The rugged north coast of Cornwall was once considered a smuggler’s paradise. Millions of years of erosion by those unstoppable Atlantic rollers have created a coastline of countless craggy inlets, secluded coves and hidden caves – and the men that worked these waters would have known and used every one of them.
One man in particular has come to epitomise the daring and ruthless lives of the smugglers and pirates in the region in the 18th century, there was even a ballad written about his life.
“Will you hear of the Cruel Coppinger?
He came from a foreign kind,
He was brought to us by the salt water.
He was carried away by the wind.”
Legend has it that ‘Cruel Coppinger’ (whose real name may have been Daniel Coppinger) was shipwrecked on the Cornish coast near Marsland Mouth in December 1793 and married a local heiress, Ann (or Dinah) Hamlyn just a few months later. Thought to have had Danish roots Coppinger wasn’t satisfied to be on dry land for very long, after his marriage he quickly gathered a gang of like-minded men and embarked on a violent career of poaching, piracy, wrecking and smuggling.
Coppinger was the terror of Cornwall’s north coast for many years, often killing or intimidating any customs officials that dared to try and kerb his activities. He was also a close associate of the Carter brothers who famously smuggled out of Prussia Cove near Mounts Bay.
His ship, Black Prince, was said to have been made especially for him in Denmark and Coppinger it seems was extremely successful in his criminal enterprises. It is rumoured that when he decided to buy a freehold farm close to the sea he arrived to pay the agent with bags of foreign coin – “Dollars and ducats, doubloons and pistols, guineas, the coinage of every foreign country with a seaboard, were displayed on the table.” Coppinger is thought to have stored all his treasure in a sea-cave below a headland known as Steeple Brink. This cave was said to be as large as “Kilkhampton Church” but its location today is a mystery.
Cruel Coppinger was a favourite of the Rev. Robert Stephen Hawker of Morwenstow who made it his business to record many of the wild tales of the north coast told to him by local people – and sometimes elaborate on them too. Hawker claims that one night during a violent storm Coppinger boarded a ship and disappeared into the dark never to be seen in Cornwall again.