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"So barbarous a practice": Cornish wrecking, ca. 1700-1860, and its survival as popular myth

"So barbarous a practice": Cornish wrecking, ca. 1700-1860, and its survival as popular myth

Pearce, Cathryn Jean (2007) "So barbarous a practice": Cornish wrecking, ca. 1700-1860, and its survival as popular myth. PhD thesis, University of Greenwich.

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The popular myth of Cornish wrecking is well-known within British culture, but there has not been a comprehensive, systematic inquiry to separate out the layers of the myth from the actual practices. This study rectifies this omission by examining wrecking activity as reported in popular sources and traditional tales; deconstructing the most widely believed elements; illuminating the complexity of the practices; and investigating the process of myth-making which sustained the image of the wrecker in popular consciousness. It suggests that violent wrecking was not nearly as widespread and invidious as popular histories allow.

The coastal populace had their own popular morality, including the use of mediation and constraint, which allowed them to practise wrecking, salvage, and lifesaving activities simultaneously. They did not condone all forms of wrecking; thus it cannot be deemed a 'social crime'. Wreckers did not escape conviction because of local resistance to centralised authority, but as a result of the complex legal practices of discretion that were incorporated into the eighteenth century English criminal justice system. The role of the lord of the manor was also more complex; their relationship with the coastal populace was based on reciprocity as well as antagonism. However, the tightening of governmental control and increasing bureaucratisation in the Victorian period resulted in the loss of customary wreck rights for both the coastal inhabitants and the local elites. At the same time, the press and pulpit were the primary conduits for establishing and popularising the wrecker stereotype through symbolic violence and moral panics. The stereotype became reflexive, touted as an accurate description in Victorian histories, and thus burying the reality of wrecking under accretions of moralising discourse. Therefore, the process of historical 'beach combing' across the disciplinary boundaries has revealed wrecking as a multi-faceted, sophisticated cultural practice and cultural construct.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Uncontrolled Keywords: shipwrecks, wrecking, Cornwall, eighteenth century, nineteenth century, history
Subjects: V Naval Science > V Naval Science (General)
Pre-2014 Departments: Greenwich Maritime Institute
Last Modified: 27 Mar 2017 09:32

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