The sea has always provided succour for Sussex, especially to those inhabitants living close to the coast.
There was fish aplenty in years gone by with stories of huge hauls of mackerel and herring to be scooped up annually. Then there was trade and the provision of travel between England and the Continent.
Two or three centuries ago commerce, of course, had two faces; legitimate buying and selling of goods juxtaposed with the shady business of smuggling. Yet there was a third activity, one that could not be called smuggling yet was unedifying and heartless in its execution. Wrecking.
Now the term “wrecking” suggests ships being lured ashore where they become stranded on rocks or beaches and are then relieved of their cargoes. This was indeed the case in the West Country but it was almost unknown in Sussex.
However, should a vessel come to grief of its own accord be it as a victim of a storm or through faulty navigation then that was a different story.
One such incident occurred at the foot of the Seven Sisters on 29th November 1747 after the 800 ton “La Nympha Americano” had been caught up in a ferocious storm. Seeking less violent water closer to shore she had the misfortune to be swept onto rocks at Birling Gap.
Waiting on land were hundreds of locals, largely indifferent to the fate of the ship’s crew; what they wanted was the ship’s cargo. Most likely because the vessel had earlier put into Portsmouth, word had got out on the grapevine that “La Nympha” was carrying riches galore. When the weather turned foul, Sussex people flocked to the coast at places where a ship might run ashore. Luck was with the crowd gathered at Birling Gap.
But luck was in short supply aboard “La Nympha”. Until just a few months before, she had sailed under the Spanish flag and returned from the Caribbean to Spain laden with all kinds of luxury goods including lace encrusted with precious metals, exquisite velvets and artefacts of gold and silver. Unusually, she also carried a valuable consignment of the metal mercury, known as quicksilver.
At this time England was officially enemies with France as a consequence of the War of the Austrian Succession.
But we were also not averse to picking fights with the Spanish who were (somewhat reluctant) allies of the French. England had declared it “open season” for Commodore George Walker and his fleet of privateers and they were encouraged to plunder whatever they could from the French and Spanish. Walker’s force was dubbed the “Royal Family” because his ships had names such as “King George”, “Prince Frederick” and “Princess Amelia”. Walker captured “La Nympha” at Cadiz, installed a prize crew and ordered the vessel to London.
En route off the Seven Sisters it all went pear-shaped. The crew of “La Nympha” were tough privateers, not far removed from pirates. As their ship began to fall apart on the rocks, they knew the priority for watchers atop the ghostly white cliffs and on the beach was simply to grab as much loot as they could.
They would have been well aware of the sailor’s plaintive entreaty, “May God save us from the Seaford shags” - the latter being wreckers so-named after the sinister-looking seabirds that patiently perch on outcrops and wooden jetties waiting to swoop on a fish.
Close to shore the ship was lifted on a huge wave and dashed again onto the rocks where a large section of hull was split apart, hurling dozens of the crew into the seething water where all must surely have drowned.
Observing this tragedy were many folk ensconced in Parson Darby’s Hole, waiting to receive their “manna” from the sea. Ironically this haven in the cliffs had been hewn out at the behest of churchman Jonathan Darby with the sole motive of warning ships of danger. Appointed Curate of Saint Michael’s Church in Litlington in 1692, Darby was later also made Parson of East Dean where his duties included the burial of shipwreck victims.
Shocked at the toll of the lives of seafarers, he determined on action. Exploring the cliffs near Birling Gap he discovered natural caverns in the chalk and he had some of these enlarged to create a “chimney” that connected the beach to the cliff top. He created windows in the passageway where he had warning lights displayed on stormy nights.
The lights doubtless prevented many ships from coming ashore and at other times shipwrecked sailors actually used Darby’s Hole to exit the beach. Erosion has long since seen the tunnel disappear.
Parson Darby died in 1726. He is buried in East Dean churchyard where his gravestone reads: “He was the sailors’ friend.”
The crowd at Birling Gap was certainly no friend to the sailors aboard “La Nympha” as she broke apart.
Around 100 of her crew must have perished before the locals zealously set about their business. Over time all kinds of booty from brandy and fine wines to jewellery were spirited away. To little avail, the authorities sent soldiers to stop the looting.
Indeed the “Sussex Advertiser” reported that many soldiers simply joined in the free-for-all resulting in at least four being punished with the lash in Lewes.
And what of the quicksilver? That’s a fascinating story by itself that must wait to be told on another day in a future edition of “County Yarns.”