The shipwreck of the Bencoolen and its role in the history and heritage of Bude

By Ralph Gifford | 20 June 2011
a black and white photo of men next to wreckage on a beach
Wreckage of the SS Bencoolen on Summerleaze beach, Bude circa October 1862.
© Bude: The Castle Heritage Centre
On the north coast of Cornwall, just a few miles from the Devon border, sits the seaside town of Bude. Like many coastal towns in the county it is now a place living off the revenue brought in by throngs of tourists who come to enjoy its expansive and beautiful beaches.

But Bude originally grew because of its small harbour, offering sailors refuge against the North Atlantic when its seas grew too treacherous to safely leave port.

To get into the harbour the boats had to navigate a small channel which could prove equally as dangerous as the wind and waves of the sea. 

Across the centuries, the residents of Bude have been witness to more than their fair share of shipwrecks. However one ill-fated ship, the Bencoolen, has played a part in the town’s history like no other.

a black and white photo of wrecked timbers on a beach
Wreckage of the Bencoolen helped to build many houses in Bude.
© Bude: The Castle Heritage Centre
Having set sail from Liverpool for Bombay on October 21 1862, the fully-rigged, 1,415-ton cargo vessel came into difficulty when it met gale force NNW winds, breaking its main mast and leaving the captain unable to steer. At roughly 3pm the Bencoolen grounded in huge seas on Summerleaze beach, Bude, just metres from safety. 

The sea was too rough to launch the lifeboat, so the rocket brigade quickly set to work. The rescuer's efforts were in vain, as the extract below, from 1881's A Picturesque Guide to North Cornwall, records:

“In five minutes the rocket apparatus was put to work; the first rocket fell short, the next failed, the third fell over the ship where the despairing crew huddled on the poop. 

“A man who rushed forward and clutched the line was washed overboard with it in his hand. A huge roller then broke over the apparatus rendering it useless."

An extract from the West Briton of November 14 1862 further highlights the tragedy:

“Within two hours from the time she struck, she was in fragments, and 24 men had drowned within a cable’s length of the breakwater at Bude. Of the 33 crew, only six were rescued alive, with a further six being pulled from the sea dead.  The rest of the crew drowned and perished.”  

The wreck of the Bencoolen has become legendary in Bude’s history.  This is not just because of the tragedy of the event, but because much of the ship itself was used to build the town. The smashed wood from the hull was salvaged and used as building timber for houses and workshops, helping Bude to prosper at the end of the 19th Century.

a photo of a ship's figurehead based on a man with a beard and turban
The figurehead of the Bencoolen at Bude Castle Heritage Centre
© Photo Ralph Gifford
The name of the Bencoolen has also lent itself to many things in the town. 

 “The Bencoolen has entered into Bude legend,” says the Manager of Bude’s museum, Patricia Wright. “Its impact has been more than just a wreck on a Bude beach.  It has lent its name to a road, a bridge, a public house and a number of houses.” 

The museum itself is situated in the Castle at the mouth of the River Neet, overlooking the beach where the Bencoolen ran aground. In the museum’s extensive and exquisitely presented collection you can see the figurehead of the ship - recovered and preserved after a long spell in a local graveyard - as well as pieces of timber that were collected from the beach. 

If one summer you find yourself sat on Bude beach, think back to the autumn of 1862 and the epic peril and tragedy that helped to literally build the town around you.
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