An inhuman neighbourhood

A grateful survivor comments on rapacious villagers

By Ruth Herman

As Lord Chancellor during the reign of Queen Anne and later on as elder statesman and Leader of the House of Lords, Earl Cowper received letters on all manner of things.  These letters give insight into aspects of eighteenth century life in an accessible and often entertaining way.  And in this case the correspondence demonstrates that for some people the opportunity to acquire goods arriving on their doorstep is irresistible.  The writer having survived a major storm is amazed at the rapacious nature of the villagers.

This tendency to grab rather than hand in shipwrecked cargo seems to have been a problem at the time, to the extent that in 1694 “A Bill to prevent Spoils and Abuses, committed upon Wrecks, was read the Second time” was introduced in Parliament.[1]

The particular storm from which Mr Dixon, Cowper’s correspondent survived must have been very significant as the incident was reported in the London newspapers of the day:

[In] the late tempestuous  Weather, a Dublin Vessel with 40 Tun of good French Claret on board her, besides other lading, was driven ashore on the Coasts of Anglesey; the [Gentlemen] of Wales descended in great Numbers, and tore her all in Pieces, carrying off all the Cargo, Timbers, and even the Rigging of the Ship.[2]

Robert Dixon appears to have been a lawyer and he sent several letters from Dublin to Lord Cowper.


D/EP F54 23


Shipwreck: Holyhead


21st November 1721

(Addressed to Lord Cowper)

A correspondent from this rugged spot may very well surprise you but rude and remote as it is still not without a share of their calamities. Yet we have must expect melancholy accounts of from many of the ports of England which I beg leave to acquaint your lordship of in the following manner

I arrived here on horseback about ten days ago, and last Saturday at 5 in the evening went on board of Grafton pacquet boat for Dublin.  The wind blew fresh but favourably for about 5 hours when it turned directly on us in so violent a manner that we all struck with panic and expected our doom every moment in this condition we lay beating the sea that came apace in upon us above and below deck till the morning afforded us light enough to make our port we sailed from the evening before and avoid the rocks on the coast which we did by the mercy of God after we had made two thirds of our way to Dublin, pumping hard for our lives all the way.

As we were returning thanks on Sunday evening in the church for our deliverance, news came to us of a ship bound for London from Dublin just wrecked upon the coast about 3 miles from this place; by the providence of God the crew and one gentleman of the single passenger on board were all saved but the ship was dashed in pieces and the cargo valued at between  £ 4 and 5000 [worth around £400,00 in today’s money] straight fell a prey to an inhuman neighbourhood, who in a very short space of time gather on the strand and fell to plunder what they could by hands on, in spite of what could be said done by a few more human people met there upon a more charitable vocation. By their behaviour one would imagine they looked on these accidents as so many gifts from heaven which no human law or power is to control or interfere with most unworthy objects of divine bounty, who can believe so like devils in taking possession of it!

I can’t express to our lordship with what pleasure I read your name in the news to this place, in the service of your country: may just heaven continue to increase your health for the good of these unhappy isles, and may all those base ones who have steered to our destruction and robbed the ship when they had done, live in fear of you whilst you go on in exposing all selfish views, rapacious treasures and dishonourable practices.

I feel very good effects (thank God) from the Hotwell Water[3] that I did not leave till the middle of October, and have a most grateful memory in this very boisterous rough seas and place of those softer moments I have had the honour to pass there in your lordship’s company.

I propose to wear my gown again, whilst I can acquit myself with justice to my employers in the easier parts of proposition, and don’t wish for more honour than your permission of such correspondence at this with your lordship and any opportunity of proving myself at all times and place.

R. Dixon

[1] House of Commons Journal Volume 11: 2 February 1694

[2] Weekly Journal or Saturday’s Post, 2 Dec. 1721. 17th and 18th Century Burney Collection.

[3] Bristol Hot Wells were an early competitor to Bath with waters which invalids drank to improve their health. It had lost its popularity by the end of the eighteenth century.

This page was added on 06/02/2016.

Add your comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!