Dodman Point & the Napoleonic Signal Station

Dodman Point is the highest headland on Cornwall’s south coast, standing at 374ft (114m) above the waves below. For centuries it has held a strategic and symbolic place in the hearts and minds of those that have lived close to it. Once a place of refuge for our ancient ancestors, the point has also been the stage for many tragedies and adventures, simultaneously a lifesaving beacon and a deadly menace to shipping.

“Dodman absorbs the blackness of winter . . . We called the Dodman, Deadman.

Deadman and Vault [beach], the names were permanent reminders of the shipwreck and distress though we used them lightly and thoughtlessly enough. Yet something in the Dodman subdued us. We never played there.”

Ann Treneer, Schoolhouse in the Wind, 1944

Dodman or Deadman

The source of this headland’s name is one of those intriguing etymological mysteries, a case of which came first. Bob Acton writes in his book about walking in the area that the point was known as the ‘Deadman’ as early as 1699 when it appears as such in the Gorran parish records. And it has to be said that much was made locally of the headland’s ominous and dark reputation. Cornish historian Craig Weatherhill on the other hand suggests the headland’s name is probably a corruption of ‘Dudman’, an ancient family from the 15th century. Whatever the case the headland was, and still is, often referred to as ‘the Deadman’ or ‘Deadman’s Point’, perhaps in part due to its perilous towering cliffs. It is as if the old family name has organically metamorphosed into something more fitting to nature of this place.

dodman point

Besides its dramatic height and brooding atmosphere the Dodman has several features which make it interesting and unusual and although there is little to no folklore connected to it the human escapades in its shadow have become legends in themselves.

The Cross

According to Richard Larn and Cliver Carter in their book on Cornish shipwrecks the Dodman is considered the greatest hazard to vessels on this stretch of coast, especially to those that have accidently overrun the entrance to Falmouth harbour on their way up the channel, and in poor weather this was not an unusual occurrence. There have been countless wrecks at the feet of the Dodman. One of the worst incidents occurred in December 1830 when three foreign vessels (Danish, French and Russian) were all wrecked close to the headland in one night. Another tragedy happened in 1838 when the brig Brandywine Packet was lost in a gale, all the crew were drowned apart from one man, James Gilchrist, who somehow managed to cling to rocks until help arrived.

In November 1895 the 1,350 ton Russian Barque Pallas became the largest ship ever to be lost at the Dodman. And after seeing so much death and destruction on the shores of his parish the Vicar of Caerhays, George Martin, decided to take action in the best way he knew how. He turned to God. In 1896 he had a huge cross erected on the tip of the headland.

dodman point

“Here stands a fine granite cross some twenty feet high, It was put up by a former Vicar of St Michael Caerhays and is now, we believe, charted.

A.G. Folliott-Stokes, The Cornish Coast & MOors, 1928

The massive cross, which is cut from granite and over 6m (20ft) high, still stands and makes an impressive addition to the panorama from the clifftop. (It did fall once in 1905 after a great storm and had to be re-erected.) Rev. Martin became known as the ‘Saintly Rector’ because of all his ‘good works’ and, although the wrecks were to continue of course, as he had hoped his cross became a navigational aid to seafarers and remains one to this day.

dodman point

Prehistoric Cliff Castle

This flat topped headland has been a home to our ancestors since at least the Bronze Age. There are two round barrows dating from roughly 4000 years ago here but the most obvious clue to this areas ancient past is a substantial bank which divides the headland from the mainland. Known locally as the Bulwark this bank was built in the Iron Age to form a defensive cliff castle and is around 600m (2000ft) long and 6m (20ft) high. Inside the embankment are a series of ramparts and ditches.

dodman point

Though their antiquity has been established these earthworks did confuse visitors in the past. They were at one time considered to be the work of “Northmen, who made this spot the centre from which they could go on marauding expeditions by sea and land”. Others thought that smugglers were responsible somehow. During the Civil War (1642 – 1651) it is said that the earthworks were reused presumably as defensive positions. In 1928 A. G Folliott-Stokes wrote:

“There must have been a good deal of fighting about here for the farmers from time to time find cannon balls and other relics of wars!”

The Signal Station

As the most prominent coastal landmark between Falmouth and the Devon border the Deadman offers panoramic views and therefore makes an excellent point from which to observe the coast and the comings and goings of shipping in the channel. The Signal Station, a small stone hut just a few metres from the cliff edge, was built in 1794 as one of a chain lookouts, part of the Admiralty’s coastal defences during the Napoleonic Wars.

dodman point

There is evidence however that this place was already the site of a medieval beacon used in previous centuries to signal warnings of hostile ships. (Those raiders from the North perhaps?) Following that beacon it is thought a mound may have been built with a bonfire on top for signalling and then later a small tower with a brazier.

The little Napoleonic watch house we see today would have provided shelter for the watchmen gathering intel on the movement of shipping or keeping a look out for enemy vessels and it is now cared for by the National Trust. There is a fireplace for warmth and a small lookout platform adjoins the house, accessed by a tight flight of stairs.

The Lookout

On the 28th January 1780 it is likely that the watchman would have witnessed some exciting scenes just below Dodman Point when British Navy Captain Samuel Reeve captured a French privateer. The Admiralty were delighted with the prize!

“Capt. Reeve of his majesty’s ship Surprize, who sailed on the 28th, in consequence of intelligence received of a French Privateer, returned this afternoon having the next day off the Dodman fell in with a ship and brig wearing pendants, the former of which, after a short action, he took and brought in with him and proves to be the Du Quay Trouin, a French Privateer commanded by Mons. Pierre Denis Ducaffare . . . of 20 nine pounder, and 130 men. . . It is almost a new ship and a fast sailer. The brig, during the chase and action, got off.”

Salisbury & Winchester Journal, 14th Feb 1780

In the first years of the 19th century there were numerous incidents like this one. The newspapers reported multiple occasions when French ships were either captured or chased after being spotted from the Dodman.

“Intelligence having been received from the signal point of an enemy cruizer having been seen chasing a brig off the Dodman, the Foxhound and the Seylla were dispatched after her.”

Exeter Flying Post, 27th May 1813

Smuggling Escapades

In the 18th century the signal station found another use when local men were employed to keep watch from there for smugglers in the bay. These signallers were meant to alert the revenue men to any suspicious activity and if the ‘free-traders’ were caught as a result they would receive a share of the reward.

A man called Captain A. Frazer from Polperro had command of the revenue ship called the Ranger which seems to have patrolled the coast close to the Dodman. The newspapers report Frazer capturing dozens of smugglers ships and seizing huge amounts of contraband cargo on that stretch of the coast. In August 1804 Captain Frazer brought in a cutter called Liberty with 780 ankers of spirits, wine and tobacco, in 1805 he captured the Flying Fish which was carrying 500 ankers of spirits and in 1800 they discovered a raft drifting off the Dodman also with a large quantity of smuggled goods on board. An anker is a cask which traditionally holds 8.5 gallons, roughly 40 litres or 68 pints, of liquid. So the Fishing Fish had a cargo of approximately 20,000 litres of booze!

dodman point

But it would seem that for as many as Frazer and the Ranger could catch there were just as many smuggling runs that went undetected. Local knowledge allowed the smugglers to take advantage not only of calm seas and dark nights but they also often knew the movements of the revenue men. A man called Dick Curtis was recorded in the Royal Cornwall Gazette in 1895 explaining his part in landing contraband goods at Dodman when he was just 14 years old. He uses false names for the main players, though of course he says they are all dead by then anyway. According to Dick Farmer Jim was the ring leader, a strong man, a keen wrestler with curly black hair and a sunburnt face.

In the article Dick explains that growing up there he knew every bush, rock and rabbit run on the headland and was able to get down to the waters edge where the goods would being unloaded even in the dark. The men in Jim’s crew, and at times there were as many as 50 of them if there was a lot to come ashore, would remain completely silent the whole time, using low ‘coos’ like pigeons to signal each other and the incoming vessel. They even removed their shoes to avoid leaving footprints.

“In response to the low cooing sound from one of the men on the beach her boat was quickly manned and with muffled oars the rowers made her speed through the water almost noiselessly until she grounded on the little beach.”

The goods would be hoisted up the cliff face on ropes and then taken through the fields to Beacon Farm to be hidden in the hayloft.

“While the bales of silk, tobacco and kegs of rum were being hurriedly landed by eager hands, several rushed to the top of the cliff with ropes, which were quickly lowered each with a running noose, and by this means swiftly and silently the different contraband articles of value were drawn to the top of Deadman Head.”

Dick also explained that Farmer Jim was a cautious man who would often store the illegal goods for months, not daring to sell any of it until he was certain the revenue men weren’t watching. The young boys involved in either keeping lookout or guiding the crew of men safely across the fields in the middle of the night were paid a sovereign for their help.

The Spanish Ladies Sea Shanty

Just for fun the Dodman is also mentioned in the old sea shanty ‘Spanish Ladies’ so I thought I had better include that too!

Some Unique Geology

The headland itself is formed from what is known as the ‘Dodman Phyllite’ or ‘Dodman formation’ and is unique in the area. The lithologic description of this rock seems to be a mixture of meta-sandstone, meta-siltstone and quartz veins formed in the Early Devonian Epoch, around 400 million years ago.

dodman point
Vault Beach

The sand of Vault Beach not far from the Dodman is mostly made up from quartz crystals eroded from the veins of the white mineral in the headland.

A Cornish Idiom

There is a saying related to this headland that was once a common turn of phrase in the area:

“**** will happen when Dodman and Rame Head meet.”

dodman point

It is an idiom used to emphasis an impossibility, such ‘when hell freezes over’ or ‘when pigs fly’. However, some would say that the prediction actually came true in the 19th century when the same landowner owned both headlands and in that way ‘joined’ them. But more than that, I think this goes to illustrate once again how these jutting fingers of land are so much part of Cornwall’s character and how their presence seeps into our Cornish language and culture too.

Further Reading

The Longest Grave in the UK – Veryan, Cornwall

Gerennius, King of Cornwall & his Golden Boat.

Cornwall’s Highest Cliff

Walking Opportunities

Circular Walk from Gorran Haven to Dodman Point

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