Wreckers and Bitefingers

About the Blogger:  Janet Angles is an avid seeker of local stories and has volunteered with the RNLI where she participated in recording spoken histories of the lifeboat rescues.  She moved to Wells 2001 and has contributed to the historical preservation of coastal life in Norfolk.

If you should ever search for information about the people who set out to lure ships ashore in order to plunder their cargoes, you will find plenty about the Cornish and other south western areas of England, but very little about the Norfolk coast.

On the east coast, we don’t have rocks to rip away the hulls of these ships but what we have are sandbanks and they can be as destructive to sailing ships as rocks.

If a ship were to run abound onto a sandbank, the action of the sea against the hull would soon weaken the Bessel and cause it to break up.  If it was close to the shore, any survivors and bodies would be swept ashore and deposited on the beach where they would be fair game for any beach comber searching for anything of value.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, if a ship was seen to be foundering close to the shore that would bring the population to the beach with pickaxes and other tools in order to break up the vessel to obtain anything of value.  Unfortunately, at that time, the law stated that salvage could not be claimed while there were living people aboard so things were not too good for any survivors still aboard.

It is thought that false lights were used in order that the ship could be lured into dangerous waters and in 2005 the BBC made a documentary for the “Coast” series, which successfully replicated the conditions of the false light wrecking to see whether it could be done. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mvlc It was found that it would work on a dark night with a solitary candle on the shore.  The crew of the targeted vessel would react in panic, thinking they were too close to the shore and turn away into dangerous waters.

Jewellery and other items of value would be removed from the dead and dying on the beach and if a ring could not be removed easily, then a knife was used to cut off the finger – or if that was not available, the finger would be bitten off.  It is believed that in 1707, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovel was washed ashore when his flagship the ‘Association’ was wrecked as the fleet were heading for home after the campaign of Toulon and passing close to the Scilly Islands. He wore a large emerald ring and this caught the eye of a woman on shore.  Although he was still alive, she is reputed to have bitten his finger off to obtain his ring whereas he was re ported to have died from blood poisoning as a result.  The woman confessed to this as she lay on her death bead, and the ring was thought to have been returned to the Admiral’s family.  However, as this was a deathbed confession, it was never possible to verify so it may just be a gruesome myth.

However, if you talk to anyone who has lived in Wells all their life, they will tell you that the bite fingers really existed and that the practise was carried on here as in other coastal areas where dangers might lurk if the vessel’s navigator was unwise enough to come to close to the shore.