Shipwrecks, Smugglers and Local Lore

Isle of Wight smugglers and their cargo

In 'days of yore', Isle of Wight shipwrecks were a commonplace occurrence, especially around the southernmost point at St Catherine’s Point, Chale Bay and along the coast towards Atherfield Ledges and beyond. The livelihoods of the locals were bolstered by claiming the contents of the wrecks that foundered on the rocks, but it was smuggling that was their mainstay.

Much of the coastal population at this time was involved in smuggling goods from France, with most of the fishermen bringing it across in their boats and their families colluding in its distribution. Smuggling had taken off in a big way after the death of Isabella De Fortibus in 1293 who had been owner and ‘Lady’ of the Island, taking taxes from her people. When taxes became payable to the crown upon her death, the locals became a much more lawless lot, probably due to the excessive demands of the expensive wars that the governments of the day were indulging in (no change there then).

Brandy and wool were the predominant goods that Isle of Wight smugglers brought under cover of darkness from the shores of France. It is said that the fittest fishermen could row over to France and back in one night, although it is more likely that this would take at least two dark moonless nights – and three if you were going to sample the goods before buying them! Brandy was brought back in small barrels named ‘tubs’ and most of the homes, fields and even churchyards along the coast would have hidey holes for stowing the contraband.

Larger boats would have secret stow holes made within the hulls that could be stuffed with fleeces and barrels. There were also other devices invented that could be pulled behind or below the boat and you can see some of the amazing contraptions in pictures on the walls of the stable bar at the Buddle Inn, Niton. Along the undercliff between St Lawrence and Niton is a hidden passageway in the woods where ‘tubs’ are likely to have been stored and Blackgang may have been named after a smuggling gang who operated there.

With all of this smuggling going on there were often locals on the headlands and beaches of the ‘Back of the Wight’ as the wild west coast is often known, and so ships that were in trouble were often sighted, especially at night when the smuggling was being done. More recent theories have inferred that the locals were luring the ships to their doom, but this seems unlikely given that they also risked life and limb to save the crews and passengers of these poor stricken vessels.


The history behind the Isle of Wight shipwrecks

An early casualty to Atherfield Ledge in 1314 was the St Mary from Bayonne in France who was carrying a cargo of wine. All the crew were saved but the vessel was wrecked and the cargo washed ashore. At that time the Lords and Masters of the Manors abutting the sea could claim the booty as ‘wreck of the sea’ and Walter de Godeton (Gotton) seized the wine.

This was disputed in court and Walter had to hand over the sum of 227 ½ marks to pay for it. Plus, as the wine had belonged to the Monastery of Livers (you couldn’t make this up!) in Picardy, he was threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church. As penance he was ordered to build on the Montem de Chale (Chale Down) a lighthouse to warn ships of the dangerous coast and he also had to assign money for a priest to sing masses for the repose of the souls of himself, his ancestors and the souls of those lost at sea.

Of this building only the tower remains. Known locally as the Pepperpot the 35ft 6inch tower is octangular from the outside, quadrangular within and has a pyramidal roof. From the date of its consecration in the early 1300s until the dissolution of the Chantries by Henry VIII in the late 1530s a light was kept burning there. It wasn’t until 1780 that the Trinity Board began to erect another lighthouse nearby that was also useless in the mists and fog, and mariners had to wait until 1838 for the first lighthouse to be erected at St Catherine’s Point where it stands today.

Between 1746 and 1808 local man James Wheeler kept a record and there were some 60 shipwrecks in Chale Bay alone. But it was not until the wreck of the Clarendon that anything was done to allay this. On October 11th, 1836, after a stormy night, locals saw a full-rigged ship battling against the wind offshore from Chale. John Wheeler dashed down the Chine at Cliff’s End and reached the shore before the crash, ran into the surf attached to a rope and saved three people from the sinking ship.

The ship was “smashed to atoms by the sea” according to John’s forebear James Wheeler and all the rest aboard were drowned or killed by the timbers, with the bodies being washed ashore to much dismay and sadness: “…many a tear was seen streaming down the faces of the menfolk present as they saw the bodies of the two Miss Shores washed up mangled and nude and in the words of an eye witness, “They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in death they were not divided.”” *

One of those drowned was a Miss Gourlay and her body was taken by the tide and washed up at Southsea, opposite her father Capt. Gourlay’s house. One of the men saved named Thompson was an old shipmate of his who had saved Wheeler's life four years before! Timbers from the ship were used to build local houses including the Clarendon Pub, which was renamed in her honour but has now reclaimed the name it had before: The Wight Mouse Inn.

Smuggling stories are few and far between as most of the trade was in secret and behind closed doors in closed communities and it is said that the locals invented ghost stories to keep away prying eyes from the area. But the few tales of coastguards (or ‘Gobbies’ as they were known) being foiled by the smugglers and their families tend to be quite amusing.

One such story recounts how Farmer Joliffe told the revenue men that they could search his house, including the room in which his wife was lying in bed, having recently given birth. Although they didn’t want to disturb her, the farmer insisted and they entered to find her in bed with the nurse feeding the baby. But all was not as it seemed, as although they did not realise it at the time, the ‘tubs’ were in bed with his wife and the baby was nothing but a large doll!

Ships are much larger these days and their sonar navigation saves them from the rocks around our Island. Smuggling activities are similarly larger it seems: £90m of cocaine was intercepted by police and customs being unloaded at Orchard Bay in 2000 and £54m of the same drug was found on a fishing boat in the West Wight in 2010.


Explore Shipwreck Centre on the Isle of Wight

Boasting many an antique brought up from the depths, Shipwreck Centre houses galleries where you can explore everything from old diving equipment, wreck discoveries, shipwreck seabed scenes and tonnes more.
Red Funnel Ferry Blog

2 April 2016

By Red Funnel in Articles