The Cruel Coppinger
CORNWALL is the region of romance: the last corner of the United Kingdom in which legend and imagination had full play, while matter-of-fact already sat enthroned over the rest of the land. At a time when newspapers almost everywhere had already long been busily recording facts, legends were still in the making throughout this westernmost part of the island. We may, in our innocence, style Cornwall as part of England; but the Cornish do not think of it as such, and when they cross the Tamar into Devonshire will still often speak of going into England. They are historically correct in doing so, for this is the unconquered land of the Cornu-Welsh, never assimilated by the Saxon kingdoms. Historically and ethnologically, the Cornish are a people apart.
The Coppinger legend is a case in point, illustrating the growth of wild stories out of meager facts. Cruel Coppinger is a half-satanic, semi-Viking character in the tales of North Cornwall and North Devon, of whom no visitor is likely to remain ignorant, for not only was he a dread figure of local folklore from about the first quarter of the nineteenth century, but he was written up in 1866 by the Reverend R. S. Hawker, Vicar of Morwenstow, who not only collated those floating stories, but added very much of his own, for Hawker was a man and a not very scrupulous man of imagination. Hawkers presentment of Cruel Coppinger was published in a popular magazine, and then the legend became full-blown.
The advent of Coppinger upon the coast at Welcombe Mouth, near where Devon and Cornwall join, was dramatic. The story tells how a strange vessel went to pieces on the reefs and how only one person escaped with his life, in the midst of a howling tempest: this was the skipper, a Dane named Coppinger. On the beach, on foot and on horseback, was a crowd, waiting, in the usual Cornish way, for any wreck of the sea that might be thrown up. Into the midst of them, like some sea-monster, dashed this sole survivor, and he bounded suddenly upon the crupper of a young damsel who had ridden to the shore to see the sight. He grasped her bridle, and, shouting in a foreign tongue, urged the doubly-laden animal to full speed, and the horse naturally took his usual way home. The damsel was Miss Dinah Hamlyn and eventually the horse stopped at her fathers door and the stranger jumped down and lifted her off her saddle. He then announced himself as a Dane, named Coppinger, and took his place at the family board and there remained until he had secured the affections and hand of Dinah. The father died, and Coppinger succeeded to the management and control of the house, which from thereon became the refuge of every lawless character along the coast. All kinds of wild uproar and reckless revelry appalled the neighbourhood, night and day. It was discovered that an organised band of smugglers, wreckers, and poachers made this house their rendezvous, and that Cruel Coppinger was their captain. In those times no revenue officer dared exercised any vigilance west of the Tamar, and, to make certain of no such future surveillance, the head of a Gauger * was chopped off by one of Coppingers gang, on the gunwale of a boat.
*( A revenue officer who inspects bulk goods subject to duty )
Strange vessels began to appear at regular intervals on the coast, and signals were flashed from the headlands, to lead them into the safest creek or cove. Amongst these, one, a full-rigged schooner, soon became ominously conspicuous. She was for long the terror of those shores, and her name was the Black Prince. Once with Coppinger on board, she led a revenue cutter into an intricate channel near the Bull Rock, where, from his knowledge of the bearings, the Black Prince escaped unscathed while the Kings vessel perished with all on board. If any landsman became a nuisance to Coppingers or his men, he was seized, carried aboard the Black Prince, and then obliged to save his life he was enrolled as one of the crew. Amid such practices, ill-gotten gold began to accrue to Coppinger. At one time he had enough money to purchase a freehold farm bordering on the sea. When the day of transfer came, he and one of his followers appeared before the lawyer and paid the money in dollars, ducats, doubloons, and pistols. The lawyer objected, but Coppinger, with an oath, bade him take that or none.
Long impunity increased Coppingers daring. Over certain bridle paths along the fields he exercised exclusive control, and issued orders that no man was to pass over them by night. They were known as Coppingers Tracks, and all converged at a cliff called Steeple Brink. Here the precipice fell sheer to the sea, 300 feet, with overhanging eaves a hundred feet from the summit. Under this part was a cave, only to be reached by a rope-ladder from above. This was Coppingers Cave. Here sheep were tethered to the rock and fed on stolen hay and corn until slaughtered. Kegs of brandy and Holland's were piled around; chests of tea, and iron bound sea chests contained the chattels and revenues of the Coppinger royalty of the sea. The terror linked with Coppingers name throughout the north coasts of Cornwall and Devon was so extreme that the people themselves, wild and lawless though they were, submitted to his sway as though he had been lord of the soil, and they his vassals. Such a household as his was far from happy or calm. Although when his father-in-law died he had acquired possession of the stock and farm, there remained in the hands of the widow a considerable amount of money. This he obtained from the helpless woman by installments, and by force. He would fasten his wife to the pillar of her oak bedstead and call her mother into the room, and assure her he would flog Dinah with a cat-o-nine-tails till her mother had transferred to him what he wanted. This act of brutal cruelty he repeated until he had utterly exhausted the widows store.
There was but one child of Coppingers marriage. It was a boy and deaf and dumb, but mischievous and ungovernable, delighting in cruelty to other children, animals, or birds. When he was but six years of age, he was found one day, hugging himself with delight, and pointing down from the brink of a cliff to the beach, where the body of a neighbours child was found; and it was believed that little Coppinger had flung him over. It was a saying in the district that, as a judgment on his fathers cruelty, the child had been born without a human soul: but the just end at last arrived. Money became scarce and more than one armed Kings cutter was seen, day and night, hovering off the land. Coppinger, who came with the water, went with the wind. made good his escape. A wrecker, watching the shore as the sun went down, saw a full-rigged vessel standing offshore. Coppinger came to the beach, put off in boat to the vessel and jumped on board as she spread canvas and was seen no more. That night was one of a great storm, and whether the vessel rode it out safely or not none ever knew.
It is hardly necessary to add that the Coppinger of these and other rumbustious stories is a strictly fictional Coppinger; and that they are mainly products of Hawkers own vivid imagination, built upon very flimsy folklore traditions. Who and what was the real Coppinger , however, remains a mystery.Very little confirmable information is available in the public record, but what we have cuts down to size the legendary half-man, half-monster of those remarkable exploits. Daniel Herbert Coppinger, was wrecked at Welcombe Mouth on 23rd December 1792 and was given shelter beneath the roof of Mr. William Arthur, a yeoman farmer of Golden Park, Hartland. For many years afterwards the words below might have been seen, scratched on a window-pane in the farmhouse:
D. H. Coppinger, shipwrecked 23 December 1792, kindly received by Mr. Wm. Arthur.
There is not the slightest authority for the story of his sensational leap onto the saddle of Miss Dinah Hamlyn; but it is true enough that the next year he married a Miss Hamlyn her Christian name was Ann elder of the two daughters of Ackland Hamlyn, of Galsham, in Hartland. In the parish registers of Hartland church may be found this entry:
Daniel Herbert Coppinger, of the Kings Royal Navy, and Ann Hamlyn married by license 03 Aug. In addition the evidence of the entry also gives lie to her being any damsel as it appears she was of the mature age of forty-two.
Mrs. Hamlyn, Coppingers mother-in-law died in 1800 and was buried in the chancel of Hartland church. It is quite possible that his married life was stormy and that he, more or less by force, extracted money from Mrs. Hamlyn. He was certainly somewhat involved in smuggling but there is no record that he, or any of his associates, chopped off the head of an excise officer, as such would have surely been mentioned in the extensive Customs & Excise records. Tales are told of Revenue Officers searching at Galsham for contraband. Mrs. Coppinger reportedly hid a quantity of very valuable silks in the kitchen oven, while her husband engaged the officers attention by permitting them to find a number of spirit-kegs. Later they were to discover, much to their disgust, that they were empty and empty so long that not even the ghost a smell of the departed spirit could be traced. But the harried Mrs. Coppinger had, in her haste, made a grave mistake in hiding the precious contraband in the oven, as it was hot and ready for baking: the valuable silks were cooked to a cinder.
Little else is known of Coppinger and nothing whatever of his alleged connection with the Navy. He became a bankrupt in 1802 and was then a prisoner in the Kings Bench Prison. With him was one Richard Coppinger, said to have been a merchant in Martinique. Nothing is known of him after this date, but rumour had it that he was living apart from his wife at Barnstaple, and subsisting on an allowance from her. Mrs. Coppinger in after years, herself resided at Barnstaple, and died there on 31st August 1833. She lies buried in the chancel of Hartland church beside her mother.
According to the Rev. S. Baring-Gould, Coppinger was not really a Dane, but an Irishman, and had a wife at Trewhiddle near St. Austell. He, on the same authority, is said to have done extremely well as a smuggler, and had not only a farm at Trewhiddle, but another at Roscoff, in Brittany. A daughter, says Mr. Baring-Gould, married a Trefusis, son of Lord Clinton, and Coppinger gave her £40,000 as a dowry. A son married the daughter of Sir John Murray, Bart., of Stanhope. The source of this interesting information is not stated.
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