The Day the Whiting Foundered - Padstow in 1816
The old men who sat on the seat by the harbour known as The Long Lugger passed their time talking about just about anything. There was little that someone in the group did not have an opinion on whether it was the goings on in London with the King and his “illness”, the antics of the Prince Regent, or some item of clothing they had seen around the town. “Modern fashions”, they would mutter. Only three months before the news of victory at the Battle of Waterloo had filtered through. They fired off the little cannons up at Place that day and they talked of nothing else for a week. Someone had even brought home a drum - come in handy for May Day that would. Not since the Battle of Trafalgar eleven years before had there been so much excitement.
Not that there wasn’t plenty happening closer to home to set the tongues wagging as there was always the latest incident at sea, there was never any shortage of them as Padstow grew in importance as a port.
The talk that September day was all about the Navy ship HMS Whiting that had foundered on the Doom Bar. She was a tidy size and although no one had lost their lives, she was stranded in an awkward position near the mouth of the estuary.
One person had heard that the Captain had refused to wait for a pilot. They took time to get out from Padstow in those days. “That was the cause of all the trouble” he said, he was old enough to have sailed with Captain Cook in ’79 and claimed to have known Captain Bligh and the boy Quintrell before he signed for the Bounty. They called him Quintall there but he was born in Padstow, “those Navy men couldn’t always spell proper” they all agreed.
Someone had spoken to some of the crew of the Whiting and had more to tell: “She had been a Baltimore built Schooner captured from the Americans” they said. They had all heard about that little war as three years ago the British had occupied Washington and set fire to the White House. Early in the year before the Americans got their own back at New Orleans. The boys on the seat couldn’t understand why you would want to fight our own. "Not sure if the men up to London new best.”. The crew had said about the Whiting that she had “ Interesting raked masts and was a very fast mover”, “Out sailed our boys a few times” they had told him. Another “expert” had a story that these Baltimore schooners were difficult to manage. Had that contributed to the wreck?
Little did they know that for decades the Whiting and the sand that would build up about her would be the subject of so much debate even reaching the Ministry in London.
Not much escaped the eagle eyes and ears of this local “parliament”. They noticed the comings and goings at the old place known as Abbey House. They all knew about the tunnel going up to Place but it was a funny thing that no one had ever seen it.
They watched the harbour as cargoes were unloaded and stowed into warehouses. The Rawlings’ business empire was at its height, they had even opened The Padstow Bank and were issuing notes . Some had been up Sanders Hill to see the fine mansion the family had built, a rival to Prideaux Place, some said. More town talk again was that there was trouble between them and the Avery’s. Thomas Rickard Avery was Controller of wrecks, he lived up the coast at Boscastle and he had a relative that lived in the old Court House believed to have been visited by Sir Walter Raleigh in old Queen Elizabeth’s time.
Up at the Parish Church William Rawlings was the Vicar, he was the banker and merchant’s brother. Most people went to the Parish Church on Sundays and sat in the Box pews they had at that time. The choir with the musical instruments were at the West end in a special gallery and when the congregation sang the hymns they turned to face the music. The gentry had their special seats: the people knew their place.
Down on the Long Lugger there was talk of the Methodists who were making their presence known in the area. One young preacher with a particularly evangelical style had impressed many who heard him. He was William O’Bryan and he would form the “Bible Christians” although he himself later separated from them. He continued to preach both in England and America helping to fuel an appetite for emigration that would rise to significant levels in the years to come.
Often the conversation would be interrupted by the sound of caulking hammers, “quite musical” said someone who had obviously never had to use one all day long. Often they heard the hammering from the Blacksmiths' shops and the distinctive sound of the large pit saws associated with the shipbuilders who were a growing number. John Tredwen being one of them already established in the Higher Yard just around the corner and living in his fine slate hung house nearby which he had called Marine Villa.
Up at Place, the home of the Prideaux family, things were happening too. The Reverend Charles had arrived from Bath with his wife who was fond of the kind of social life they had enjoyed there. She soon had local musicians performing for her fashionable dances. Caleb Boney the Clockmaker was one of these, several locals had seen the fantastic Astronomical Clock he had made for the squire and heard the stories of these gatherings. Rev. Charles had made a name change too as he was now Prideaux-Brune. The Long Lugger gang did not need to ask where the new found money came from as some of it was finding its way into local pockets via the building projects. "Very grand", they were told, “just like they houses up London”, Martha who worked in the kitchen had told them. The Surgeon's wife who had read the latest Jane Austen (Emma, published 1816) told her maid that life up Place was “just like something out of a novel”. They could believe that and many an hour was passed imagining the scene. When they heard that young master Charles was travelling all the way to Eton College by Coach, they speculated at the expense. He was the one they later called “Charles of London Town” though perhaps not to his face.
They would often talk about one day in the year that was a special day in Padstow. The old boys on the seat said it was “for the young people really”, but nevertheless come May Day they put on their best clothes, wore a posy of spring flowers in their buttonholes and paid particular attention to the ladies who were generally busy in the home while they “put the world to rights”. This special day was May 1st, except of course when it fell on a Sunday. Preparations would last several days; ham joints were made from home kept pigs while pasties and saffron buns would be much in evidence. The people of Padstow enjoyed their May Day Celebrations as they had done since “time immemorial”, so they said. The streets would be decorated with greenery and the better off would be visited on May Eve to see if they could spare a “shilling” or a “cup of ale” to lubricate the antics of the Hobby Horse on the following day. It could get a bit rough with “smut” rubbed on fair faces and pistols fired in the air and some said it “should all be done away with”. On the seat they weren’t sure but even the critical hoped that it would continue.
There were several Inns around the harbour mainly catering for the transient population of merchant seamen and seaborne travellers. As well as the Ship there was the White Hart and the Caledonia, the Britania, Duke of Wellington, George and Dragon, the Hope and the Golden Lion. In the latter many sales of salvaged goods took place in the “Long Room” behind the Inn.
Not far behind them was the Market Place with its Market House containing the Butchers Stalls. Occasionally a lady who had been shopping there or at one of the stalls in the street would stop by and join them. One was quite shocked to hear the stories being told about a Redruth man called Trevithick who had built a steam carriage. “Whatever next she said”, and left before she heard any more. If she had she might have heard about the invention of the miners safety lamp by Humphrey Davy another Cornishman or the Rocket Apparatus, that would save many a life at sea designed by a Helston man Henry Trengrouse. Things were definitely happening down here in Cornwall and up country too. Times would never be quite the same again.
[With grateful thanks to all those sources that help me to unravel my love of local history. The Bill for Charles Prideaux – Brunes trip to Eton was transcribed from information held at the County Record Office by Roger Lacy. Photographs courtesy of Padstow Museum, Malcolm McCarthy and Rodney Bate] J.B.