There are some extraordinary parallels with the eighteenth century diversification that was shipwrecking and looting along the coast at Sker and Kenfig. The tales of old are thought provoking on a Christmas walk along the Coastal Path, or the footpath that takes you so near to Sker House. A week before Christmas 1753, according to @RobBowen Kenfig Heritage Website Project, one of the more notorious of the (18 local shipwrecks occurred.
The Le Vainquer foundered on the rocks at Sker, after her Captain mistook the Bristol Channel for the English Channel. The mistake was to cost him his life and that of his brother, while the locals clearly thought that the spilled booty was a ‘divine gift’. It was a Christmas to remember as they feasted on oranges, figs, lemons and much more that had been destined for the banqueting halls of the French nobility.
The ‘shameful plundering’ led to the arrest of Isaac Williams, tenant of Sker Farm and father of the Maid of Sker, Elizabeth Williams, along with 16 other people. My thoughts turned to his defence almost 250 years later during the trial of the Princess of Wales’s butler, Paul Burrell. Isaac Williams successfully claimed at the Assize Court in Swansea that he had removed as much cargo as possible to Sker House for safekeeping.
The extent of the looting of the stricken Le Vainquer was such that 400 people were said to have ‘swarmed all over the vessel’. The bailiff sent to recover some of the cargo feared for his life at the hands of the angry mob and is said to have refused to return, even if he was paid £50! The authorities were determined to make an example. One of those tried was hanged and notices were posted on church doors, warning that ‘the looting of wrecks was punishable by death’.
Le Vainquer’s wrecking was apparently the result of an unlucky mistake on the part of the Captain – whose body was stripped of 17 Portuguese gold pieces, silver shoe and knee buckles and a silver watch. Commercialised wrecking was, though, an important part of the black economy of coastal regions. Today, a ramble across the dunes clears the cobwebs and fires the imagination – especially with the promise of a well earned drink by the log fire at the Prince of Wales.
The room in Sker House where I slept as a small child had its window facing Sker Point, out of alignment with the other windows in the house. I grew up believing that it was to facilitate a lamp in the window sending a signal to the wreckers using fires and lamps to lure ships onto the treacherous Sker Point. The position of the window meant that officials approaching the front of the house wouldn’t see the signal.
Another modern take on an old tradition is money laundering. A story passed down by word of mouth, concerns a maid at Sker. It’s the old ‘My father knew an old man who knew an old man who knew the maid ….’ but there is some historical evidence to substantiate the tale that the farmer gave her a sack of looted sovereigns to wash. My brother and I spent some time one summer digging up a patch near the house to try and find them – and then had to turn the pigs in to disguise our totally unsuccessfully and haphazard excavations.
The Big Freeze of 1982 brought more parallels with the wrecking history of the area. The M4 was completely blocked for days, with lorries and cars abandoned. I was reporting for Swansea Sound from the police station in Cornelly. The police served me with coffee from said lorries while telling me of the arrests made for the looting of TVs, bread and more!
There’s nothing new about local history……