Friday, February 17, 2012

Wreck and Rescue

It has been said that the Brison Rocks, pictured here and lying a short distance off Cape Cornwall, look like General De Gaulle lying in a bath - an accurate  if unflattering observation.  
During medieval times a prison was built on them.  In the 1960s an entrepreneur put forward plans for a luxury hotel. Perhaps it's as well nothing came of it for these rocks have a tragic past. 
In January 1851 a ship named the New Commercial, out of Liverpool bound for Jamaica, was caught in a violent storm. Gale-force winds and huge seas swept the vessel onto the Brisons where it was smashed to pieces. Six of the seven crew were swept to their deaths.  Only three people survived:  the master Captain Sanderson, his 34-year-old wife Mary, and a man named Isaac Williams.
Using bits of wreckage the resourceful Isaac built a small raft and managed to reach the sheltered waters of Whitesands Bay where he was rescued by local fishermen.  Word of the drama quickly spread as the captain and his wife remained trapped on the rocks by the raging storm. By daybreak on the second day almost five thousand spectators lined the cliff tops while the crews of several boats risked their own lives attempting to reach the stranded couple.
Mary Sanderson, wearing only a cotton nightdress, could not swim and her husband would not leave her.  A rocket line, a recent invention, was fetched and after several attempts one of the boats managed to fire a line onto the Brisons where the captain seized it.
Securing the rope around his terrified wife, Captain Sanderson urged her into the seething water. A tiny figure in the heaving waves, often lost to sight behind dense clouds of spray, she was gradually pulled to safety while the thousands watching from the cliff top roared encouragement. 
The instant she was safely aboard, the rescue boat  began to fight its way shoreward. But exhaustion, the bitter cold and the battering waves had sapped the last of Mary’s strength and she died before the boat reached land.  Her devastated husband was rescued later that day.
Mary was laid to rest in Sennen Churchyard.  Her brave rescuers received well-deserved medals. Three years later, in 1854, Sennen got its first lifeboat.   

Jane Jackson.


Anonymous said...

What a very sad tale, Jane. In spite of the heroism of the rescuers. I suppose the poor lady would have been dying of hypothermia anyway, soaking wet and frozen.

But what a loss for her devoted husband.

On a more mundane level, it strikes me as interesting that the wife of a ship's captain had not learned to swim, even though many many ships foundered in those days.

Jane Jackson said...

Thanks for your comment, Joanna. I felt so sorry for her poor husband. It was common among Cornish fishermen not to learn to swim. They took the view that if they were lost overboard, or their boat capsized, any chance of rescue was so slim that they preferred to drown quickly. It may have been that this same pragmatic (fatalistic?) attitude was shared by merchant seamen and their wives.

Jan Jones said...

Oh, Jane, how sad. I agree with you - a very good thing the hotel wasn't built. I can't believe it would have had a very restful ambience to it.