Swash-buckling pirates burying chests full of gold and jewels might sound straight off the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island but the truth is pirates and their booty hiding practices were very real between the 16th and 18th centuries, and nowhere more so than in Cornwall. What’s more, with countless ships transporting precious goods through its notoriously volatile waters and past its jagged rocks, it is little surprise that many were wrecked and sank along with their crews and cargoes. Here, I have compiled some of Cornwall’s best treasure spots, lost and found.
1. Merchant Royal
In 2007 Odyssey Marine Exploration, a Florida based salvage company, made an unbelievable discovery off the Cornish coast. What they found was no less than the world’s most valuable shipwreck. On the 23rd September 1641 the Merchant Royal, nicknamed the ‘Eldorado of the seas’ and skippered by well-respected captain John Limbrey, was returning home to Dartmouth after two years transporting goods between trade points for the Spanish government, culminating in a voyage to Mexico alongside Spain’s treasure fleet. Such were the successes of her expeditions that her holds were loaded with a rich cargo including 500 bars of gold bullion, 400 silver ingots, half a million silver coins and countless rubies, diamonds, emeralds and pearls, not to mention many pieces of heavy jewellery. Close to home, less than 40 miles from Lands End, a plank in the ship’s hull sprung allowing water to rush in. Her crew hurried to pump it out but tragically their pumping equipment failed and the ship was committed to a salty grave, along with 18 of her 58 crew and passengers. Despite many efforts to find her wreck she remained hidden until Odyssey, who used ROVs (remotely operated underwater vehicles) to search, finally found her. They managed to bring up an astonishing 17 tons of gold and silver coins worth around £300m, which they promptly flew back to Florida. Despite this enormous haul, the team believe there are many more artefacts still to be found at the site.
2. Cudden Point
Long ago the estate of Pengersick, which lies above Praa Sands beach and is now regarded as one of the country’s most haunted locations, belonged to a Lord who was as cruel as he was wealthy. By taking from the poor he kept himself and his equally wicked guests in extravagant luxury. One particularly warm Cornish evening, he decided to entertain his visitors on board his finest ship, anchored off Cudden Point. Surrounded by finery they dined around his most valued possession, a solid silver table. With cries and cackles of enjoyment filling the room everybody failed to notice a sudden and dramatic change in weather. Before they had a chance to escape huge waves smashed the ship into the rocks, sinking it along with its master, his guests and the silver table. Such was the belief in this event that for many years after children would go down to the point in hope that the tide would fall just enough to reveal the gleaming table. Despite the discovery of coins and even goblets over the years the table still lies hidden beneath the waves.
On the 30th January 1649 Charles I had just been executed by Oliver Cromwell’s Roundhead government. The dead King’s faithful followers, keen to preserve his memory, decided to sail his finest clothes and possessions, along with those of his widowed Queen, Henrietta Maria, abroad for safe keeping. With a final stroke of misfortune a great storm rose up as the ship, named the Garland, was sheltering near Godrevy Island (where the lighthouse stands today). Tragically, the raging waves were too strong and the ship was wrecked along with its priceless and sentimental cargo. A man, a boy and a dog were the only survivors. The Royal wreck still draws many treasure seeking divers to this day.
4. Church Cove
In 1527 a vast ship named the San Antonio went to ground on rocks at Gunwalloe during ‘great outrages of the sea’ with only 45 of 86 crew surviving. The vessel, which was the flagship of King John III of Portugal’s treasure fleet, contained a rich cargo, said then to be worth 4000 times a man’s salary, including silver ingots thought to be the King’s dowry for his new wife, Princess Katherine (sister of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V). Relations between England, then reigned by Henry VIII, and Portugal were already tense and so when local people and landowners set upon the wreck laying claim to its great treasures, it nearly pushed King John to drastic action. Luckily Henry eventually ordered the return of recovered artefacts, though much had already vanished. Despite the recovery of many items, the wreck, which supposedly now lies buried in the sand less than 1000 meters out to sea, is still believed to boast a great deal of treasure. In the 1970-80s ingots were found washed up on local beaches and divers have found a number of other interesting artefacts, including a candle stick holder in recent years.
5. Dollar Cove
Long a place of great excitement for treasure hunters, Dollar Cove gets its name from the numerous silver dollars that have been washed up on its beach. In 1787 a Spanish treasure galleon hit the rocks off the cove in a vicious storm. The ship was carrying two and a half tons of silver dollars destined for the Bank of England where they were to be deposited for safe keeping while Spain’s war with France raged on. Broken up by waves, the coins, along with other precious items, were spilled into the sand. In 1845 a group of treasure hunters set about building a ‘dollar mine’ to extract the treasure from the sand but their plans failed when more rough seas swept away their construction. Ever since silver coins have been found by lucky beachgoers, with many still thought to remain scattered on the sea floor.
6. Rill Cove
The treacherous waters of Rill Cove are home to a mysterious shipwreck. Thought to be of either Spanish or Dutch origin, the unfortunate vessel is said to have been wrecked in around 1619. There is one thing, however, that is generally agreed upon: she was carrying a rich cargo, including silver bullion and coins. Sir John Killegrew, then captain of Pendennis Castle in Falmouth and well-known for his hand in local piracy and smuggling, managed to carry off £3,300 (approx. £570,000 today) worth of bullion before the waves broke the ship apart. The ship then seems to have vanished from record. That was until 1975 when two divers were observing another wreck, belonging to a more recently sunken fishing trawler, when they spotted iron cannons lying in the sand beneath it. These they assumed to be those of the mysterious treasure ship. Since then, many silver coins have been salvaged but the remaining bullion still seems to be lying in wait of discovery.
7. Lizard Point
Widely acknowledged as the most prosperous pirate in history, Henry Avery (or ‘Long Ben’ as he is often dubbed) is thought to have left his great legacy buried in Cornish soil. His brief yet prolific career culminated in 1695 with the looting of the Ganj-i-Sawai, a massive treasure ship belonging to India’s Mughal Emperor. The largest single pirate haul in history, over £600,000 (approx. £80m today) worth of gold and precious jewels were taken from the ship. Deciding to retire to his native Devon, Avery supposedly buried the best of the Mughal’s treasure in the cliffs near Lizard Point. A note thought to be written by his hand and addressed to a trusted friend details three chest containing ‘large rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topazes and diamonds’ as well as ‘120 ingots of gold, 40 thick flat pieces of gold and 25 bars of gold’. Such was the belief in the hoard’s existence that in 1779 John Knill, a St Ives based collector, joined two businessmen from St Michael’s Mount in a two year treasure hunt. Their hunt ended when one of Avery’s descendants told them that the once great pirate had died a pauper in Barnstable. Surely, as Knill must have thought, Avery would have returned to the treasure to save himself from poverty. However, many believe that, fearing his identity would be realised, he never returned to the cliffs, leaving the chests buried to this day.
8. Hanover Cove
On the 13th December 1763 The Hanover, a Falmouth owned brigantine, was heading home from Lisbon with a cargo of £60,000 (appox. £7.6m today) worth of gold and other riches. Suddenly, as she passed Hanover Cover, the winds changed and a storm unleashed devastating waves against the vessel, which was driven into the rocks, sinking along with 64 of its 67 crew and passengers. In 1765 an iron trunk filled with gold bullion was recovered from the wreck. Cannons, jewellery and even the ship’s bell have since been found by divers, though it is thought much more treasure still remains on the sea bed waiting to be discovered.
9. Kennack Sands
Surrounded by many known wrecks it also rumoured that the waters off Kennack Sands, on the Lizard Peninsula, are the resting place of another treasure laden vessel. This belief was reinforced when, in 1960, a visitor and his son came across something shimmering in a rock pool by the beach. On closer inspection it was found to be a gold hand-hammered coin dating back to 1366 and originating from Belgium. Surely, as many believe, there is more to be found at this picturesque spot.
10. Harlyn Bay
John Piers was a notorious Cornish pirate in the late 16th century. Based in Padstow. his hunting ground stretched around the coastline from the Bristol Channel to the Isle of Wight. His story is made all the more sinister by his mother, and confidante, Anne, to whom it is said “Piers hathe conveyed all such goods and spoiles as he hathe wickedlie gotten at the seas”. In 1581 Anne was accused of being a witch, using her dark crafts to help her son in his activities. In the same year John had just brought in a particularly valuable prize to Studland Bay on the Dorset coast when he and 15 of his crew were discovered, arrested and sentenced to hang. Despite managing a brief escape from Dorchester Gaol Piers was caught and eventually executed in March 1582. His mother, having been acquitted of her own convictions, is said to have hidden her son’s remaining loot in the cliffs at Harlyn Bay.
11. Dizzard Point
Of all the Cornish pirates Poundstock’s 14th century Pirateers could perhaps boast the most bloodthirsty of reputations. Operating from their ‘Den’, hidden amongst rugged Cornish cliffs near the village, the gang preyed on richly-laden ships that would frequently pass Widemouth Bay. Desperate to conceal the whereabouts of their stowed booty they would go to any lengths to silence blabbing mouths. William Penfound discovered this the hard way. By day an upstanding clergyman but by night dirtying his hands in dealing with the Pirateers, he became a little too loose lipped about their activities and was executed in broad daylight beneath the church altar. Despite the village residents’ acute fear of the gang, rumours still circulated, including details of their treasure stash’s location. The ‘Poundstock Hoard’ is believed to be hidden near their Den between Dizzard Point and Penhalt Cliff. Though many have searched, the hoard is yet to be uncovered.
12. Looe Island
Once a hotspot for pirates and smugglers and with an ancient history full of mystery and intrigue, it is no surprise that Looe Island, also known as St George’s Island, is rumoured to be the hiding place of a long forgotten treasure. Some years ago sisters Roselyn and Evelyn Atkins, famous residents of the Island, received an astonishing letter from a man in Cumbria explaining that he was in possession of what appeared to be a genuine treasure map of the island, with a clear ‘X’ marking the spot, and that he wished to entrust the siblings with it. After years of consideration a young man was eventually given permission to search for the treasure but despite two weeks of digging he was left exhausted and empty handed. Interestingly, however, a large stone was found at the spot concealing a small hollow. Some believe that the stone itself may be the real treasure, supposedly boasting special magnetic properties. Others think the treasure was once contained in the hollow. But many people maintain that the treasure must still be hidden, perhaps deep under the ‘X’ or somewhere nearby.