On 11th January 1851 the 250 ton Whitby-built brig New Commercial hit the Brisons ledge off Cape Cornwall in thick fog and a high wind. Bound for the ”Spanish Main” from Liverpool she was immediately dashed to pieces but everyone on board, nine men and one woman, the wife of the captain, managed to get off onto the ledge. The wreck had occurred during the hours of darkness early on Saturday morning and though the stranded seafarers on the Brisons were discovered at daybreak no assistance could be given owing to the conditions. At 9am they were washed off their perilous perch by a huge wave and seven of them immediately disappeared. The captain and his wife managed to get onto the Little Brison while the cook managed to scramble aboard some wreckage and, using a plank for a paddle and a small piece of torn canvas for a sail, kept himself off the rocks.
By now, the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported, there were upwards of 2000 people on the cliffs around Priest Cove, watching the drama unfold. Five Sennen fisherman launched their boat, Grace, into the storm to try to effect a rescue and succeeded in rescuing the cook from his wreckage. Meantime the Revenue Cutter Sylvia approached the scene from Land's End to try to rescue the captain and his wife. A boat was launched from the cutter but approach to the stranded pair was impossible in the deepening gloom of the late afternoon. Attempts at rescue had to be abandoned for the day.
On Sunday morning the wind had died down though the sea still ran high. The captain and his wife still clung to the rock. By 1pm the Gazette reported four boats approaching from Sennen and put the numbers on the cliffs at not less than five or six thousand. Another boat, from the preventive service, was approaching from Pendeen under Capt. Davies. With the sea running so high it was impossible to approach the rocks so an attempt was made to get a line to the stranded couple using rockets. The first attempt, launched from Capt. Davies' boat, failed when the attached line was cut through by the sharp rock on which it had landed. A second attempt was successful, the captain's wife was secured to the line and, after some hesitation, leapt into the sea. Her leap coincided with three huge waves and for a time the spectators on the cliff could see neither the boats nor the woman.
After an interval the boats were seen again and the woman was pulled from the sea but it proved to be impossible to bring her round her after the battering she had received. The boat brought her to shore but by that time “life had fled.” The captain himself, Samuel Sanderson, was successfully rescued and appeared at the inquest into the death of his wife, Mary Sanderson aged 34, which was held on Tuesday 14th January 1851.
While this is a particularly graphic account of a wreck off the coast of West Penwith it is by no means an usual occurrence. Newspapers and diaries report again and again the loss of vessels along this harsh coast which offered few safe havens for the often undermanned and badly maintained vessels making the dangerous passage.
Fearful shipwreck, Royal Cornwall Gazette Friday 17 January 1851
Cape Cornwall Mine, Peter Joseph, Northern Mines Research Society, 2006 (contains an illustration of the rescue attempt using rockets)