'˜Seaford Shags' swoop on wrecked cargo ship

One cold and wintry December evening in 1815 a copper-bottomed ship called '˜The Adamant' sank in Seaford Bay, writes Kevin Gordon. The ship (which had previously been a gun-boat called the '˜Thrasher' ) was sailing from Malta to London with a full cargo of wine, almonds, oil, quicksilver (mercury), Turkish carpets, books, linen, cumin seeds, feathers, skins, gall-nuts (used for medicine), lace, opium and sulphur.

Friday, 6th January 2017, 12:10 pm
Updated Monday, 9th January 2017, 12:49 pm
Smugglers offload their goods on the beach
Smugglers offload their goods on the beach

The ship had struck rocks off Seaford Head cliffs during a storm. The pilot and other boats from Newhaven Harbour managed to pull her away from the rocks but she sank nearby.

Luckily the crew was able to take to their boats and there was no loss of life. It was said that the people of Seaford would sleep with their doors open during bad weather so that they didn’t miss the unexpected bounty of a shipwreck.

Known as ‘Seaford Shags’ they considered that the goods of a wrecked ship were rightfully theirs. The authorities managed to salvage 40 out of 60 barrels of wine but the rest of the varied cargo was left to the elements. The people of Seaford had an unexpected Christmas present!

The Sussex Advertiser of December 11 1815 reported that the majority of the valuable cargo had been ‘picked up by country people’. The Morning Post, however, was more forthright saying the wreck had been ‘attacked by hundreds of people from miles around the country who considered the cargo fair game for plunder’. They even stole the copper from the hull of the ship.

The owners offered rewards including £10 for each barrel of quicksilver and a quarter of the value of the rest. A couple of weeks later a sale was made of the officially recovered items (anchors, cables, masts, sales and rigging) by Mr Harison, the Collector of Customs.

The sale was made at the nearby Tide Mills with its owner, William Catt, representing the ship’s owners. The majority of the cargo, however, was missing.

There was only one thing to do – call in Daniel Bishop and John Vickery, two of the eight ‘Principle Officers’ of the famed Bow Street Runners. The London detectives arrived in Seaford at Christmas and immediately set to work. Accompanied by Harison they proceeded to search houses, not only in the town but also in Blatchington, Bishopstone, Newhaven and Alfriston. They were no doubt heavily armed. It was reported that they found a part of the cargo concealed in every house they raided.

While searching The Pelham Arms in Seaford (later The Hole in the Wall) they became suspicious of two large herring barrels. They removed the fish and found not only a quantity of brass, ‘stamped with the King’s Broad ‘R’ but also bags of opium. The landlord was arrested and the Lewes Magistrates detained him to appear at the Horsham Assizes. Bishop and Vickery were good at their jobs – very good. On later attending Horsham to give evidence they recognised a known criminal walking past them with a sack over his back. They stopped and searched him and found stolen property in the sack. What great detectives!

Vickery went on to be a keeper of a House of Correction (prison) and Bishop retired on the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. The men were given good pensions of £230 per year. Let’s hope these hard working officers had a long and happy retirement!

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