The coast of Cornwall has been a graveyard for ships for centuries, especially in the period when ships were still using sails as motive power and had no engines to help them move away from danger. All were tragedies but the wreck of HMS Anson in December 1807 is notable because although many lives were lost, there were some beneficial outcomes for those in the dangerous occupation of going to sea.
Anson had originally been a 64 gun naval ship but in 1794 had been razeed (same word as ‘erased) by having her top deck removed and her guns reduced to 44, over half still being very heavy guns. It is possible that she was less easy to handle in high winds in this smaller state, but it is debateable that this was a major factor in her destruction.
Ordnance Survey 1" map of 1895 from the National Library of Scotland
The map shows the east side of Mounts Bay and the long length of cliffs between Portleven and Gunwalloe, with a narrow line of beach at their foot. Half way along is the low area which had been the entrance to the Loe River but which was both then and now barred by a large, steep shingle bank called Loe Bar.
Anson left Falmouth on Christmas Eve to take up her station in the blockade of Brest (Britain then being at war with France) but was caught in a powerful Atlantic storm and Captain Lydiard, in command, decided to return to port. On the afternoon of the 28th she was attempting to round the Lizard but, still gripped by the storm winds, she was unable to avoid being blown much too far to the northeast. She was heading for great cliffs and rocks and the only recourse was to drop her strongest anchor not far from the land and hope for the wind to drop overnight. Unfortunately, this did not happen; the Meteorological Office has evidence from Devon that the storm actually increased through the night of the 28th and through the day of the 29th, with rain.
The anchor held for some time but the cable parted while it was still dark at about 0500, as did its replacement, and as the early light came onto the wild sea and driving clouds, the Captain made the decision to use the wind behind her, and steer Anson as high onto the beach as possible so the crew had some chance of getting ashore. The tide was not going to help – it had been high at 0400 and was now going out. It was a brave and practical decision in a desperate situation and to some extent, it worked although an offshore reef at the last moment turned the Anson so she hit the shore broadside on. A mast fell on impact and some men were able to use it to struggle onto the beach, now crowded, as the news had spread locally of the impending wreck.
There was absolutely no chance of Anson putting men off in small boats, so many took their chance, jumped and tried to swim or wade ashore, helped – as far as they could be in those conditions – by the people on the beach. Anyone who has tried to swim in large waves understands that although each wave can carry you in towards the beach, it is then inevitably sucked backwards, helped in this instance by the retreating tide. Men who were exhausted from working in a storm, many of whom could not swim, had every chance of feeling their feet hit the beach, only to find themselves drawn back again and unable to make any headway. Some made it, especially if people on the beach could grab them and pull them out but possibly 120, out of a crew of over 300 were drowned, within clear sight of watchers unable to help them in the wild conditions. All that could be done was to watch the ship finally disintegrate, and to collect the bodies that were washed ashore over the next day or two, as the storm subsided.
With shipwrecks being so common, it was normal practice at the time to bury the dead in unmarked pits on the nearest suitable piece of land, cliff top or not and without any particular ceremony or memorial. The news of the tragic loss of the Anson spread widely and brought this aspect of wrecks to national attention and distaste, so that only a year later, the MP for Cornwall, John Tremayne, was able to introduce a law ensuring more acceptable treatment of the dead, called the Burial of Drowned Persons Act. Known as Grylls' Act, after the local solicitor who created the initial draft, the act made the burial of unclaimed bodies of those cast ashore from the sea the responsibility of the churchwardens and parish overseers.
Among those who saw the wreck was a local man called Henry Trengrouse. He was appalled by the failure of any sort of rope to reach the ship from the shore in the storm conditions and he developed a rocket system which could shoot lines powerfully to such shipwrecks and enable crew to be pulled ashore. Names by Trengrouse the “Bosun's Chair” the invention became widespread and developed into the “breeches Buoy”. Despite being mostly used for only one person at a time, it has now spread around the world and saved thousands of lives.
Anson had many pressed men in her crew, not all were identified on the ships muster so for a few men the wreck of the Anson may have provided an opportunity to escape the clutches of the Royal Navy and make their way home
Refs: communications with the Meteorological Office and the Hydrographic Office. Wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Anson_(1781)