Cross-Channel Trade

Privateers, Onion Johnnies and eco-trading

Look, what day that endelong Bretagne                                                                                        Ye remove all the rockes, stone by stone,                                                                                   That they not lette ship nor boat to gon . . .

[Chaucer, Canterbury Tales]


Modern black & white photo of a stone ledge on a wall with a carved relief of a sailing ship.
A number of 17th century carvings of sailing ships survive on the exterior walls of a number of religious and secular buildings in Roscoff, reflecting the basis of the town’s prosperity.

Modern black & white photo of a stone ledge on a wall with a carved relief of a sailing ship.

As is traditional for Wreck of the Week at this time of year, I’m taking a diversion into our maritime records to illuminate an international aspect of England’s maritime heritage, inspired by my holidays.

This year I take a look at Morlaix and Roscoff in Brittany. Chaucer’s use of a Breton lai or lay in the late 14th century Canterbury Tales points to a strong, well-established and enduring cross-Channel cultural interchange. The appearance of the Canterbury Tales is bookended by the earliest known vessels lost in English waters while bound to or from Brittany: Le Seynt Marie stranded at Dungeness on her passage from Sluis for Brittany in 1364, while in 1421 a French ship laden with wine from Brittany ‘for the king’s use’ foundered in the Thames Estuary. (1)

Thereafter the extant wreck record is silent on trade between England and Brittany until the mid to late 17th century, but this does not mean that there was no trade or that there were no ships lost en route: simply that the documentation is yet to be discovered, has been lost, was never recorded in the first place, or the sources omit to tell us the origin or destination of a voyage (all too common until the 18th century).

Nevertheless, after this period, wreck records provide evidence for both established industries and trade routes, as demonstrated by the 1669 loss of the John, laden with linen from Morlaix, on Chesil Beach. Morlaix prospered in the linen trade and the town’s unique 16th century maisons à pondalez retain shutters which folded out as shopfront counters for the display of linen, decorated internally and externally with symbolic linenfold panelling.

Modern colour photo of 3 glass windows set in a timber building, with horizontal shutters open above and below the windows, the lower shutters acting as counters (used to display literature on the building, formerly as a shop).
Shopfront, Maison a pondalez, 9, Grande rue, Morlaix, with linenfold panelling symbolising the goods once sold on the shutter counters above.

By the late 18th century Roscoff, along with other Breton seafaring towns, was well known as a privateering centre, with 14 prizes sent into the town in 1778. (2) Breton lugger privateers continued to operate in the Channel during the Napoleonic wars. For example, the Incomparable lugger privateer of 14 guns, le Duc, (3) belonging to St. Malo, took the Mary brig of Sunderland in 1812. The Mary would be her last prize, for she was intercepted and engaged by the Hind revenue cutter, with three broadsides enough to sink her off the Dodman on 18 June 1812. The English noted that she was operating out of ‘Roscoe’, which may even suggest that her crew were Breton speakers (Rosko in modern Breton).

The wreck record around the mid to late 19th century suggests the dominance of Channel Island ships in trading between Brittany and England, exchanging English coal for Breton agricultural produce. Two of these Channel Island wrecks from 1898-1899 are especially interesting because they preserve a record of a formerly widespread trade that began after the Napoleonic wars and persisted well into the 20th century.

In particular, Paquebot No.5, sunk in a collision with a steamer off the Goodwin Sands on 13 August 1899, perfectly illustrates this popular trade route: laden with onions from Roscoff, together with ‘lads brought over to England by a merchant, named Henry Tongay, for the purpose of hawking the onions.’ (4)

These young men were the famed ‘Onion Johnnies’ of Roscoff who voyaged to Britain every summer to sell their produce. The 24 men on board, mostly the onion ‘hawkers’ and the date of their voyage, after the Pardon de Ste Barbe in Roscoff in mid-July, tallies well with an account of the ‘Johnny Onions‘ in Wales in the mid 20th century, suggesting that the trade changed little in half a century. (In Roscoff their memory is preserved in the street name rue des Johnnies, in sculptural form as a door corbel on a house in the town, and in a dedicated museum, and as a cultural exchange on both sides of the Channel through the biennial Brittany-Dorset Onion Jack tour.)

Another example of living heritage was the visit of the centenarian schooner De Gallant to Roscoff during my stay. She was bound for Penzance, last from Noirmoutier with salt, following in the wake of her predecessors on the route, with the sailing vessel now seen as an eco-friendly way of trading internationally. Our maritime records also reflect the heritage of this trading route, with two French ships lost on the Cornish coast during the 19th century, while bound from Noirmoutier to Penzance with salt (1839 and 1899).

A common trading and cultural heritage, changing as patterns of trade changed, is illustrated by documented wreck events on this side of the Channel and expressed in architecture on the other.

Colour photo of a schooner's sail being lowered between two masts as she ties up at a quayside.
De Gallant in Roscoff, 25th June 2019.


(1) Calendar of Patent Rolls (CPR), Edward III, Vol.XII, 1361-4, p536, membrane 29d (HMSO, 1912); CPR, Henry V, Vol.II, 1416-22, p384, membrane 27d (HMSO, 1911)

(2) NIÈRES, Claude. Les villes de Bretagne au XVIIIe siècle (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2004)

(3) Named as Jean le Duc, Newcastle Courant, 27 June 1812, No.7,081, p4; possibly Anastase Joseph le Duc, recorded as capitaine de corsaire (privateer captain) of St. Malo, commanding the Incomparable in 1812, thereafter recorded as captain of the Embuscade.

(4) Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 August 1899, No.2,981, p10


No.58 Caen Stone

The Building Blocks of Wreck Knowledge 

Inspired by my recent trip to Caen, I decided this week to have a look at wrecks laden with Caen stone.

Four of our wrecks are known to have been carrying stone specifically described as sourced from Caen. This form of limestone became a popular building material in England for post-Conquest abbeys, cathedrals, and castles: a demonstration of Norman might in Norman stone.

To see maquettes from the Bayeux Tapestry Museum depicting Norman ships unloading stone at the Tower of London, click here (two images on the right-hand side).

Despite all this medieval building activity, we currently know only of post-medieval Caen stone wrecks in English waters. As we would expect, all came ashore on the Channel coast, within a 50-mile stretch of coastline bounded by Dungeness to the east and Hastings to the west. The first, an unknown vessel (we don’t even know if she was English or French), was driven ashore in 1616 somewhere between Lydd and Rye, from which an anchor and cable were taken in assertion of right to wreck.

In early October 1852 the Honoria was driven ashore near the Black Rocks, Brighton, while bound to London. Her sails were torn to shreds in mid-Channel by an ‘equinoctial’ force 11 gale, so that her master was forced to let her drive before the wind. The ‘sufferers’, who were much exhausted by their efforts, were saved and lodged in ‘comfortable quarters’, a somewhat unexpected description for accommodation in the local workhouse!

In much the same fashion John and Mary, also bound to London, was driven ashore near Rye by another ‘equinoctial’ gale in late September 1856. This, however, ended less happily, as the master, who did make it ashore, was left to mourn his wife and four children, who perished.

In 1870 the Thomas Hubbuck, again London-bound with Caen stone, struck near Dungeness like her 1616 counterpart. On this occasion all were happily saved. The lifeboat went out to the scene, but was not required: it was then beached at Dungeness, rather than battling back in the prevailing weather conditions. The men and horses sent to fetch the boat back overland were nearly ‘smothered’ in an unexpected quicksand from which they were extricated only with difficulty.

What contemporary projects in England required the import of Caen stone for new buildings, repairs, or sculptures? Occasionally we can tie the loss of stone cargoes to specific works, for example Portland stone for the New Bridge at Blackfriars, or Dundee stone for the Import Dock at Wapping.

Any suggestions, therefore, for the use of Caen stone in 1616 or in Victorian London in 1852, 1856 and 1870?


Traduction en français: 

Après avoir passé un bon séjour à Caen, cette semaine j’écris un peu concernant les épaves chargées de pierre de Caen.

Quatre naufrages chargés de pierres extraites des carrières caennaises sont coulés autour des côtes anglaises. La pierre de Caen, d’origine calcaire, est devenue la pierre de choix pour les constructions anglo-normands après l’arrivée de Guillaume le Conquérant dès 1066: abbatiales, cathédrales, et châteaux sont tous également construits en pierre de Caen, exprimant la conquête normande de l’Angleterre en pierre aussi normande.

Veuillez cliquer ici pour voir des maquettes du Musée de la Tapisserie, Bayeux, où se trouvent des navires normandes qui débarquent pierre de Caen aux bords de la Tamise où la Tour de Londres est en train de construction (à droite).

Malgré tous ces bâtiments outre-manche du Moyen Age, nous n’en connaissons pas de naufrages médiévales chargés de la pierre de Caen: les quatre naufrages dont nous avons la connaissance se sont coulés à partir du XVIIe siècle, tous aux côtes de la Manche, entre Hastings et Dungeness. La première est échouée en 1616 entre Lydd et Rye, dont nous savons peu de détails: nous ne savons même pas si c’était un bateau anglais ou un bateau français. Les autorités anglaises en ont pris une ancre et une chaîne comme “right of wreck” (“droit d’épave”), ancien droit qui accordait aux grandes domaines de propriétaires terrines ou ecclésiastiques le droit de prendre quelque partie du navire échoué et de son cargaison, si c’était sauvée, lui aussi.

En octobre 1852 le navire Honoria est échoué près des Black Rocks (Rochers Noires), Brighton, en route pour Londres. Ses gréements sont rompus par un vent qui hurlait de force 11, mais les marins naufragés bien épuisés en sont tous sauvés. Quatre ans plus tard, le navire John and Mary est de même façon échoué près de Rye: quoique le capitaine se soit échappé avec toute l’équipe du navire, sa femme et ses quatre enfants se sont malheureusement noyés.

En 1870 le Thomas Hubbuck, en voyageant aussi vers Londres chargé de pierre caennaise, est, tout comme le bateau de 1616, aussi échoué près de Dungeness. Heureusement, toute l’équipe est sauvée dans leur propre bateau; le canot de sauvetage est parti en mer, mais on n’en avait pas besoin, parce que les marins se sont sauvés. Le canot est donc placé sur terre à Dungeness, les sauveteurs épuisés ne voulant pas le retour en mer en pleine tempête. Les hommes et les chevaux commandés de le récupérer par voie de terre sont presque péris aux sables mouvants inattendus, desquels ils ne sont pas extraits qu’avec des plus grands périls.

On peut quelquefois lier les épaves chargées de pierres particulières avec leurs ouvrages destinataires, pierre de Portland (Dorset) pour le Pont Nouveau de Blackfriars (Londres) par exemple, ou pierre de Dundee (Ecosse) pour le Quai des Imports, Wapping (Londres).

Quels sont donc les projets contemporains en Angleterre en 1616 et au troisième quart du XIXe siècle auxquels la pierre de Caen était destinée – nouveaux constructions, réparations des bâtiments anciens, ou œuvres sculptés?