Who was guilty of the wreck of the Golden Lyon?
According to a local historical document, Ships, Shipwrecks and Maritime Incidents around the Isles of Scilly, (Museum Publication No. 3) the first St Agnes Lighthouse keeper was: “found guilty of negligence” and therefore to blame for the disaster that befell the ship Golden Lyon. However, a closer look into this incident proves a very different story occurred indeed.
The St Agnes Lighthouse, erected by May 1680 as a direct result of the wreck of the Phoenix the preceding January, was done so under a proviso that no locals were to be employed as its keeper. This was requested as a result of previous experience of the English East India Company when dealing with the Scillonians after the salvage of the Phoenix, when they were forced to get the Admiralty Court involved after salvaged goods from the wreck were: “imbezzled or conveyed away by ye Inhabitants of ye Island.” On learning of the construction of the lighthouse, the English East India Company felt compelled to write to the Trinity Brethren of their concerns, insisting that the new lighthouse: “be managed by the Society and not by any particular persons permitted or suffered to be employed on the place to look after the keeping of ye said light, that may have advantage or benefit by any goods or ships wreck’d or cast away” As a result of such natural concerns, a mainlander, Mr Samuel Hockin, was recommended to relocate to Scilly and take up the post on St Agnes on an initial 3 year contract. This came with extensions so long as the man performed well enough in the job. Trinity wrote of Hockin that he was: “a very able and fitting man to keepe the light at Scilly” Hockin took up his new post and on the 30th October the lighthouse fire was lit for the very first time. Over the following months, Hockin continually complained to the Trinity Brethren of the poor quality of the coal he was given to use; and that he wasn’t happy with the brightness of the lantern as a result.
On the 14th of November 1680 a Virginian trade ship, called the Golden Lyon, came in sight of Scilly. Its master, Captain Rich, was sleeping below in his cabin with his First Mate, Ralph Bromwell, in command up on deck. The Golden Lyon struck a rock near Annet Island. Later, after the wreck, Bromwell stated that the light was barely discernable when the ship was 2 miles away from Scilly but became brighter when he fired off his guns in distress. He was basically blaming the lighthouse for the disaster. Thankfully, all the men were saved along with a greater part of the cargo and parts of the ship. Samuel Hockin joined with the locals and took part in this salvage. Whether for his own gain, or for some legitimate reason, Hockin took items from the wreck and concealed them in the coal store of the lighthouse. A Mr. Veagleman later wrote to Hockin on behalf of Bromwell accusing Hockin: “that you took of the Seamens Cloths & Goods of the Ship as Soap & Serge & hid them in the Coals denying them until they were found by an Officer upon a search”. Hockin then fully admitted his involvement in this regard. As a consequence of this, and the testimony of First Mate Ralph Bromwell about the failure of the lighthouse under the direct control of Hockin, the keeper was then accused of deliberately luring the Golden Lyon in to her final demise at Scilly. Hockin was questioned upon this charge by the Trinity Brethren, whereby he again admitted to taking an active part in the salvage but for legitimate reasons. Nevertheless, this and the charge regarding the dimness of the light at the time of the wreck appeared to be quite damning for Hockin. However, at the actual hearing, the records show that just prior to the wreck of the Golden Lyon, numerous masters had commended Trinity House on the usefulness and state of the light on the day in question. One of those who gave evidence was John Percy Captain of a ship called the Elizabeth, who stated that he was around the islands at the time of the wreck and that he: “saw the Light on Scilly on Saturday night last gone, six or seven leagues off at Sea and does believe it is the most usefull Light yet Erected and under God would be a means to save many lives.” This was not a useful testimony for Bromwell. Another witness also added a little weight to the defense, also showing the disaster may not have been caused deliberately by Hockin. A Thomas Freeland stated that he often saw the light and that: “sometimes the light burnt clear and sometimes dull.” He also said that a Dutch ship, also then being lost at Scilly, her crewmen: “seeing the light sent their men aloft who descried the rocks and then ver’d off to the southward, where the ship was then lost. The men saved say that if it had not been for the light they had all been lost”
Trinity warned Hockin that: “all these matters will be thoroughly sifted. The designe of your placing in the Lighthouse being not to pillage but to Relieve & help the poor distressed Mariner. Your Letters now received do not Satisfy the Masters for the hiding & denying of the goods, will make against you”
Due to the above testimonies and his earlier correspondences with the Trinity Brethren throughout the previous year, regarding the coal and brightness of the light, Hockin was eventually found: not guilty of deliberately causing the wreck of the Golden Lyon. He was, however, criticized for taking part in the subsequent salvage of it, as after the hearing Hockin was warned to be: “very carefull to performe your Duty and take heed of Receiving any Wreck’t Goods, East India Goods, or other Goods whatsoever least you runn your self into a primunires” Although the wrecked goods were indeed supposedly stolen and initially denied by Hockin to be in his possession: “he delivered them to the Captaine M’chant & others concerned, who gratified him for his Paines”. This gratuity also absolved Hockin of any blame or wrong doing.
Fortunately, Hockin retained his post as lighthouse keeper until his replacement in 1684, however, Ralph Bromwell, the First Mate then in command of the wrecked ship, Golden Lyon, came under fire. For although his testimony of the dimmed light may well have been true, the fact that he managed to get his ship all the way to Annet Island, after seeing the light at a distance of two miles off on what seemed quite a clear day, this threw his account of the disaster into doubt. It seems that the inquiry believed he was merely looking for an excuse for the loss of the ship, but inadvertently got Hockin into hot water as a result and used the situation surrounding Hockin to his own ends, i.e. Hockin taking and hiding goods from the wreck, adding weight to the First Mate’s story. Bad navigation/seamanship seems to have been the cause of this wreck and not the “negligence” of lighthouse keeper Hockin, as reported in the Isles of Scilly Museum publication No.3.
A Golden Lion in the Valhalla Collection, from an unnamed vessel. [ts]
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