The Wreckers: A Story of Killing Seas, False Lights and Plundered Ships

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9780007170326: The Wreckers: A Story of Killing Seas, False Lights and Plundered Ships

From the bestselling author of ‘The Lightouse Stevensons’, a gripping history of the drama and danger of wrecking since the 18th-century – and the often grisly ingenuity of British wreckers, scavengers of the sea.

A fine wreck has always represented sport, pleasure, treasure, and in many cases, the difference between living well and just getting by. The Cornish were supposed to be so ferocious that notices of shipwrecks were given out during morning service by the minister, whilst the congregation spent their time concocting elaborate theological justifications for drowning the survivors. Treeless islanders relied on the harvest of storms to furnish themselves with rafters, boat hulls, fence-posts and floors. In other places, false lights were set up with grisly ingenuity along the coast to lure boats to destruction.

With romance, insight and dry wit, Bella Bathurst traces the history of wrecking, looting and salvaging in the British Isles since the 18th-century and leading up to the present day. ‘For a fully laden general cargo to run to ground in an accessible position is more or less like having Selfridges crash-land in your back garden,’ she writes. ‘A Selfridges with the prices removed.’ Far from being a black-and-white crime, wrecking is often seen as opaque by its practitioners – the divisions between theft and recovery are small. No successful legal prosecution has ever been brought; the RNLI was founded by wreckers – even today lifeboat crews maintain the right to claim salvage; and since the sinking of the Cita in 1997, the inhabitants of the Scilly Isles have a startling propensity to sport Ben Sherman shirts.

In settings ranging from the eerily perambulatory Goodwin Sands to the wreck-strewn waters off the coast of Durham, these murky tales of resourcefulness and quick-witted opportunism open a beguiling vista of life at the rough edges of our land and legality.

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Review:

Praise for ‘The Wreckers’:

‘[Bathurst] is wry, perceptive, laconic, occasionally downright funny and uncannily skilled at recreating atmosphere…a pleasure to read.’ Daily Telegraph

‘Entertaining and gossipy…Bathurst pens vivid accounts of hazardous stretches of our coastline and the depredations of the inhabitants.’ Sunday Telegraph

‘A luminious tale of shifting sands and treacherous seas.’ Guardian

Praise for The Lighthouse Stevensons:

‘Deeply accomplished … this splendid book preserves the memory of great deeds performed in a heroic era’ Frank McLynn, Sunday Times

‘Bella Bathurst has built a lamp herself: it illuminates the work of a literary hero, a family business, a habit of mind and a Scottish period … from the summit of this first terrific book she looks to become one of the best biographers of her generation’ Andrew O’Hagan, The Times

‘This is a grand book doing for lighthouses what Dava Sobel’s Longitude did for marine chronometers, and doing it, if comparisons be made, with considerably more panache’
Nicholas Bagnall, Sunday Telegraph

‘An enthralling story, vivaciously recounted … These were epic and scarifying adventures, indicative of an age when the taming of nature was a philosophical given, its execution a religious passion’ Alan Taylor, Observer

From the Back Cover:

A fine shipwreck has always represented sport, pleasure, treasure, and in many cases, the difference between living well and just getting by. Though it is the Cornish who became most notorious for wrecking, coastal communities throughout Britain regarded as the 'sea's bounty' as an impromptu way of providing themselves with everything from grapefruits to grand pianos. Some plunderers were supposed to be so skilled that they could strip a ship from stem to stern before the Coastguard had left port, some were supposed to lure ships onto the rocks with false lights, some simply waited for winter gales to do their work. 'For a fully laden general cargo to run to ground in an accessible position is more or less like having Selfridges crash-land in your back garden,' writes Bella Bathurst, 'a Selfridges with the prices removed'.

From all around Britain, Bathurst has uncovered the secret history of ships and shipwreck victims, from shoreline orgies so Dionysian that few participants survived until morning to crofts fitted with silver candelabra, and from coastlines rigged like stage sets to the strange tale of Britain's Royal Fish. Spinning three hundred years of history, The Wreckers examines the myths, realities and the superstitions of shipwrecks, and uncovers the darker side of life on our island shores.

Bella Bathurst's first book was The Lighthouse Stevensons: The Extraordinary Story of the Building of the Scottish Lighthouses by the Ancestors of Robert Louis Stevenson, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and winner of a Somerset Maugham Award. Special, a novel, was longlisted for the Orange Prize. She lives in Scotland.

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