Today marks the 130th anniversary (17 November 1893) of a notorious night/early morning in St Ives Bay when five ships were wrecked on what became known as the Night of the Cintra Gale. A crankshaft broke loose in the engine room of steamer Hampshire, tearing a massive hole in the hull. The ship went down within an hour 10 miles north of Godrevy Head with the loss of the captain and 14 crew. Cintra, Bessie, Vulture and Rosedale came to grief on Carbis Bay and Porthminster beaches.
This awful night would be a largely forgotten footnote in the story of Cornish maritime disasters but for reminders visible to this day – as seen in the video below – and an incident featuring one of St Ives’ most famous artists. At the lowest tides you can walk around what’s left of the three ships that met their end at Carbis Bay.
St Ives lifeboat Exeter II was launched but conditions meant that it could not go farther than Pedn Olva before giving up, oars broken. Eyewitness Sam Cleave observed, “they’ve got the lifeboat out but they won’t do nothing against that sea.” The wind brought the morning train from St Erth to a standstill as it approached the dunes in front of West Cornwall golf course, with the fury of the gale causing immense damage throughout Cornwall. As reported in The Cornishman, around 1,000 lives were lost at sea and on land.
The anchor of 418 ton collier Cintra of Liverpool was recovered from the seabed in 1959 and installed on Smeaton’s Pier in 2003. A nod to this is just 100 yards away, as the premises formerly trading as Caffé Pasta became Cintra Seafood Bar in Spring 2023.
Cintra ended up near the Porthminster Point end of Carbis Bay Beach. Captained by Henry Green of Brixham, the huge seas had already buckled stanchions and destroyed its ventilators but at 2 a.m. the windlass seized up, jamming the anchor chains solid. As dawn broke, the gale changed to NNE. As the ship was about to sink at anchor some crew tried to cut the fouled chains with hammers and chisels, only to be driven back to the shelter of the bridge.
Captain Green hoisted a distress signal and ordered the lifeboat to be lowered but it capsized on meeting the water, causing Chief engineer Rogers, fireman Summers and two able seamen to disappear in the surf. Cintra lurched onto the sands and it was every man for himself. Captain Green, steward Jones, two engineers and a fireman jumped overboard, but able seaman Ash of Brixham, though handed a lifebelt by the captain, stayed behind, hoping the collier would ebb dry. The rest were dragged ashore by coastguards and rocket men. Cintra suddenly broke up, drowning Ash, one of seven of the 12-person crew to perish.
The remains of Bessie and Vulture lie near Carrack Gladden, a few yards from the headland which divides the beach from Porthkidney Sands. Vulture’s crew, all from St Ives and Hayle, were landed by breeches buoy. All aboard Bessie were also safely rescued. The photo below shows 287-ton SS Bessie broadside to the surf, with the boilers of 345-ton Vulture of Cardiff beyond.
Bessie has the unusual if melancholy distinction of being wrecked on both her maiden and final voyages. Built in 1865 for the busy Hayle – Bristol trade route and launched by Harvey and Company of Hayle, the collier ran aground on Hayle Bar in a heavy north-easterly gale on 11 January 1866. In mountainous seas, St Ives’ first RNLI lifeboat ‘Moses’ was unable to reach the casualty so a telegram was sent to Penzance requesting help.
Drawn by eight horses through Canon’s Town and Lelant, Penzance lifeboat ‘Richard Lewis’ and its crew of 12 met ‘Moses’ in St Ives and both boats set off together. After a long struggle Bessie’s captain and crew of eight were brought ashore. The Silver Medal was awarded to Penzance Coxswain Thomas Carbis three weeks later with the following citation: “The long struggle of both crews to reach the wreck and their coolness and judgement in the actual rescue were beyond all praise”. Additional payments were awarded to both crews.
The 936-ton cargo steamer Rosedale wound up at Porthminster, broken beyond repair. Out of Southampton en route to Cardiff, the captain had no option but to try and ground on the beach. Sam Cleave stated that he did this with some skill but correctly assessed that the ship was “leaking water at every hole it can find and will be fit for nothing but scrap”.
The next day, Richard Taylor and James Stevens, aged 12 and 13 took brass fittings lifted from the ship to marine stores dealer Alfred Wallis (his business a few yards from Quay Street closed in 1912, after which he started working for a local antiques dealer. It was not until his wife’s death in 1922 that he took up painting “for company”). The boys grudgingly accepted Alfred’s meagre offer and boasted of their windfall in The Sloop. Word spread, resulting in Sergeant Jones paying Alfred a visit to enquire if he had recently acquired any brass. It was well hidden in a bag of bones so the policeman found nothing but Alfred knew he had to shift it – fast.
The following day he cycled to Penzance, feeling “more relieved the further I got from St Ives”. Sadly, his confidence was misplaced for on arrival at Denley’s (the intended purchaser), he was greeted by none other than Sgt Jones. Soon in the dock at the St Ives Borough Police Court, Alfred was fined £10 for receiving stolen goods. This was a large sum for a man who would end his days penniless at Madron workhouse but he was (just) able to pay, avoiding time in Bodmin jail. The lads were less fortunate. Unable to raise their fine of 25 shillings each, they spent a month at Bodmin.
The photo of Rosedale below shows the high sandbank that forms on the beach after high tides with a strong northerly wind, and New Pier, built in 1866.
Article and video by: Tony Mason