Ilfracombe: Harbour of Refuge?

The histories of North Devon include many accounts of disaster and tragedy at sea. The importance of Ilfracombe as a Harbour of Refuge was documented as long ago as 1463, when the ‘Mary’, of Guipiscoa, bound for Bristol, was forced into Ilfracombe by contrary winds. Any "refuge", however, was short-lived: the ship fell foul of Lord Fitzwareyn, the local squire, who, in common with others of his time, thought any foreign vessel a fair prize.

Over the years, large numbers of human bones have been uncovered at Rapparee Cove. A report of 1856 in the "Illustrated London News" suggested that bones uncovered at that time at Rapparee could be the remains of Red Hugh O’DonneIl and his followers, wrecked as they fled from Ireland during the Flight of the Earls in 1602. The fact that "Rapparee" means "lrish rebels" might add weight to this theory.

The 18th century customs records tell of many vessels coming into Ilfracombe harbour for shelter. and report many wrecks. The story of the wreck of the ‘London’ is perhaps worth mentioning, having recently featured again in the news. ln 1796 the transport ‘London’ was driven ashore at Rapparee Cove, (to the east of Ilfracombe Harbour), and many drowned. Two hundred years later, in February 1997, gates and heavy ground seas damaged the cliff-base and a retaining wall at the top of Rapparee Cove. Sand and rocks were washed away to reveal yet more human bones and bone fragments along with pieces of iron. The find was at first linked with the wreck of the ‘London’; the press, local and national, reported that the bodies were those of slaves, who had drowned, manacled together, and who were thrown into a mass grave. Archaeological investigations now indicate that it seems unlikely that the bones found in 1997 are connected with the ‘London’, but there is no question that a large number of people of African origin perished with the ‘London’, and that over 60 of these had been "chained together in the hold" of the ship. Reports vary as to how Ilfracombe’s inhabitants reacted to the tragedy of the ‘London’. According to one account, local people attempted to save those on board, some dying in the attempt. But the North Devon Journal reported in 1856, "...this neighbourhood was guilty [of wrecking] in those days... ...and there is a strong tradition that the fate of the ‘London’ was not entirely due to wind and waves."