Elizabeth Berry – Notorious Wrecker

The North Devon coast was often named “The Sailors Grave” it was said that sailors would rather drown at sea than come intothe shore’s of Mortehoe. There are many unknown drowned sailors being buried in St Mary’s churchyard, however many more were left a sea, drowned at the hands of the wreckers for their possessions. Wrecking is the pratice of taking valuables from a shipwreck which has foundered or run aground close to the shore.

Elizabeth was born in 1798 in West Downshe would marry John Berry in 1819, the family would live in Mortehoe were their life would have been hard, and money scarce for their growing family.

Elizabeth Berry was a notorious ‘wrecker’, she was reputed to have lured ships onto the shore by tying a lantern to the tail of a horse to create the impression of land and safety, once the boats became stranded or damaged, she would drown the sailors by using a pitchfork to hold them down in the sea until they died, she would then take their possessions for her own.

There are many rumours about Elizabeth, but with local families worried about reprise and often actively involved few would ever testify about her actions.

We do know that Elizabeth was arrested in 1850 for plundering the William and Jane brig and given 21 days hard labour for her crimes. She was further arrested for wrecking on Barricane Beach, the report stated “The vessel drove ashore, lost in a dense fog. A wrecker was arrested as she made her way home from this smack which lay stranded at Barricane Beach. The free booter was a certain Mrs Elizabeth Berry. Questioned by the Ilfracombe Receiver about a sack (containing a tub and a bedsack) she was humping along. Mrs Berry’s aggressive and evasive replies set her on a course for the magistrates court, where unable to pay the £1 fine she was sentenced to hard labour with prison discipline with the hope that it will warn her and others against such dastardly conduct in taking away from the unfortunate mariners, especially those lying dead on the shore.

Elizabeth and Johns’ family would eventually leave Mortehoe, with many of the family moving for work in Swansea.

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