FLOTSAM AND JETSAM (BLISS)
Cloudisley Shovell started his career as an apprentice shoemaker, but rose under the protection of Sir John Narborough, whose widow he later married, to become as successful and respected an Admiral, in his time, as Lord Nelson. However, back in 1707, and still without accurate timepieces, no-one could calculate longitude effectively. Thus it was that returning from a victorious Spanish campaign, Shovell missed his reckoning and entered The Channel too far north for safe passage.
Survivors reported that a rating - a Scillonian - thought he could smell the kelp fires on St Agnes and realised they were dangerously close to the islands. He accosted Shovell and begged him to turn back. But the Admiral was outraged by his temerity and had him hanged on the spot. And as he dropped, he cursed Shovell to wreck.
Now, 'wreck' is defined in section 255 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 as including "jetsam, flotsam, lagan and derelict found in or on the shores of the sea or any tidal water." 'Jetsam' is defined as goods cast overboard in order to lighten a vessel which is in danger of being sunk, not withstanding that afterwards it perishes. 'Flotsam' is goods lost from a ship which has sunk or otherwise perished which are recoverable by reason of their remaining afloat. 'Lagan' is goods cast overboard from a ship which afterwards perishes, buoyed so as to render them recoverable, and 'Derelict' is property, whether vessel or cargo, which has been abandoned and deserted at sea by those who were in charge of it without any hope of recovery.
The ring would not therefore have qualified as flotsam or jetsam, so was in fact not legally 'wreck,' but Tom felt the phrase had the right associations.
The story of the ring is well documented, incuding the deathbed confession. It had been given to Cloudisley by his 'intimate friend' James Lord Dursley, who also perished that night - along with both of Shovell's stepsons. It was eventually returned to the Dursleys and made into a locket, which is still owned by the family today.
The Admiralty, as the book and film 'Longitude' relate, responded to the disaster by announcing a competition for the development of a timepiece with a pendulum system that would work on a rolling ship, and thus allow the accurate calculation of longitude - a feat eventually achieved by John Harrison.*
Shovell himself is buried in Westminster Abbey (his State Funeral was paid for by Queen Anne herself). But initially his body was not found among the others. It was the rumours of the ring's existence that aroused the suspicions of the authorities. Eventually the locals talked, and Cloudesley's corpse was discovered in a shallow grave above the beach - with the fourth finger of the right hand missing.
It's said that grass will still not grow on that spot to this very day.
The farthest west a man can go, and stand on Cornish soil
That’s where my flock their crops do sow, and on the billows toil
The climate mild, the cattle fair, our harvest tables blessed
The Good Lord gives redemption, and the sea provides the rest
Flotsam and jetsam, wreckage from the sea
Flotsam and jetsam, it all returns to me
And no more full of sin were they, than any parish here
Indeed their very bravery and spirit I hold dear
To see them face a hurricane, their boats awash with foam
To pluck some sailor from the reef, and row him safely home
Who could forget the fateful night, such tragedy befell
Sir Cloudisley and the English fleet, mistaken in the gale
The night so black the storm so wild, we never heard their guns
As masts to matchwood, sails to shreds, upon the rocks they plunged
Fair makes a man to curse his sight, to see such tragic waste
Britannia lost four ships that night, the rest such peril faced
Eighteen hundred bodies strewn, on every ledge and bay
And on St Mary’s roaring shore, the drowned Sir Cloudisley lay
Then whispers came from every side, even to the Manse did bring
But who on Mary’s sainted Isle would stoop to such a thing?
They said who’d found his body first had hacked, from off his hand
A diamond and emerald ring that'd glittered in the sand
His widow knew such misery, a grief too hard to bear
Her second husband lost at sea, and both sons drownéd there
A fortune she would give, she said, to see that ring again
But no man stood to own the deed. And we hung our heads in shame
I’ve served these islands fifty years, my hair, my beard are grey
They called me to a cottage there, the last rites to say
Old woman on a lowly bed, she draws me down to hear
And in her bony yellow hand, a ring it glitters there
May the Lord have mercy on her soul, herself the ring did thieve
But so much worse, these whispered words; can England e’re forgive?
She said he came alive to shore, lay gasping on the sand
She'd held his head beneath the waves, for the jewels on his right hand
* ref "The Shipwreck of Sir Cloudesley Shovell" By James Herbert Cooke, F.S.A.1883