been standing in for someone else. This photograph (above right) shows the Spanker in Ilfracombe harbour, alongside the quay. There are the remains of one of these destroyers in Samson's Bay and at low tide, parts of the keel , the rudder and several hull panels can still be seen on the beach. It is said that it was beached there to let the sea take it to pieces, the cost of acetylene being so high; but it may be that the Gossamer simply never made it to Watermouth. It is said that the parquet floor in Lewis' Cafe was salvaged from the Spanker, or from the Montagu (4).
In 1924 the Sarah Jane, loaded with 80 tons of cement, went ashore off Beacon Point. Several hardened sacks of cement and a timber beam, about 30' long, probably the keel, can still be seen at low tide, near where she was wrecked (above left). In 1926 the paddle steamer Cambria was grounded off Rillage Point in thick fog (above right); all 500 passengers were safely removed by the Ilfracombe lifeboat, although it took many trips ! She was refloated undamaged on the next tide. In 1929 the Greek Maria Kyriakides was wrecked off Lundy (below left) and later scrapped. In 1931 another Greek steamship, the Taxiaris was wrecked on Lundy, she was recovered in 1933 and towed to Ilfracombe by Mr G. Chanhells (below right) (4).
The foreshore around Hele still has evidence of the keel of the Sarah Jane, off Beacon Point and a destroyer's hull, possibly the Gossamer, on Samson's Beach. There are some pieces of cannon, and gun-mounting rails below Beacon Point, from the Volunteer Artillery gun battery. There is also a car engine, just below Donkey Island next to the old sewer outfall, that is said to be from a Mini driven off the cliffs by a suicide in the1980's (5).
Public enquiry into the loss of the barque LOCHLIBO