The Cornish coast is well known as a graveyard for ships, dramatic tales of shipwreck and rescue were once very much a daily part of local lives. And, of course, these disasters were rarely without victims. But what happened to the unidentified drowned was not something that was or is comfortable to talk about.
Until the law was changed in 1808 the bodies of those lost at sea would often be buried on the cliff tops close to where they had been found but even after that practice was outlawed there was often a delay before a victim could be laid to rest.
They needed to be identified, their family notified and a grave prepared – they had to be stored somewhere while all this was settled.
That is where places like the Deadman’s Hut in Portreath came in.
The Sandy Cove
Portreath, meaning ‘sandy cove’ in Cornish, was once the fishing harbour for the manor of Tehidy but like Hayle, a little further along the coast, it was enlarged and improved for the needs of the ever-expanding copper mining industry in the district in the 18th century. The first quay was built there in 1713.
By about 1840 some 100,000 tons of ore was being exported from the port, while vast quantities of coal were being imported. It was a busy and important commercial hub on Cornwall’s north coast with hundreds of ships coming and going each year.
As the entrance to the harbour was narrow and fairly dangerous to negotiate for those who weren’t familiar with the area a daymark was erected on the cliff top above Portreath in about 1800 to assist vessels to navigate the waters safely.
The white conical tower, known today as the Pepper Pot, also displayed a small light at night, red when the port was inaccessible and green at all other times. This light was still in use up until 1918.
It is also possible that this daymark was built on the site of a much older Huer’s Hut, used to watch for pilchards shoals.
Two smaller lookouts were also built below the Pepper Pot on the harbour walls.
These huts were used by the pilots who were stationed at Portreath to watch for vessels and they would then use flags and lanterns to guide ships into the harbour.
The Deadman’s Hut
The larger of the two rotund buildings, called the Lower Pilot’s Lookout, was later used for storage by local fishermen but its other rather macabre nickname, the Deadman’s Hut, points to it more unpleasant function as a makeshift morgue.
Any bodies washed up on the beach or found floating nearby would be stored in this hut until they were claimed or until, as was sadly so often the case, they were removed to be buried a churchyard, probably Illogan, in an unmarked grave. Many lost sailors were never identified.
Understandably the Deadman’s Hut developed a bit of a reputation as a haunted place.
“There is an old mortuary hut on the seafront, approached by a flight of steps, which is visited by a tall pitiful figure of a drowned seaman – for it was the custom of locals to temporarily store the bodies of those washed up on the beach there, unknown seaman whose identity and sad end was permanently lost to their friends and loved ones.”Paul Newman, Haunted Cornwall, 2005
The thinking was/is that lost souls hang around this little building on the harbour side.
In his book on the Cornish coast Ian Addicoat that the hut was said to “retain a sinister atmosphere” and that it was “linked to strange phenomena and deep sadness”.
The Other Makeshift Morgue
Close to the Deadman’s Hut, on the other side of the harbour is The Waterfront pub, and it is worth mentioning that some believe that this more modern building was actually built on the site of another temporary morgue.
It is said that a large wooden storage hut once stood here on the sand and it too was used by fishermen to store their gear. However, on occasions it was requisitioned as another place to store the dead – perhaps when the Deadman’s Hut was full or being used for something else.
And there are a number of ghost stories associated with this place too.
It is said that a man in old fashioned clothing has been seen in the new building. A female customer in the 1970s claimed that while she was eating in the restaurant she glanced up to see a “misty form” standing in the corner of the room. She described the figure as a man wearing clothes from a different era and despite the fact that she could make him out quite clearly she could also see right through him. Apparently she never finished her meal, she left the pub and refused to ever return.
Another tale dates from the 1980s when the building was undergoing restoration. While work was being done on the kitchen a strange figure appeared in the doorway, he was seen by two builders who said that watched him for several minutes before he vanished into thin air.
It is not hard to understand where these ghost stories come from. There was such a tragic loss of life on our coasts for hundreds of years and the thought of so many lost souls, so many who’s fate was never known, is bound to capture the imagination and pull at the heart strings.
Or, if you believe in that kind of thing, that there are lots of spirits with unfinished business hanging around the place where their body was once unceremoniously stored for a while.
I have visited Portreath and the Deadman’s Hut many times (unfortunately you can no longer go inside as some people decided to use it as a public convenience!) and I have never felt uncomfortable or seen anything strange.
I have never been there after dark however . . .