Saturday, 10 May 2014

The Dread Wrecker Featherstone

Further to Ropes of sand: a Teignmouth penance, Angela Williams of Literary Places kindly sent me another local-ish example of someone condemned to posthumous torment weaving sand ropes on the beach, this time commemorated through a poem.

Angela, who has extensively researched the Plymouth-born priest-poet Robert Stephen Hawker (1803-1875), sent me a link to one of Hawker's Cornish-themed poems, Featherstone's Doom.


TWIST thou and twine! in light and gloom
A spell is on thine hand;
The wind shall be thy changeful loom,
Thy web the shifting sand.

Twine from this hour, in ceaseless toil,
On Blackrock's sullen shore;
Till cordage of the sand shall coil
Where crested surges roar.

'Tis for that hour, when, from the wave.
Near voices wildly cried;
When thy stern hand no succour gave,
The cable at thy side.

Twist thou and twine! in light and gloom
The spell is on thine hand;
The wind shall be thy changeful loom,
Thy web the shifting sand.

* The Blackrock is a bold, dark, pillared mass of schist, which rises midway on the shore of Widemouth Bay, near Bude, and is held to be the lair of the troubled spirit of Featherstone the wrecker, imprisoned therein until he shall have accomplished his doom.
[First printed in Records of the Western Shore, 1832.]
- page 15, Cornish Ballads & Other Poems (Robert Stephen Hawker, pub. London : J. Lane, 1908, Internet Archive cornishballads00hawk).
"Featherstone the wrecker" is elusive. There's a detailed word picture of him, author uncredited, in the 1871 compilation of Baily's Magazine of Sports and Pastimes, Volume 20, which tells us of one of his acts of villainy - cutting the hand off a living wreck victim to get her jewelled rings - as well as his full name, John Maria Featherstone, his dog's breed (a lurcher), and his religion, his psychology, and the decor of his hovel (he suffers from a major case of 'splitting' - he's a good Catholic but a bad man, who prays to the Madonna and Child before and after committing his crimes).
Once more at the Black Rock of Widemouth Bay. It has its legend, which shall be gossiped forth by way of epilogue. In a hovel, above the footbridge over the brook that comes brawling down the hollow of Wansome Combe, dwelt, long years ago, a lone man — Featherstone — a stranger in the land — sluggard by day, poacher by night, and a wrecker at all times. Not a creature lived with him save a mute lurcher, that possessed alike the illegitimacy, the ferocity, and the taciturnity of its master. Both were savage, solitary, and fearless. It is false to say that sin, in loneliness of being, is wont to be terror-stricken — that a throb of penitence at once mollifies and terrifies the adamantine obduracy that steels the nerve of determined guilt. Saint and sinner possess the same attribute of valour that, diverging into different channels, flows yet from the same source. Brute courage is absolute, and personal bravery is an accessory of the perfectibility of mightiness in good and evil. One great man — and a great man too, is an exceptional case — Cromwell: he proved this deficiency, personally, at Edge Hill and Marston Moor, and morally at Whitehall, when he was frightened unto the very death, and beheld an imaginary hell as he memoried the reproaches of a dying daughter. John Maria Featherstone was harder, not of heart, but of nerve. He did not say in the whining tones of hypocrisy with the Puritan Malignant, ' Let us seek the Lord,' although above his pallet was suspended a terra cotta image of the 'Madre di Dio,' with the 'Bambino.' The spirit of transcendentalism that was blasphemously dishonest in the Malignant Regicide was superstitiously honest in the Roman wrecker, demon though he was. The blenching Malignant, not equal to the moment, used the mask of sanctity as the means to a present end of this world; the braver wrecker, in his iniquity rising superior to the moment, invoked superstition as a preservative in the unknown future of another world. Each appeal to the transcendental, however, comprised the principle of a permission to do wrong. 'Let us seek the Lord ' — Ave Maria ! — and then to business.

A piercing nor'-wester swept the line of coast from Hartland to Pentyre Point, blowing dead on the land. The spray, lashed up by the storm wind from the seething sea, darkened, and became as a mist over the blanched waters. Through this blight of gloom was seen looming the indistinct hull of a vessel with sails flickering and masts overboard, rolling more and more heavily now on the crest of surges, and again in the trough of waters, as she was propelled onwards by the rising tide. The disabled ship had run down the coast past Morwenstow and Bude Haven, driven on by the irresistible current that set in towards the precipice of Melluach. Lurching round the point of the rocks at the Salt House, she got into the sea of warring breakers in Widemouth Bay. Coming broadside on, the vessel drifted steadily— on, on — until at last, upborne by a gigantic swell, she rushed forwards with the breaking crest, and quivering in every timber, as if conscious of her fate, was dashed by the broken surf upon the jagged ridges of the Black Rock. There she struck. Then the leaping seas deluged over the parting ship; masses of water curling up poured in and over, and a huge wave at last sweeping the decks from stem to stern, she crashed as it were with a shriek, and no longer like a thing of life,' her shivered timbers were wrenched and cast about in the caldron of raging waters.

True to his calling, John Maria, with his dog, was at hand. The keen eye of the wrecker scanned the line of breakers, and wandered minutely over the huge masses of timber that were tossed and grinding amongst the many crags. Human beings were seen for a moment and as suddenly disappeared, but not a voice was heard save the din of the tempest, clanging in a hurricane of sound over earth and ocean. One person— one alone, a woman — was clinging to a broken spar. The piece of wreck came nearer and nearer ; it struck and was fastened in a fissure of the rock; a hand still clutched convulsively, and on that hand rings of jewels gleamed brightly. Brightly, also, gleamed the hatchet of John Maria. A smart chop, the hand was severed, and with a piteous cry the woman fell back into the yawning chasm of waters. The wave was scarcely coloured by a faint tinge of blood: another surged over, and one unit more was withdrawn for ever from the sum of human existence. So — it was done. The bloody fingers were wrapped in a handkerchief; the lurcher carried it in his mouth to the hovel, and John Maria Featherstone knelt before the idol of terra cotta. 'Ave Maria! Judica me Domine.' Tradition has it that he was judged verily and indeed; that his spirit, by the decree of an avenging Nemesis, is imprisoned by day within the Black Rock, and that at night it comes forth to coil a rope of sand wearily and eternally on the very spot of his crime. But it would be unbecoming to trench upon the metrical province of the Minnesinger of the western shore.

Twist thou and twine! in light and gloom
[RS Hawker poem snipped]
- ROBA DI MARE, Baily's Magazine of Sports and Pastimes, July 1871, pages 220-227, Vol. XX (Internet Archive bailysmagazines18unkngoog).
It rapidly becomes clear that this prose account is complete fiction fleshing out the bare bones of the Featherstone story. Nobody called "Robert Maria Featherstone" checks out, and furthermore there are no accounts I can find of a wrecker called Featherstone prior to Hawker's poem. The story seems to interweave with that of another semi-mythical Cornish brigand, "Cruel Coppinger", who Hawker also wrote about, in his Footprints of Former Men in Far Cornwall (Internet Archive footprintsforme00hawkgoog - see p.123 onward). An account of the latter in the Western Antiquary in 1882 opines that Coppinger's reputation was inherited from Featherstone:
The date of the death of "Cruel Coppinger" is not known. The stories of Coppinger given by Mr. Hawker were not the product of his imagination, but were genuine traditions, though wide of the truth. Probably, earlier stories of Featherstone the smuggler, attached to Coppinger who inherited his terrible renown.
page 157, Banckes Family of Exeter and Heavitree, JS Atwood, The Western Antiquary, May-June 1892
This is starting to sound like the Dread Pirate Roberts. The Featherstone myth was undoubtedly consolidated by Sabine Baring-Gould's 1887 novel The Gaverocks; a tale of the Cornish coast (Internet Archive gaverockstaleofc01bari) which is set in the same general area and features "Red Featherstone", a pirate and smuggler.

I strongly suspect - given the lack of prior references - that Hawker just made Featherstone up, as a bit of invented tradition, though perhaps with reference to various regional traditions connecting different figures with Widemouth Bay. The reality, if any, again looks unknowable, because no discussions of such traditions are findable until nearly a century later, in replies to the 1951 Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries "Spinners of Sand" article I mentioned previously.
80. Spinners of Sand (XXV, p. 213, par. 178 ; XXVI, p. 28, par. 26). — Another "Spinner of Sand" to that mentioned in the January issue, was a certain "Black" Petherbridge, who is said to haunt Petherbridge Rock, a high, solitary pile of rock on Widemouth beach, a few miles west of Bude. For his sins on this earth, his spirit is condemned to continually make ropes of sand each night, which each returning tide obliterates. This legend was told to me some thirty or more years ago, when I was staying at Widemouth, and remained in my mind as I happen to have been given the same name from a paternal grandmother, who by a coincidence used to speak of a wicked ancestor who she called "Black" Petherbridge. R. Petherbridge Mugford.
- page 89, Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries, Volumes 25-26, 1953

119. Spinners of Sand (XXV, p.213, par. 178, XXVI, pp. 28, 89, pars. 26, 80). In the note No. 80 which refers to the solitary rock at Widemouth near Bude, I was very interested in the name given by the writer to this rock “Petherbridge Rock” for by such name it is quite unknown to me. My forebears and myself have had close association with the district over many years and I never heard the rock given any other name but "Black Rock" and the name of the man, whose spirit was doomed to haunt the rock and to “spin ropes of sand and bind them with beams of the same,” was Shepherd (or Shepheard) who once lived at Howard Barton near Stratton. Tradition said he had led a very wicked life in which smuggling was only one of his villainies. [author unfindable]
- page 236, Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries, Volume 28, 1961 
The phonetic similarity between "Featherstone" and "Petherbridge" does suggest some kind of connection, but neither "Black" Petherbridge nor Shepherd/Shepheard check out any better than Featherstone. Black Rock at Widemouth Bay at least is verifiable!

Black Rock, Widemouth Beach
© by High View, licenced under the Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence (CC BY-SA 2.0).

One of the works of the late Cornish poet Jack Clemo reprises the Featherstone story:
The Legend of Blackrock

"Still at your labours, Featherstone?
Your prison of schist, so mournfully jutting
On Widemouth shore looks grim, as if shutting
Its secret safe where its clefts are entwined.
Is your spirit that here is still confined
Restless still as the grey waves plunging,
Working vainly as winds' fierce lunging,
To weave a web of the stubborn sand?"

"When the hot sun blisters must I weave them,
'Mid foulest storms I cannot leave them:
The baffling sands
    Slips as my hands
        Receive them!"

"Why do this penance, Featherstone?
What crime thus chains you to doom so tragic?
Were you a dabbler in Black Magic?
Did you sell your soul, as a Cornish Faust,
To the Evil One, that your peace is lost?
Was it thirst for knowledge, dark, unlawful,
That laid you under a curse so awful?
Or were you merely a common wrecker?"

"A wrecker I was! For my lights ensnaring,
For my gain obtained thro' a course unsparing,
I writhe in stress -
    Now of success

"Your torture must surely end, sometime, Featherstone!
This labour, though vain, must certainly hasten
The hour of release - 'tis meant but to chasten ....
What! At your last wreck, close to this shore,
You stood with a cable, while thro' the roar
Of wind and sea, the drowning, in anguish,
Called for your aid, and you let them languish?
Ah! 'Tis for this that you are now plagued?"

"Yes! And not till my stained dark soul I cover
With sand-robe made where their cries still hover,
Will my ghastly doom,
    In sun or gloom,
        Be over!"

- pages 70-71, The Awakening: Poems Newly Found, Jack R Clemo, 2003
 - Ray

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