Tater Du, not far from Lamorna Cove, is Cornwall’s most recently built lighthouse. Isolated and always unmanned, this lighthouse sits on its rocky platform, a silent sentinel to a wide sweep of unforgiving sea.
But on a warm summer’s day wildflowers, nesting birds, bees and butterflies thrive beside the coastal path that passes this lonely lighthouse. The sea is turquoise, placid as it laps at the rocky shore, but, as we all known, the Cornish coast is beyond mercurial. It always deserves our unquestioning respect.
A graveyard for Ships
This is a wrecker’s yard of rock and iron
Where wind and sea went mad together;
Now is the ease of the common place,
Calm upon the dead forever.
This is the graveyard of the good,
Whose deaths all weaknesses dismiss,
Where brave and bold are words defined
by chaos, monstrous fate, and risk.Tater du & Boscawen, The almost island: des hannigan, 2017
It feels like every time I write anything about Cornwall’s coast I find myself researching shipwrecks. But I suppose that for anyone who has seen the monstrous Atlantic rollers charging at the cliffs of the north coast or fought to stay upright on a beach with howling winds stinging your face with sand and salt, well, I suppose wrecks can seem an unfortunate inevitability.
The multitude of shipwrecks associated with the area around Tater Du suggests that the warning light had been long overdue before to its construction in the 1960s. Indeed, the stretch of coast between Porthcurno and Lamorna was known as ‘the fishing boat graveyard’ indicating the loss of many local vessels as well as passing shipping.
There are eight lighthouses around the coast of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly as well as numerous other daymarks and buoys. The first true ‘lighthouse’ was built in 1619 on the Lizard by Sir John Killigrew. But this was not exactly an act of selfless kindness on Killigrew’s part, he derived an income from it by taking ‘voluntary’ contributions from passing ships.
The name Tater Du comes from the Cornish ‘torthel du’ meaning black loaf. The name presumably refers to the dark bulge of greenstone cliffs on which the lighthouse now stands.
Tater Du lighthouse was the first lighthouse in the UK that was constructed to be fully automatic and the first to be built in Cornwall for more than 60 years. Trinity House engaged Michael H Crisp to design the state of the art building at a cost of £60,000. Work began in June 1964 and while the main body of the building was completed fairly quickly the installation of the high tech equipment took several months. As well as the rotating lamp Crisp’s design actually incorporates seventy-two fog signal speakers directly into the wall of the lighthouse tower.
When the building was ready in July 1965 it was officially opened by HRH Duke of Gloucester as this silent film from Pathe below shows. Since that time it has shone a light to warn of the dangerous Runnelstone Rocks and the Inner and Outer Bucks Rocks. These natural watery obstacles had been the undoing of many ships over the centuries. Tragic stories that are unfortunately so common in this part of the world. But there was one final wreck which created such a furore that Trinity House were at last persuaded to act.
Of course it is obviously inevitable that the history of Tater Du lighthouse is linked to tragic events on the coast nearby. And sadly I can’t tell this place’s history without touching on these disasters and the resulting loss of life.
The two-masted iron steam ship, Garonne, was built in Hull in 1866. She operated out of Mersey to various European ports but on 21st May 1868 a small error in navigation led to disaster. The steamer was under the command of a Cornish captain, Benjamin Drew of Mevagissey, and was heading from Bordeaux to Liverpool with a cargo of wine and bandy. On board, besides the twenty-one members of crew, were sixteen passengers, including seven women and eight small children.
At 11pm Captain Drew realised that they were overdue for sighting either Wolf Rock or Longships light and sent word to the lookouts. Within minutes of realising something was wrong the Garonne stuck the Bucks Rocks, almost opposite where the Tater Du Lighthouse stands today.
The crew sent up distress flares and began to lower the lifeboats. The Garonne was already listing badly, water was touching the deck and her rails were submerged on one side. William Arrowsmith, the chief officer, was making his way from the bridge to a lifeboat when he saw three of the women passengers being washed overboard. He later claimed that he had jumped in after them to save them, but was hauled aboard one of the lifeboats already in the water. Confusion reigned on the ship with several members of the crew scrambling to launch a small dingy missing its bung meaning they had to bail out with a bucket and a soup bowl. Another boat had been used to store peas and there seems to have been a general lack of oars.
On the portside the last lifeboat was having difficulty launching due to the heavy seas and when it eventually got to the water many of the passengers were still left onboard. According to the crew despite their promise to fish them out of the water those remaining on the ship were too frightened to jump into the sea. Then suddenly, just 20 minutes after she had stuck the Buck Reef, the Garonne listed over, tolled off the rocks and sank.
The Penzance lifeboat with Thomas Carbis, coxswain, made a fruitless search for survivors. Over the coming days the bodies began washing up along the coast. Of the sixteen passengers only two had been saved but all of the crew, bar just four, had made it to shore safely. Captain Drew was one of those who died, he had apparently refused to leave the ship while the passengers were still onboard. In the coming months, at the subsequently inquiry, which reported at length in the papers, difficult questions were asked as to the conduct of the rest of crew. The inquiry lasted five full days.
Sadly Mr Muir, one of the two survivors, died a few days after his rescue from shock and exposure. The magistrate cleared the owners of the ship of any fault, despite the lack of satisfactory life saving equipment, and seemed to have placed blame with the captain who of course was unable to defend himself. But surprisingly it was a dramatic wreck nearly 100 years later that was the eventual catalysis for the building of the Tater Du lighthouse.
The Juan Ferrer
The wreck of the Juan Ferrer caused a bit of a media frenzy in 1963. The details of the tragedy made dramatic attention grabbing headlines. Ultimately however it may have been the excessive coverage which pushed Trinity House to act.
The Juan Ferrer was a handsome, well equipped motor coaster of Valencia on her way to Liverpool. The weather that October day was poor, with a heavy swell, fog and thick drizzly rain. At around 2.30am, while the captain Luis Ruiz was trying to establish their position, a cry went up of ‘rocks ahead’. Within moments the ship had struck the rocks at Boscawen Point, close to St Loy’s Cove and less than a mile from Tater Du.
One of the lifeboats was smashed in the impact with the rocky coast, the other was badly damaged when it was thrown against the lurching side of the ship while the crew were trying to launch it. In the end, with the Juan Ferrer rapidly breaking up in the heavy seas, all of the fifteen crew jumped overboard and tried to swim to shore.
Only three of them made it.
The men, Jose Alonso, Benito Nunez and Jose Sevillano, sat freezing on the rocks close to the wreck until light came. They then managed to climb up the rocky headland to safety and were found on the cliffs by a rescue party. The crew were taken to a nearby farmhouse for food, dry clothes and warmth.
Thick fog and confusion over the location of the wreck had hampered rescue efforts during the night. According to Des Hannigan, author, fisherman and one time local news reporter, it was two Penberth men, Bobby and Teddy George, who discovered the survivors, mainly through instinct and following their noses. The search for the wreck had been mistakenly focused nearer to Lands End and when it was called off the two men decided of check the cliffs near Tater Du on a hunch. As they approached the coast they could already smell the diesel fumes.
Miraculously later that day the captain of the Juan Ferrer was later pulled from the water alive by the Penlee Lifeboat, the Solomon Browne. He was the forth, and last, of the fifteen man crew to be found alive.
“Within weeks, the campaign for a light and fog signal had reached the floor of the House of Commons and the Board of Trade. It was widely discussed, films and interviews were shown of television and finally, in January 1964, Trinity House announced that they would erect a beacon on Tater Du headland . . .”Cornish Shipwrecks, Richard Larn and Clive Crater, 1969
Perhaps the difference between the wreck of the Juan Ferrer and all the other similar tragedies that had come before was that the images of the broken ship being pounded by waves could be beamed into every home on the nightly news. The voices of those involved, both the rescuers and the crew, could be heard telling their harrowing story, it was all too real to be ignored.
In 2017 the last living survivor of this unforgettable wreck returned to Cornwall. Benito Nunez came to pay his respects at the unveiling of a memorial stone erected by local people in remembrance of the four members of the crew who had not been returned to Spain and were buried in Penzance Cemetery.
Final thoughts . . .
Cyril Noall wrote in his 1968 book about Cornish lighthouses:
“The coast is now as well marked as it could possibly be; but the old enemies still remain and will never be completely subdued. Constant vigilance and care should be as much the seaman’s watchword here today as in the bad old days of sail and a black, unguarded coastline.”
Words that are still so true today fifty years later, even with all our high-tech gadgetry. The sea will always claim her due and we must be ever mindful of that.