Mention Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and their maritime history, and many people will have a vision of the Cornish and Islanders of the past as wreckers, purposely luring ships on the rocks through the use of false lights, and then killing the survivors and plundering the cargoes. Alternatively, other stories focus on the role of the lighthouse keepers, who were occasionally accused of dousing the lights during storms, or who were kidnapped by wreckers so the lantern could not be lit.

Most secondary works that discuss wrecking discount the stories of false lights, but the role of the lighthouse keeper remains in question. This paper examines some of the more lurid Victorian narratives of wrecking, such as the tales of St. Agnes and Longships lights, and investigates how these stories became distorted over time to become part of the accepted orthodoxy.

Cathryn Pearce gained her PhD at the Greenwich Maritime Institute, University of Greenwich. Her thesis was titled ‘So Barbarous a Practice: Cornish Wrecking, 1700-1860 and its survival as popular myth’. She earned her MA in British history with a maritime history emphasis from the University of Victoria, writing on the Hudson’s Bay Company marine department on the Northwest Coast. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula Campus.

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