The Wreckers of Cefn Sidan
The people with little hatchets.
The Captain of the La Jeune Emma peered through the mist, desperate for a sighting of land. It had been two days since he had glimpsed the lighthouse at Ushant, or so he thought. That mistake was to cost him dearly. Since then, because of the storms and fog, he had seen nothing. Surely they were somewhere near the French coast. Cherbourg and a safe end to the voyage from Martinique must be near at hand but where were the beacons marking the entrance to the harbour? He turned to the First Mate.
“Keep her course steady North-East-by-East. Reef the outer jib and foresail and keep a good lookout.”
The First Mate checked the compass. “Aye Captain.”
“We are in shallow water. I can feel it in the swell. Call me immediately when you sight land.”
The Captain turned and left the poop deck. He was exhausted. He had to get a few hours rest before they reached port. There would be work enough to do then.
Below deck, Adeline Coquelin sat in the owner’s saloon, her geography book lay open on the table but she was not looking at it. Her father, Lieutenant Colonel Coquelin, had just told her they would be landing in France within the day. Adeline’s eyes flashed with excitement.
“Will Aunt Josephine and Emperor Bonaparte be there to meet us?” she asked.
“No child. The Emperor is a busy man but we may see them later,”
“Land ho,” cried the lookout.
The Captain had not undressed. He heaved himself up from his bunk, pulled on his boots and was quickly on deck.
“Where away?” he called.
The mate pointed to the signal beacons off the starboard bow.
“At last. Steer between the lights Mr. Mate. Bosun, reef the main royal. I want to lose speed before we reach the harbour mouth,” ordered the Captain.
The La Jeune Emma turned to starboard and her new heading. The crew reduced sail, desperately trying to slow the vessel without losing steerage. Relentlessly the wind pushed the ship forward.
A sudden squall hit the vessel from behind and she lifted, propelled faster through the darkness, towards the lights.
Adeline had prepared for bed and was saying her prayers when the ship ran aground. The force of the impact threw her across the cabin. The ship lay at a strange angle. Her father ran in and helped her dress. Together they went on deck.
The La Jeune Emma was stuck fast and the sea was breaking across the deck. Screaming crewmen were being washed into the sea and disappearing into the darkness. The Lieutenant Colonel gripped his daughter by the arm and pulled her towards the bow of the ship looking for shelter or a way to escape from the vessel before it broke up.
On the shore men stood watching the stricken ship being buffeted by the waves. They laughed and congratulated each other. It had been a good nights work. Tomorrow the proper work would begin. Then, in the light of day, when the sea had died down, they would return and collect their prize. The men turned away from the doomed vessel and walked across the beach past the bonfires they had lit earlier that evening.
These men were the ‘Wreckers’ of Cefn Sidan and wrecking ships was their evil trade. Will Manney had been a notorious wrecker, working as a domestic servant by day and wrecking ships by night. The magistrate sentenced him for murder and Manney was left dangling on a gibbet on the top of Pembrey Mountain. Even this stark warning did not stop the wreckers.
Enticing ships onto the beach and looting the vessels was a lucrative occupation and the beach Cefn Sidan the ideal place for this heinous crime. Inhabitants came from miles around to prosper by means of loot stolen from vessels stranded on the shore. Ships returning to Europe often mistook the Lundy lighthouse for the fixed light at Ushant causing them to sail far off course and into Carmarthen Bay, where they were driven by unfavourable tides and winds onto Cefn Sidan. It was a natural trap and many ships ended their final voyage here. On one occasion sixteen vessels were smashed on the coast during a violent northeasterly storm. Nearly all of the crews were drowned. The wreckers, eager for plunder, often helped them to their doom with misleading signal beacons. Locals called the robbers – ’Gwyr-y-Bwelli Bach’ – ’People with Little Hatchets’ after the tools they used to plunder the ships.
Marker buoys had been placed in the bay to warn of the peril but many of these had mysteriously vanished. The wreckers intended to protect their interests.
By eleven o’clock the crew of the La Jeune Emma had launched a makeshift raft, in an attempt to reach the shore. It overturned tossing everyone aboard into the sea. Only four people thrown from the raft reached the beach. The few sailors still on board the ship climbed into the rigging where they clung on desperately.
At first light sympathetic villagers reached the La Jeune Emma. She was stuck in shallow water close to the beach and was listing. Valiant attempts were made to rescue the survivors. Two were bought ashore alive. At the same time the wreckers began their work. The cargo of sugar, sherry, spices, coffee, cotton, rum and ginger was swiftly carted away. Valuable lumber was stripped from the vessel.
Eventually the militia arrived from Carmarthen to take charge of the wreck. All that was left of
the cargo was three hundred gallons of rum. Everything else had been plundered.
The bodies of the Captain, four crew members, the Lieutenant Colonel and his daughter - the 12-year-old niece of Napoleon Bonaparte - were found and buried in the graveyard at St. Illtud's Church in Pembrey. They lie alongside many other seafarers that perished in the same way. There were only six survivors from the nineteen people on board when the La Jeune Emma struck Cefn Sidan, that evening, on the 21st November 1829.
A strange footnote to the story is that several of the drowned sailors were recovered from the sea, further along the coast, and buried at Laugharne. Later, when another body was discovered and the grave was reopened to inter the corpse with the other sailors, a gruesome discovery was made. One of the coffins had been opened and the body removed. It was never found. All that was left in the coffin was a sailor’s blue shirt.