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Cruel Coppinger and 'The Black Prince'
Cornish Wreckers Folktale

A tale about 'Cruel CopPinger', the Cornish smuggler, as told by a man who ran with him.

Desperate affrays took place between smugglers and the preventive men, who were aware that the magistracy took a lenient view of the case when one of them fell, and brought in " murder " when an officer of the Crown shot a " free–trader."

One of the most terrible men on the Cornish coast, remembered by his evil repute, was "Cruel Coppinger." He had a house at Welcombe on the north coast, where lived his wife, an heiress. The bed is still shown to the post of which he tied her and thrashed her with a rope till she consented to make over her little fortune to his exclusive use.

Coppinger had a smnall estate at Roscoff, in Brittany, which was the headquarters of the smuggling trade during the European war. He was paid by the British Government to carry despatches to and from the French coast, but he took advantage of his credentials as a Government agent to do much contraband business himself.

I remember, as a boy, an evil–faced old man, his complexion flaming red and his hair very white, who kept a small tavern not in the best repute. A story of this innkeeper was told, and it is possible that it may be true–naturally the subject was not one on which it was possible to question him. He had been a smuggler in his day, and a wild one too.

On one occasion, as he and his men were rowing a cargo ashore they were pursued by a revenue boat Tristram Davey, as 1 will call this man, knew this bit of coast perfectly. There was a reef of sharp slate rack that ran across the little bay, like a very keen saw with the teeth set outward, and there was but one point at which this saw could be crossed. Tristram knew the point to a nicety, even in the gloaming, and he made for it, the revenue boat following.

He, however, did not make direct for it, but steered a little on one side and then suddenly swerved and shot through the break. The revenue boat came straight on, went upon the jaws of the reef, was torn, and began to fill. Now the mate of this boat was one against whom Tristram entertained a deadly enmity, because he had been the means of a capture in which his property had been concerned. So he turned the boat, and running back, he stood up, levelled a gun and shot the mate through the heart; then away went the smuggling boat to shore, leaving the rest of the revenue men to shift as best they could with their injured boat.

(Baring–Gould, A Book of Cornwall, pages 272–274.)

Here is another account, this one from Margaret Ann Courtney:

The most noted and daring Cornish smuggler of the last century, Coppinger, a Dane, lived on the north coast, and of him a legendary catalogue of dreadful tales is told, all to be found in the Rev. R. S. Hawker's book, the Footprints of Former Men in Far Cornwall. He lays the scene of his exploits in the neighbourhood of Hartland Bay, my informant near Newquay. He swam ashore here in the prime of life, in the middle of a frightful storm, from a foreign–rigged vessel that was seen in the offing, and of which nothing more was ever heard or known. Wrapped in a cloak, that tradition says he tore from off the shoulders of an old woman who was on the beach, he jumped up behind a farmer's daughter, who had ridden down to see the wreck, and was by her taken to her father's house, where he was fed, clothed, and most hospitably received. He was a fine, handsome, well–built man, and gave himself out to be most highly connected in his own country. He soon won the young woman's affections, and at her father's death, which took place not long after, he easily induced her to marry him; but it was far from a happy union. Luckily they had but one child—a deaf and dumb idiot, who had inherited his father's cruel disposition, and delighted in torturing all living things. It is even said that he cunningly killed one of his young playmates. Coppinger, after his marriage, organized a band of smugglers, and made himself their captain; and quickly through his misdeeds earned the title of cruel Coppinger. One legend relates that he once led a Revenue cutter into a dangerous cove, of which he alone knew the soundings, and that he and his crew came out of it in safety, but the other vessel with all on board perished. Mr. Hawker calls Coppinger's ship the "Black Prince," and says he had it built for himself in Denmark, and that men who had made themselves in any way obnoxious to him on land were carried on board her, and compelled by fearful oaths to enrol [sic] themselves in her crew.

In 1835 an old man of the age of ninety–seven related to this writer that when a youth he had been so abducted, and after two years' service he had been ransomed by his friends with a large sum. "And all," said the old man, very simply, "because I happened to see one man kill another, and they thought I should mention it." The same author gives him a wonderfully fleet horse, which no one but Coppinger could master, and says that on its back he made more than one hairbreadth escape. He has also a marvellous account of his end, in which he disappears as he came, in a vessel which he boarded in a storm of thunder, lightning, and hail. As soon as he was in her, "she was out of sight in a moment, like a spectre or a ghost." For this he quotes the following verse:—

"Will you hear of the cruel Coppinger?
He came from a foreign kind;
He was brought to us from the salt water,
He was carried away by the wind."

The one thing certain about him is, that at one time he amassed money enough by smuggling to buy a small freehold estate near the sea, the title–deeds of which, signed with his name, still exist. But in his old age, I have been told, he was reduced to poverty,and subsisted on charity.

(Courtney, Cornish Feasts and Folklore, pages 89–91.)

This is a very graphic account. The writer, Baring–Gould, was, after all, a Reverend best known for writing the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers" in 1865.