Legends of the Black Rock of Falmouth Bay

At the entrance to Falmouth Bay, a little closer to Pendennis Point than St Anthony Head, there is a small rocky shoal known as Black Rock. It has had various names over the years, including Falmouth Rock, Parson’s Rock and Caregoyne but perhaps its current name is most suited to its reputation as a menace to shipping.

As well as tales of shipwreck there are also a couple of folktales associated with this hunk of rock that will hopefully change the way you look at it forever!

black rock
Extract from the ‘Great Map of the West’ 1539 showing the harbour & Black Rock

The Wrecks of Black Rock

This jagged outcrop has the rather strange accolade of being both a disastrous hazard and reassuring landmark.

Once barely visible at high tide and almost exactly in the centre of the busy shipping fairway Black Rock is sure to have claimed many ships over the centuries. To the homeward bound mariners however, passing Black Rock was often a moment of relief as it meant that they had made it to the shelter of Falmouth harbour.

black rock

Various attempts were made to mark the rocky menace but many ships still came to grief just when they thought they had reached safe waters.

One of the earliest wrecks that we have a written account of was the sloop Teats Hill of Plymouth, wrecked on Black Rock in a storm in 1821. The Lloyd’s List reported that on the 29th April the ship had struck the rock and sunk very quickly. Fortunately Captain Kelway and the crew had all been rescued by a pilot boat but the cargo of flour, soap, rum and fruit had mostly been lost due to a “large hole in her bottom”. The Teats Hill was raised and brought into Falmouth a couple of days later and after repairs soon went back into service with Kelway back at the helm.

In March 1858 the large wooden ship, Northern Empire, was moving berth in the harbour when she broke adrift from the tug. The vessel, laden with a cargo of guano bound for London, was smashed against Black Rock and later had to be beached at Trefusis Point for salvage.

Old photograph of a ship, possibly ‘Northern Empire’, stuck on Black Rock sometime after the beacon was built.

There was an even more dramatic scene in October 1880, when a brig from Newcastle called Mary was anchored to the windward side of Black Rock during a gale. As the weather worsened she began to drag her anchors and soon found herself grounded on the reef. Large crowds had gathered on the shore watching the drama unfold and the harbourmaster, Richard Sperris, sent out a steam tug to go to her assistance. However, before the tug could reach the ship, with disaster looming, the captain, a man called French, and three of the crew took to a small boat in an attempt to save themselves.

“The heavy seas running around the rock capsized the boat and all four were struggling in the water when the steam tug rescued the captain in so exhausted a state as to be unable to give the names of the three others who perished . . . the sea was breaking wilder over the vessel every moment and threatening to engulf her. This indeed happened shortly afterwards but the remainder of the crew got off in a boat and landed safely.”

Dundee Courier, 25th October, 1880

The Black Rock Flag Pole & Lighthouse

Falmouth, the world’s third deepest natural harbour, was and still is considered one of the finest anchorages in the world too but there was always one fly in the ointment – Black Rock.

Clearly seen at half tide in the middle of the harbour entrance, at spring tide it is hidden by nine feet of water and invisible to shipping! Sometime in the 17th or 18th century, according to Cyril Noall in his book on Cornish lighthouses, a pole was erected on the rock “at the expense of the Rector of Falmouth”, (very Christian) who then collected sixpence from every vessel entering the port (perhaps not so Christian!).

This pole, made from a huge piece of elm wood, was sunk into a hole dug in the rock and secured in place with molten lead. A red flag was also fixed to the top to make it all the more obvious. But this flagpole proved counterproductive during the conflicts with France and Spain that were to follow, when Black Rock was considered part of the harbour’s defense, and the pole was periodically removed during times of tension.

There was another problem too. The pole kept getting damaged and washed away! The Rev. Edward Walmsley, another Rector of Falmouth, paid for a mason, carpenter and smith to carry out repairs in 1794 for example. It was an ongoing and costly issue so when in 1813 Trinity House began talking of building a lighthouse on Black Rock there was great enthusiasm for the project.

“We understand that it is in the contemplation of the Brethren of Trinity House to erect a lighthouse on the Black Rock at the entrance of the Port of Falmouth, a step which must be of the greatest utility to the shipping interest of the Western Ports and more particularly so during the long dark nights and stormy weather so prevalent at the season of the year.”

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 11 December 1813

Ten years later in 1833 when there was still no progress a meeting was held in Falmouth Townhall during which the mayor, William Carne, discussed petitioning Parliament “to consider the best means to be adopted for procuring a lighthouse to be erected on the Black Rock”. It was suggested that the expense of construction could be covered by charging every vessel entering the harbour one farthing per ton. But the lighthouse was never built. In fact, it wasn’t until 1837 that Trinity House agreed to an less costly alternative – a granite beacon.

The Trinity House Beacon

Construction began on the now-familiar painted stone marker in 1837. Designed by Trinity House it was built by Messrs Olver & Sons of Falmouth. However every stage of the construction was hindered by the tides and weather, both of which limited the time that the men could safely work. The first part of the process was levelling the top of the rock to form a platform, then a cone of granite blocks 37ft (11.5m) high by 20ft (6m) in diameter at the base was built. A mast with a ribbed copper globe was then placed on the top.

“Though far from being the most spectacular structure built by Trinity House in Cornish waters, the Black Rock Beacon nevertheless represented a considerable achievement, its completion being effected in spite of many difficulties and dangers – for example, of five cranes fixed on the rock for hoisting up the stones four were washed away in heavy seas.”

Cyril Noall, Cornish Light & Shipwrecks, 1968

It sounds a simple task but it took more than three years to complete, work to the masonry section was finished in August 1840, at a cost of £2260 9s. 10d.

Illustration from Pendennis & St Mawes, Pasfield Oliver, 1875 showing Black Rock Beacon.

FUN FACT: At a meeting of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society in 1838 a Captain Dunstan showed off his latest invention, a wind powered bell which he intended to be fixed to Black Rock. It consisted of a horizontal wheel fitting with sails that the slightest wind would move, which would then ring the bell. As far as I know it was never used.

Saint Mawes & the Noisy Seal

It is hardly surprising that Black Rock has a few myths associated with it and this one tries to explain how the shoal came to be in the middle of the entrance to the harbour.

Apparently Saint Mawes, who was living as a hermit across the water from Falmouth and founded the village named after him, like to preach outdoors, often on the beach. One day he was giving a sermon and kept finding himself being interrupted by an unusually loud barking seal.

Saint Mawes, in it has to be said a rather unsaintly manner, lost his patience and hurled a large rock at the poor creature! Fortunately for the seal he missed, but the rock he threw, Black Rock, can still be seen in the harbour to this day. Ironically the rock is now a popular resting place for seals who can often be spotted snoozing there at low tide.

black rock
A Seal on Black Rock

In fact, taking pot-shots across the harbour is something of a theme. It is also said that Black Rock was once used as target practice by both St Mawes and Pendennis Castles. This story is backed up by divers who report that the seabed around it is littered with cannon balls from this era.

Mrs Trefusis’ Perilous Picnic

Our final legend is brought to us by Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, an antiquarian, novelist and collector of folk songs. He recorded another amusing tale associated with the rock in his publication, The Book of the West, written in 1902.

black rock

It concerned the Trefusis family, one of the most influential families in the area since the 12th century, and after which the promontory in the harbour is named.

Baring-Gould wrote:

“About half-way across the mouth of the harbour is the Black Rock, exposed at low water, but covered when the tides rises. An eccentric Mr Trefusis, of Trefusis, opposite Falmouth, one day invited his wife to boat with him to the Black Rock and picnic there. She incautiously accepted, and when he had landed her, he made a bow and rowed away with – ‘Madam, we are mutually tired of each other, and you will agree with me that it were best to part.’

Fortunately a fishing smack picked her off just as the tide was flowing over it, and brought her back to Trefusis. ‘Be hanged to you rogues,’ said the husband. ‘I’d have given you a guinea each to let her drown; now you shan’t have a shilling from me.’”

In a sad twist to the tale Ursula Redwood in her book on the village of Flushing claims that the poor wife’s sad spirit still haunts the woods at Kiln Quay, presumably heartbroken by her husband’s cruelty.

It isn’t clear which Trefusis couple are referred to or whether any part of this legend is actually true but is probably the one story about Black Rock that always sticks in my head!

black rock falmouth

Update – PINK ROCK

Almost as soon as I published this article people started to comment about that time the beacon had been painted pink! This was not something I had heard before and the details seemed hazy – a story that people had been told, a rumour, a joke. Then I received as email from Alun Davies who filled me in on some of the details . . .

“I was told the story by Frank Lang, he was a local character back in the 60’s and 70’s with a nice old sailing boat, the name of which I’ve forgotten, though I would remember it if someone said it (might have been a Gaff Yawl called Valuta???). He said that he and a few of his mates went out one night and did it [painted the beacon pink], one of his pals was another local called Rodger Eggins, who I knew too though both of them died quite a few years ago. He said they did it as a joke and I would guess it was probably done in the 60’s when they were young.”

It’s a great story so if you have anymore to add feel free to contact me!

Further Reading

Little Dennis Fort, Pendennis Point, Falmouth

Four Falmouth men & The Spanish Armada

Wolf Rock Lighthouse

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