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.72: The Acorn

To end the year, today’s post showcases several of the main themes of 2014 in maritime archaeology: first, early 2014 was exceptionally stormy, with numerous reports of wrecks having been exposed in different locations around the UK as storms scoured sand off beaches. Many members of the public gave English Heritage fantastic reports of shipwreck material they had seen.

One such report was from Sutton-on-Sea, Lincolnshire. It gives me great pleasure today to introduce as my guest blogger this week Jordan Havell, who is 13. After seeing some timbers on the shore this year, he has been researching the story behind one of the wrecks in his local area, the Acorn, which was a barque laden with ice when she struck in Lynn Roads in 1898.

Jordan tells the story of her origins: 

I got very interested in this shipwreck, amongst others, while doing a local history project. I am 13 years old and home educated.

The Acorn was built in 1855 in Dundee, County of Forfar, Scotland. The register date is recorded as 05/03/1855, with the master’s name shown as Peter Anderson, in the hands of Andrew Low for the Tay Ship Building Company, dated 28/02/1855. The employment of the Surveying Officer, Joseph Northmore, is recorded as a tide surveyor. These details come from the Dundee Archives, for whose help I was very grateful.

The ship had one and a half poop decks, 3 masts and her length is recorded as 119 feet. She was a barque which had one gallery and a full female figurehead. The framework and planking were made of wood.

The subscribing owners were named as Peter Anderson – Master Mariner – 16 shares. The manufacturers are recorded as Matthew Low and John Morrison, both having 12 shares. It is noted there were 2 other owners.

Image courtesy of Dundee City Archives.
Original register entry for the Acorn, 1855. Image courtesy of Dundee City Archives.

The Acorn appears in various articles in Dundee newspapers from 1856 to 1873. By 1871 her master is listed as George Wilson. On the records from this time there are numerous notes, including a query shown in 1873 regarding conversions to cubic metres weight. In 1873 the ship is registered under the port of Grimsby. The Acorn was believed to have been carrying ice between Norway and Grimsby for use by the Grimsby Ice Company in the fishing industry.

It appears she ended her days on the beach at Sutton-on-Sea in 1901 and is recorded under the English Heritage wreck report 928347 and account of wreck site 1484623. I am very grateful to Serena Cant and her colleagues who gave me help with this project.

I am hoping to find out about more shipwrecks along this coast over time.


Many thanks to Jordan for his essay, which I am delighted to include today. I think an ice barque is an appropriate seasonal theme on which to end the year! For more on Norwegian ice barques, have a look at a past entry here.

The sharp-eyed among you, like Jordan, will have spotted that she struck a sandbank in the Wash in 1898, but ended up further north on the Lincolnshire coast in 1901. I did some research myself and found that the vessel was recovered in 1898, when she was sold for £105. (1) This was very typical. For the Acorn‘s owners, in far-away Sandefjord, it would have been much more economical to cut their losses by selling the vessel, rather than try to get her repaired at their own cost.

This, I suspect, is how she eventually ended up at Sutton-on-Sea in what has proven to be a ship graveyard, another theme which has emerged strongly in maritime archaeology over the last few years. These tend to be groups of vessels beyond economical repair, drawn up for breaking and then perhaps abandoned. The Acorn was one of six vessels which were recorded by partial excavation along this stretch of beach in 1997. (2)

I think there is plenty more for us to find out – what happened to the Acorn between 1898 and 1901, and what is the story of the other ships which may still remain under the sand at Sutton-on-Sea and elsewhere in the locality? Over to you, Jordan! I hope you will continue to be as fascinated by shipwreck archaeology as we are.

Wreck of post-medieval or early modern fishing vessel, Mablethorpe, 2007, first recorded 1997. Image courtesy of John Buglass.
Wreck of unidentified post-medieval or early modern fishing vessel, Mablethorpe, 2007, first recorded 1997. Image courtesy of John Buglass.

(1) Hull Daily Mail, 13 April 1898, No.3,902, p4

(2) Buglass, J 1997: The remains of six sailing ships and other archaeological features in the inter-tidal zone between Sutton-on-Sea and Mablethorpe, Lincolnshire; Buglass, J and Brigham, T 2008: Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire: Donna Nook to Gibraltar Point, Humber Archaeology Report No.236