A short walk west along the coastal path from Porthleven leads you to a quiet area of clifftop known as Breageside. Here you will find a white painted stone cross facing out to sea.
This cross is one of a pair erected close to this picturesque harbour and both are linked to the same man and the same maritime disaster.
The first cross, a mile or so east close to Loe Bar, marks the final resting place of the victims of a tragic shipwreck. While the Breageside cross was erected by the son of a shipwreck survivor as a moving memorial for all the unknown mariners buried in un-consecrated ground around the Cornish coast and the law that changed this ancient practice.
Cast Up By the Sea
For hundreds of years it was common practice, tradition even, for bodies cast up by the sea to be buried close to where they were found. A hurried burial without coffin, shroud or religious service was probably all that the unknown drowned could expect.
There were several reasons for this, all of them pretty practical, if a little unfeeling.
In many cases bodies would be found in a condition, not to put too finer point on it, that required a speedy burial and the inaccessibility of the coast made moving a corpse any distance difficult. They may also have been found miles from the nearest church, and then of course there was the cost. Who would pay for the burial?
This was all perfectly reasonable but it didn’t make it right or humane.
But although opinion had probably been turning against the practice for many years it took a maritime disaster close to Porthleven to really tip the balance.
The Gryll’s Act
When the Royal Naval Frigate HMS Anson was wrecked at Loe Bar on the 29th December 1807 it was a tragedy that would come to haunt the local community but it was also be a great catalyst for change.
After seeing the disaster unfold with his own eyes local man Henry Trengrouse invented a life jacket and, most famously, a rocket powered lifesaving apparatus for ships in distress called the ‘Bosun’s Chair’. His invention went on to save an estimated 20,000 lives and was later known as the ‘Breeches Buoy’.
The wreck’s other impact was on the law.
The Anson memorial at Loe Bar marks the area of clifftop where the around 120 victims (estimates of the actual number of deaths vary) of the shipwreck were buried in mass graves.
Local people were so horrified by the scene and so moved by these events that a year later a Helston solicitor, Thomas Grylls, drafted a Bill which was presented to Parliament by John Hearle Tremayne, MP for Cornwall. The Bill proposed an end to the practice of burying bodies found in the sea in un-consecrated ground.
This Bill became the ‘Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1808’ – sometimes known as ‘Gryll’s Act’.
The law decreed that from 1808 any bodies washed ashore in England must be given a proper burial in the nearest churchyard.
” . . . That from and after the passing of this Act, the Churchwarden and Churchwardens, Overseer and Overseers of the Poor for the Time being of the respective Parishes throughout England, in which any dead Human Body or dead Human Bodies shall be found thrown in or cast on Shore from the Sea, by Wreck or otherwise, shall and he and they is and are hereby required, upon Notice to him or them given that any such Body or Bodies are thrown in or cast on Shore by the Sea, and is or are lying within the Bounds of the Parish for which he or they shall be Churchwarden or Churchwardens, Overseer or Overseers of the Poor, to cause the same to be forthwith removed to some convenient Place, and with all convenient Speed to cause such Body or Bodies to be decently interred in, the Church-yard or Burial Ground of such Parish . . .”Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1808
Unfortunately, even though the law was changed, there are still hundreds, probably thousands, of unmarked graves from previous centuries all around Cornwall’s coast. And the shallowness of those graves, the shifting sands, rock falls and erosion means that these forgotten skeletons often come to light.
Over the years local newspapers have carried numerous reports of human bones being found on clifftops, coastal paths and in sand dunes. Even as recently as November 2022 bones were spotted emerging from a the ground on a footpath at Trevone, near Padstow, and then in January 2023 a skull was found sticking out of a dune cliff at Sennen Cove.
In the 1940s however a man called Frank Strike, from Porthleven, decided that he wanted to do something to acknowledge these forgotten mariners and he had a very personal reason for doing so. His own father was the victim of a maritime tragedy.
Remembering Unknown Mariners
Frank’s father, Thomas Alfred (Toy) Strike, was just 19 years old when he boarded the small fishing boat called Desire of Porthleven for a night of fishing in Mount’s Bay in March 1871.
The boat was captained by his grandfather, John Strike, whose two sons, James and John, were also on board. The other crew members were John Hocking, John Thomas, William Allen and Thomas Matthews.
In the early hours of the morning, close to dawn, the Desire was struck with enormous force by the steamship Corlie, which was powering its way towards Liverpool. The fishing boat was smashed to pieces and all the men were drowned, all apart from Thomas Strike. He managed to escape by somehow clinging to a rope hanging from the side of the steamship, he made it home a few days after the accident with just a broken leg.
In that one night however Thomas had lost three members of his family and other Porthleven families lost husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.
The Cross at Porthleven
Nearly 80 years after the loss of the Desire Thomas’ son, Frank, decided to erect a cross to remember the many lost souls who weren’t as lucky as his father, and the law that meant these men and women would always be given a respectful resting place.
In March 1949 a small crowd gathered on the bouncy turf of the clifftop near Porthleven to see the new monument that Frank Strike had donated in memory of his father.
It seems that the position of the cross had been carefully chosen as local folklore claimed that Breageside cliff was once a place where drowned bodies were routinely buried.
“Grey-haired and middle-aged Mr Strike stood among those who gathered on the cliff overlooking the tossing sea on Saturday while the cross was unveiled on the spot where many say the bodies of drowned sailors of yesterday now rest.”Western Morning News, 25 April 1949
There are two inscriptions on the cross.
The first reads:
“This cross has been erected in memory of the many mariners drowned on this part of the coast from time immemorial and buried on the cliffs hereabouts. Also to commemorate the passing of the Grylls Act of 1808 since when bodies cast up by the sea have been laid to rest in the nearest consecrated ground. Erected March 1949.”
The second inscription on the seaward side remembers 22 fishermen of Porthleven who were lost at sea, including the crew of the Desire.
The following week the Anson Memorial, a matching white cross, also given by Mr Strike was erected on the Gunwalloe side of Bar Sands.
The Breageside cross is just a short walk from the harbour and well worth taking the time to seek out. Whatever else it commemorates I think it is wonderful that it stands as a marker, a permanent place, where all those whose burial sites have been lost and forgotten, those who were never given a headstone, let alone a funeral, can be remembered.
Directions to the Cross at Porthleven
To find the cross follow Mount Pleasant Road up hill past the Ship Inn, past the old Lifeboat Station, then onto Ocean View Terrace which becomes a track that eventually joins the coastal path. You will see the cross about 300m ahead along the coast.