Towards a Coastal History of Wrecking in the North Sea: legality and cultural practice of British ‘wreckers’ in the 18th century
Daisy Turnbull (University of Portsmouth / Högskolan i Halmstad)
Recent historic scholarship, analysing the cultural practice of ‘wrecking’ as either the pillaging of shipwreck or harvesting of materials washed into the shoreline, has demonstrated the need for its revision in separation from popular narratives and Cornish particularism. Materials found within archives of the North Sea coastline demonstrates the widespread practice and debate surrounding wrecking in the 18th century. Case studies of so called ‘wreckers’ operating in the intertidal zone of the North Sea coast draws into question the ownership and legality of this liminal space, bringing forth debate surrounding the rights to wreck between government officials and manorial estates, port authorities and the admiralty, local corporations and private individuals. This paper reconsiders the relationship of littoral communities of the North Sea with the intertidal zone, as a place of resource and the entanglement of the biological and cultural, where artefacts of trade and empire drift or are beckoned ashore. Furthermore, it questions the ontological changes that occur in the process of artefacts being lost as wreck, including the remains of the vessel itself, and the concept of the ‘wreck of the sea’ as a legal terminology. In doing so it implores the use of a ‘new’ coastal historiography, as well as the incorporation of a ‘moral geography’ concept, in development of a revised literature of wrecking as a cultural practice and reasons as to the further development of legal framework in the criminalisation of the practice.
Image: ‘The Wreckers’, c. 1790, by George Moreland (1763-1804). Photo credit: Nottingham City Museum & Galleries