The Penwith Papers

James Warren of St Just in Penwith, 1798-1842: Wrestler and Rescuer

If you follow our On This Day feature, you will have read about Richard Warren and his Mexican-style return to Redruth on April 5th 1826. How could the rest of the family ever have competed with that? Read on:

Richard Warren’s brother, James, was described at his death in 1842 as “the celebrated wrestler' and 'one of the individuals who i1825, exerted themselves so much irescuing 540 [another account says 554] of the passengers and crewof the Kent, East Indiaman, when on fire in the Baof Biscay”According to the Cornish papers he “exerted himself in an extraordinardegree, and injured his healtmaterially in consequence”. This was only a year before his brother’s spectacular return.

On the 1stMarch 1825, the Kent – bound for Bengal with 641 peoplaboard - caught fire in the Bay of Biscay following a mishap involving a candle and a keg of spirits. After an “instant conflagration, which defied every effort to stay its progress” the flames reached the powder magazine and the ship exploded, but not until most of those on board had been saved.

Fortunatelfor those on board, the brig Cambria was in the vicinity. A much smaller vessel than the Kent, with a crew of only 11, she was bound for Mexico, conveying 20 Cornish miners and perhaps 15 Yorkshire smelters (the numbers on board differ between accounts). Boarding the Cambriwas not easfor the exhausted survivors, and iwas onlwith the help of these passengers – these same sturdy miners and smelters, one of whom was James Warren - that so manachieved this. “These men took their perilous station on the chains, where theput fortthe great muscular strengtwith which heaven had endowed them, in dexterously seizing, at each successive heave of the sea, somof the exhausted peopldragging theon deck”, wrote General Duncan MacGregor, a survivor from the Kent, afterwards. The only seaman lost from the Kent was said to be a man who had broken into the second mate’s desk and weighed himself down with 400 gold sovereigns before trying to jump to safety.

There are accounts, including one from the brig's captain, of the kindness and generositof these rescuers. “Thecheerfullopened theiamplstores of clothes and provisions, which they liberalldispersed to the naked and famished sufferers; they surrendered theibeds to the helpless women and children, and seemed, in short, during the whole of the passage to England to take no other delight than in ministering teveryone’s wants”. The captain commentthat theleft "nothing undone" to make the survivors as comfortableas the limited size of the briwoulallow”. This contrasts with the crew of the Kent who were – reportedly – reluctant to return for their shipmates until threatened with being cast from the Cambria themselves.

Loss of the East Indiaman Kent, Theodore Gudin, 1828, public domain via Cambria with its small crew, original passengers and the hundreds they had saved – plus a baby that had been born to one of the Kent’s passengers within hours of the rescue, and was to go through life bearing the name Cambria - returned to Falmouth, where the residents “immediately came forward with abundance of clothes of  every description, temporarily and comfortably provided for, and a subscription, amounting already to £200, has been entered into for the relief of the most necessitous”.

The loss of the Kent was commemorated in artworks including this possibly over dramatic depiction by Theodore Gudin, and later Boys Own Paper illustrations by M M Hemy. It also found a place in literature of a sort – when William McGonagall, who may be viewed either as a deluded and pretentious peddler of terrible verse or as a clever self-publicist with a unique selling point as “the world’s worst poet”, published a piece which included these stanzas:


Then the vessel came to their rescue, commanded by Captain Cook,
And he gazed upon the burning ship with a pitiful look;
She proved to be the brig “Cambria,” bound for Vera Cruz,
Then the captain cried, “Men, save all ye can, there’s no time to lose.”

Then the sailors of the “Cambria” wrought with might and main,
While the sea spray fell on them like heavy rain;
First the women and children were transferred from the “Kent”
By boats, ropes, and tackle without a single accident.


35 years after the rescuein February1870, the Royal CornwalGazettprinted two articles about the rescue of survivors from the Kent.  Onesaythis of James Warren, identified as a Cornish wrestler: “he saved the lives of – not one or two, but of tens, but, when his work was over, he was crippled for life”.

The other article reports an undated conversation on a traibetween a coloneand a Cornishman. The colonel – according to the article - asked the Cornishman: “do yoremember the burning of the Kent?”

I do”, the Cornishman replied, “and the subject has been talked of repeatedlbmy friends and family”.

It transpired that the colonel, when achild, had been saved from that fearfufire and wreck – saved so mdear mother ever impressed on my mind, by the braverof James Warren Cornish wrestler”.

The account continues with a highly-coloured account of the wreck, 35 years previously: “alat once as our boat was swept backwards and forwards by the brig's side, a man was seen, his legs helto the bulwarks byhis companions, his head and boddownwards, and hiarmextended. I was seized from my mother’s arms byhiand flung over his head among the rough but kind miners and sailors behind him. In thirude and readwahe emptied the cutter. Thibrave strong man was Warren…..Warren is dead, poor fellow; but I agoing to spend my Christmas Dawith the widow of mpreserverfor that was the name my mother taught mtgive the Cornish wrestler”.

The Cornishman the colonelwas speaking to? None other, the article asserts, than James's brother.


Royal Cornwall Gazette 5th March 1825, p 3; 12th March 1825, p 3; 9th April 1825, p 3; 1st October 1825, p 4; 26th February 1870 p 4 for McGonagall’s poem and a good range of contemporary letters and reports

The Loss of the Kent East Indiaman in the Bay of Biscay, narrated in a letter to a friend, General Sir Duncan MacGregor for Hemy’s illustrations and a secondary prose source from Thomas Carter of the Adjutant General’s Office

All online sources accessed 2nd April 2017

The Penwith Papers:

Penwith Local History Group
The Penwith Papers:

Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

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Sally Corbet

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