Strange sightings in St Ives

Cornwall is richly steeped in folklore and many interesting stories have come from the St Ives district. One of the most character-istic is that of ‘The Lady with the Lantern’. This tells how, one evening around dusk, during a year notorious for storms and wrecks, a large ship was driven on a sunken rock at the back of the Island. Many of those on board perished at once, and as each successive wave urged the wreck onward, yet more of the crew were swept into the angry sea.

Despite the terrible conditions, a boat was manned by some St Ives fishermen and rowed towards the ship. Approaching as near as they dared, they managed to rescue two or three sailors by means of ropes. Then a group appeared on deck supporting a lady who held a child in her arms. The lady, despite entreaties, refused to give her child to the care of a sailor while they endea-voured to pass her across to the boat. So, with the ship fast breaking up, she was lowered into the sea, and the fishermen drew her through the waves.

In her passage, the lady fainted and was taken into the boat without the infant. The child had fallen from her arms, and was lost in the boiling waters. She later regained consciousness; but finding her child was gone, she lost hope and died. They buried her in the churchyard, but shortly after a lady was seen to pass over the churchyard wall on to the beach and walk towards the Island. There she spent hours amid the rocks, looking for her child, before returning to her grave. When the nights were stormy or very dark, she carried a lantern, but on fine nights she made her sad search without a light. The Lady and the Lantern have ever since been regarded as predictors of disaster on this shore.

Less well known than this story is the legend of the White Horse of Porthgwidden. In the early part of the nineteenth century a gentleman called Birch owned a magnificent white horse with a flowing mane and a flying tail. The animal was beautifully groomed and the delight of his master. Every evening at dusk Birch would ride on his horse to Porthgwidden for a bathe. He was a powerful swimmer, but one stormy evening the wind and waves proved too much for him, and he was swept away and drowned. Some time later the fishermen noticed the horse patiently waiting on the beach, far beyond the usual time for its master’s return, and so came to learn of the tragedy which had occurred. Some time after this, people living in the vicinity vowed that after dusk the ghost of Mr Birch was seen riding his lovely horse through Island Road, down to Porthgwidden Beach and out to sea. The spectre is said to have been seen as late as the 1890s.

The pilots of St Ives had a superstition regarding ‘Jack Harry’s Lights’; these phantoms were named after the man who was first deceived by them. They were generally observed before a gale, and the ship seen with them resembled the one which later was sure to be wrecked. Scores of pilots had seen and been led a fine chase after them. One old pilot told of how they put off in their big boat, the Ark, when a large vessel was reported in the offing. The vessel stood off the head, the wind blowing WNW. They went off four or five miles and thought they were alongside, when the ship slipped to windward a league or more. Again the Ark went in pursuit and once more closed in on the stranger, but away she flew to Godrevy over the course they had just sailed; so the pilots gave it up for ‘Jack Harry’s Light’ and with disappointed hopes bore up for the harbour. These manifestations may be likened to those of the Flying Dutchman, seen off the Cape of Good Hope.