Monday, January 9, 2012

Home Ports: At the Lizard

The rocky coast of Cornwall in Britain is pitted with inlets and harbors tailor made for piratical activity. None, it seems, more so than the harbor known as Falmouth at whose entrance stands the rock called the Lizard.

The name “lizard” is most probably a corruption of the original Cornish name for the place Lys Ardh which may mean “high court” or “old court”. The rock now has a lighthouse upon it which is absolutely necessary given the surrounding coastline. The over a mile stretch known as the Manacles sits beyond the Lizard. Here hull-tearing rocks lurk just below the water, and horrible tidal shifts make it impossible for a ship, once caught in the jaws of the Manacles, to set itself free. Shipwrecks causing the loss of hundreds of lives have been documented in this area since before the 18th century.

Given these awkward conditions, one might imagine that the boom in smuggling that began during the reign of Henry VIII would have avoided Falmouth. Just the opposite was the case. In the last half of the 16th century the Killigrew family, led by Sir John who was hereditary governor of the county of Pendennis, began a lucrative smuggling business that included the taking of both foreign and domestic merchant ships. Sir John’s wife, Mary, got so deep into the less gentile aspects of piracy that she may have committed murder in an effort to take a prize. She spent over two years in prison on this charge before her son, the second Sir John, successfully petitioned Elizabeth I for his mother’s freedom.

The freebooting at Pendennis settled down for a while but, after Mary’s death in 1617, Sir John the Younger seems to have gotten back into the family business. In 1619, at the expense of lesser nobles in thrall to him, Sir John erected the first light at the Lizard. Ostensibly an altruistic offering to help ships avoid the rock itself and the Manacles beyond, local gossip said the governor had erected the light to lure ships into Falmouth where he could then plunder them at will. There is no documentation that such was the case, however. Unlike his mother, Sir John was never brought up on charges. Either he was on the up and up, or he was slyer than she.

The entire enterprise fell apart when King James I, always hungry for cash, informed Sir John that he would confiscate the light for Britain and begin charging vessels to pass it. Sir John, rather than turn his clearly profitable light over to the feds, demolished it instead. James reaction to this is open to speculation but another lighthouse was not erected until1751 by then governor of Pendennis Thomas Fonnereau.

This light still stands at the Lizard, virtually unchanged from the time of its erection. The Lizard’s brief brush with piracy came and went but the light initially put up by Sir John Killigrew continues to shepherd ships around and away from the heinous jaws of the Manacles off Britain’s Cornwall.

Header: Lizard Point, Cornwall via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Interesting story. What do they use to power or fuel the light? If it is unchanged I imagine it must be some sort of oil lamp...

Pauline said...

As I understand it they did convert the light to electric in the last century. But the structure is still the 18th century design.

Anonymous said...

Thomas Fonnereau waan't governor of Pendennis - the only Fonnereau of the time I have found in my research was an MP for Sudbury - he had some interest in naval matters, so it might be the same one. Initially it was coal-fired, In 1771, Trinity House took it over and converted it to oil-fired. The electric dates from 1924 and automation from 1998.

Pauline said...

Excellent, Anon. Thankee for your informative addition to this post; much appreciated.