MAT volunteer Roger Burns explores the history of the Carn Brea Castle – not the castle in Cornwall after which it was named but the Sailing Vessel. Some allegations of fraud surfaced after its loss, and apparently divers, using diving equipment relatively new for the period, subsequently salvaged some of its cargo. Discover what a “very mild sentence” handed down by Winchester Crown Court in 1829 really means!
The Blackwall yard of shipbuilders Wigram & Green were in the early 1800s noted for launching several ships. In 1824, it launched three including the Sailing Vessel Carn Brea Castle on 5 May. Its length does not appear in records but the width appears in one record as 10ft 3in (c. 3.12m), and the tonnage is given as 589, probably burthen. It was designed by Captain Huddart for the Huddart Brothers, and references credit as it as a new type of ship, without explanation other than, as reported in the Hampshire Chronicle of 10 May 1824, it was “built for the accommodation of passengers to India; has cabins equal in size to a ship of 1,000 tons”. The newspaper also stated that it “was named after a Druid’s castle in Cornwall…” and relates that “her figure head is an Arch-Druid, from a sketch given by Chantry”. Ship rigged, which implies three masts although additional masts appear in Figure 1, it was not intended as an East Indiaman, but nonetheless was taken on by the Honourable East India Company as an “Extra Ship”. Several advertisements noted that the new ship Carn Brea Castle would sail on its first voyage, from the Downs on 24 June 1824 directly to Calcutta, referring to its “excellent accommodation for Passengers, and will carry an experienced Surgeon”. References were also made that it could carry freight.
The Carn Brea Castle sailed regularly between London and Calcutta, captained by Thomas Davey. Passengers on the first voyage included five ladies and eleven men, departing the Downs on 4 July, and arriving at Calcutta on 27 October 1824.
For what proved to be its final voyage, the captain changed from Thomas Davey to James Barber and the ship departed the East India Dock on 24 April 1829, calling at Portsmouth whence it was due to sail for Calcutta on 1 July, but did not actually depart until the morning of Sunday 5 July. The ship was armed, but no record of the armament on board has been discovered. The total number of crew and passengers does not appear in records, but the pilot who was onboard left the ship at about 4pm when it was at the Back of the Wight. Shortly after, apparently while the captain and passengers were at dinner, the ship became embayed opposite Mottistone and Brook on the SW coast of the Isle of Wight, due to a freshening wind from the west. The wooden hulled, copper sheathed Carn Brea Castle attempted to go about but struck the rocks near the shore at Brook Ledge, and was pinned there by a heavy sea. The vessel quickly filled with water but had bottomed, so did not sink, thus saving the lives of those on board as it would otherwise have quickly sunk. The weather prevented boats from getting close, Figure 1, but the Freshwater coastguard, Lieutenant Josh Dornfield R.N. and his five men managed to get close in their cutter and take off some of the lady passengers, the remainder being taken off the next day with the crew – later, the London Evening Standard of 13 August 1829 reported an exchange of letters between Lieutenant Dornfield and 10 passengers, four ladies and six gentlemen, who had presented him with an inscribed silver salver in appreciation of the risks taken in saving their lives, and the fact that the Lieutenant had remained on board the Carn Brea Castle overnight thus leaving space for a passenger in the cutter.
Figure 1: SV Carn Brea Castle gone aground. Source: Watercolour hanging in the Shipwreck Centre and Maritime Museum
The gale continued and the vessel was expected to go to pieces, and only a steamer “of the first order can get near the wreck” according to the Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal of 14 July, recounting the situation on 5 July 1829, including mention that the passengers’ luggage was mostly lost or damaged. The same newspaper reported the situation two days later, stating that the vessel was jammed between two rocks off Atherfield, in imminent danger of breaking up, and that the Bishop of Calcutta who had sailed with the frigate Pallas, had “nearly £1,000” worth of furniture on board the Carn Brea Castle.
The main and mizzen masts were cut away, and part of the cargo was saved and taken to Portsmouth. During the rescues, a small boat was assisting, but it was swamped, drowning the ship’s sailmaker.
The Salisbury and Winchester Journal of 20 July 1829 mentioned that “There is a report circulated in the city that the wreck of the Carn Brea Castle, off the Isle of Wight, has brought to light an extensive fraud on the revenue; the shipment of large parcels, marked as glass, on which the drawback is great, and that instead of glass, only brickbats and rubbish were found in the packages; the shipper is said to have absconded”. However, the Sun (London) next day discounted this.
By mid-July, the ship, remarkably, was still holding together, but everything that was possible to remove had been removed, leaving behind copper and lead buried in sand, estimated at about £15,000. However, during an overnight gale 22/23 August 1829, the ship broke up completely, with wreckage strewn along the adjacent coast. (£15,000 in 1829 is approx. £1.15m in 2021).
A court case was reported in the Globe of 31 July 1829, held on 29 July at Winchester Crown Court.
“John Cotterell, aged 34, John Sullivan, 24, and Wm. Child, 27, were indicted for stealing a quantity of copper chain, copper in tiles and in ingots, from the Carn Brea Castle, stranded off the Isle of Wight. The first count stated the property to be in the name of James Barber, the Captain, and the others in Messrs. Fox and Co., the shippers.
Mr. Follett stated the case for the prosecution. The prisoners were indicted simply for stealing, and not for the offence of stealing from wreck, which a recent act of parliament had made a capital felony. It would be proved that this vessel, the Carn Brea Castle, was an Indiaman which had gone on shore off the Isle of Wight, and was so much damaged that it was deemed prudent to take out the cargo. The shippers, who lived in London, appointed an agent residing at Portsmouth to see that object carried into effect, and that agent hired for the purpose a small vessel, called the Industry, of which a person named Peachy was the owner. The three prisoners were among the crew of that vessel. The Industry made several trips, and landed a great part of the cargo, but finally, some copper was found to be missing, and information having been received from a tradesman at Portsmouth that some copper, which he suspected to have been stolen, had been offered his shop for sale, the prisoners were taken into custody, and under the bed of one of them a part of the lost copper was discovered. Cotterell had gone to the shop of the person already mentioned, and had asked what price was given for copper. He and Sullivan had subsequently taken a quantity copper thither, and they had been on the occasion accompanied by Child, seemed to a partner in the spoils.
Evidence having been adduced in support of this statement, the jury found Cotterell and Sullivan Guilty, and acquitted Child.
Mr. Justice Burrough said that the good characters these two prisoners had received made him willing to hope that was their first, and would be their last offence; and he should therefore pass on them very mild sentence. He then ordered each of them to be imprisoned twelve months in the County Jail, and kept to hard labour”.
The underwriters for the ship’s cargo had suffered severely by the loss and they recovered some amounts by an auction held on 17 September 1829 of items recovered from the ship, including anchors, hemp, cables, cordage, sails, rigging, and other goods including silver plate which realised good prices.
John Dean is understood to have visited the wreck in 1836, but a definitive online record of actual contemporaneous diving operations has not been found. In 1989, R. Williams of Newport relocated the wreck, and several artefacts were recovered, including copper ingots in plate form. One of these ingots, Figure 2, is on display at the Shipwreck Centre and Maritime Museum.