(28)  John Copinger


This gentleman left Cork about 1760, and fixed his residence at Roscoff, in Brittany, where he purchased an estate and erected several houses.  During the revolution, 1793, his property was destroyed.  Shortly after this he settled in Cornwall, where he purchased an estate called Trewhiddle.  He seems to have acquired a considerable fortune, for on the marriage of his daughter Marianne, with the Hon. Robert Cotton Trefusis, he gave her as a portion a sum of £40,000.[1]  There are legends containing more or less of truth still to be met with on the coast of Cornwall respecting this eccentric character.  It is said that his arrival in Cornwall was signalled by a terrific hurricane.

The storm came up channel from the south-west.  The shore and and the height were dotted with watchers for wrecks - those daring gleaners of the harvest of the sea.  It was just such a scene as is sought for in the proverb of the West:

A savage sea and a shattering wind,
The cliffs before, and the gale behind.

As suddenly as if a phantom ship had loomed in the distance, a strange vessel of foreign rig was discovered in fierce struggle with the waves of Harty Race.  She was deeply laden, or water-logged, and rolled heavily in the trough of the sea, nearing the shore as she felt the tide.  Gradually the pale and dismayed faces of the crew became visible, and among them one man of herculean height and mould, who stood near the wheel with a speaking-trumpet in his hand.  The sails were blown to rags, and the rudder was apparently lashed for running ashore.  But the suck of the current and the set of the wind were too strong for the vessel, and she appeared to have lost her chance of reaching Harty Pool. It was seen that the tall seaman, who was manifestly the skipper of the boat, had cast off his garments, and stood prepared upon the deck to encounter a battle with the surges for life and rescue.  He plunged over the bulwarks, and arose to sight buffeting the seas. With stalwart arm and powerful chest he made his way through the surf, rode manfully from billow to billow, until, with a bound, he stood at last upright upon the sand, a fine stately semblance of one of the old Vikings of the northern seas.  A crowd of people had gathered from the land, on horseback and on foot, women as well as men, drawn together by the tidings of a probable wreck.  Into their midst, and to their astonished dismay, rushed the dripping stranger; he snatched from a terrified old dame her Welsh cloak, cast it loosely around him, and bounded suddenly upon the crupper of a young damsel who had ridden her father's horse down to the beach to see the sight.  He grasped her bridle, and shouting aloud in some foreign language, urged on the double-laden animal into full speed, and the horse naturally took his homeward way.  Strange and wild were the outcries that greeted the rider, Miss Dinah Hamlyn, when, thus escorted she reached her father's door, in the very embrace of a wild, rough, tall man, who announced himself by a name - never afterwards forgotten in those parts - as Copinger, a Dane.  He arrayed himself without the smallest scruple in the Sunday suit of his host.  The long-skirted coat of purple velveteen with large buttons, the embroidered vest, and nether garments to match, became him well.  So thought the lady of his sudden choice.  She, no doubt, forgave his onslaught on her and on her horse for the compliment it conveyed.  He took his immediate place at the family board, and on the settle by the hearth, as though he had been the most welcome and long-invited guest in the land.  Strange to say, the vessel disappeared immediately he had left her deck, nor was she ever after traced by land or sea.  At first, the stranger subdued all the fierce phases of his savage character, and appeared deeply grateful for all the kindness he received at the hands of his simple-hearted host. Certain letters which he addressed to persons of high name in Denmark were, or were alleged to be, duly answered, and remittances from his friends were supposed to be received.  He announced himself to be of a wealthy family and superior rank in his native country, and gave out that it was to avoid a marriage with a titled lady that he had left his father's house and gone to sea.

Such is the graphic account of a writer of an article entitled "Cruel Coppinger," in All the Year Round, December 15, 1866.  An element of truth there is undoubtedly running through the tale, for John Copinger was wrecked on the coast of Cornwall, and was of a character not unlike that there depicted.  As he had his own schooner, and was frequently employed on important secret services for the government, no doubt an air of mystery was attached to his proceedings in the eyes of the simple country folk amongst whom he usually resided.  In another part of the article the writer says - 

At one time he chanced to hold enough money to purchase a freehold farm bordering on the sea.  When the day of transfer arrived, he and one of his followers appeared before the astonished lawyer with bags filled with various kinds of foreign coins: dollars and ducats, doubloons and pistoles, guineas - the coinage of every foreign country with a seaboard - were displayed on the table.  The man of law at first demurred to such purchase money; but after some controversy, and an ominous oath or two of 'that or none,' the lawyer agreed to take it by weight.  The document bearing Copinger's name is still extant. His signature is traced in stern, bold, fierce characters, as if every letter had been stabbed upon the parchment with the point of a dirk.  Underneath his autograph, also in his own writing, is the word 'Thuro.'

In this again there is a foundation of truth, for Copinger did purchase a freehold farm bordering on the sea.  It was near to St. Austell and called "Trewhiddle."  The rest of the article, however, or the greater part thereof, is undoubtedly drawn from the writer's imagination.  It is attractive and interesting, but at the expense of both the moral character of Copinger, and, it is to be added, of truth.  The writer mentions that there was a ballad in existence within human memory which was founded on the history of this singular man, but of which the first verse only can now be recovered.  It runs:-

Will you hear of the Cruel Copinger?
He came from a foreign kind:
He was brought to us by the salt water,
He was carried away by the wind. 

The account quoted from All the Year Round, is by the Rev. R.S. Hawker, Vicar of Morwenstow, and appears also in Footprints of Men in Far Cornwall, and also in Baring Gould's Vicar of Morwenstow.  On further investigation it is found that there is more of truth in the account than was at first supposed.  No evidence being obtainable of the details in the Dinah episode, we are disposed to give the hero the benefit of the doubt.  But far from wishing to impugn the author's veracity in other portions of his recital, we feel bound to give the sequel of the narrative, two of the following incidents being admitted as incontrovertible facts, according to the traditions of the family, and are corroborated by the testimony of reliable witnesses.  In continuing his account of John Copinger, Hawker says:  

All at once his house became the den and refuge of every lawless character on the coast. All kinds of wild uproar and reckless revelry appalled the neighbourhood day and night. It was discovered that an organised band of desperadoes, smugglers, wreckers, and poachers were embarked in a system of bold adventure, and that 'Cruel Copinger' was their captain. In those days, and in that unknown and far away region, the peaceable inhabitants were totally unprotected.  There was not a single resident gentleman of property or weight in the entire district: and the clergyman, quite insulated from associates of his own standing, was cowed into silence and submission.  No revenue officier durst exercise vigilance west of the Taymar; and to put an end to all such surveillance at once, it was well-known that one of the 'Cruel' gang had chopped off a gauger's head on the gunwale of a boat, and carried the body off to sea.  Amid such scenes, Copinger pursued his unlawful impulses without check or restraint.  Strange vessels began to appear at regular intervals on the coast, and signals were duly flashed from the headlands to lead them into the safest creek or cove.  If the ground sea were too strong to allow them to run in, they anchored outside the surf, and boats prepared for that service were rowed or hauled to and fro, freighted with illegal spirit.  Amongst these vessels, one, a full-rigged schooner, soon became ominiously conspicuous.  She bore the name of the Black Prince, and was the private property of the Dane, built to his own order in a dockyard of Denmark.  She was for a long time the chief terror of the Cornish Channel.  Once, with Copinger on board, when, under chase, she led a revenue cutter into an intricate channel near the Gull Rock, where from knowledge of the bearings, the Black Prince escaped scathless, while the King's vessel perished with all on board.  In those times if any landsman became obnoxious to Copinger's men, he was either seized by violence or by craft, and borne away, handcuffed, to the deck of the Black Price, where, to save his life, he had to enroll himself, under fearful oaths, as one of the crew.  In 1835, an old man, of the age of 97, related to the writer that, when a youth, he had been so abducted, and after two years' service had been ransomed by his friends with a large sum.  'And all,' said the old man, very simply, 'because I happened to see one man kill another, and they thought I should mention it!'

. . .  Long impunity increased Copinger's daring.  There were certain byways and bridle-roads along the fields over which he exercised exclusive control.  Although every one had a perfect right by law to use these ways, he issued orders that no man was to pass over them by night, and, accordingly, from that hour none ever did.  They were called 'Copinger's Tracts.'  They all converged at a headland, which had the name of Steeple Brink.  Here the cliff sheered off, and stood three hundred feet of perpendicular height, a precipice of smooth rock towards the beach, with an overhanging face one hundred feet down from the brow.  There was a hollow entrance into the cliff, like a huge cathedral door, crowned and surrounded with natural Saxon arches, curved by the strata of native stone.  Within was an arched and vaulted cave, vast and gloomy; it ran a long way into the heart of the land, and was as large and tall - so the country-people said - as Kilkhampton Church.  This stronghold was inaccessible by natural means, and could only be approached by a cable ladder lowered from above and made fast below on a projecting crag.  It received the name of 'Copinger's Cave,' and was long the scene of fierce and secret revelry that would be utterly inconceivable to the educated mind of the nineteenth century.  Here sheep were tethered to the rock, and fed on stolen hay and corn till their flesh was required for a feast; kegs of brandy and Hollands were piled around; chests of tea and iron-bound sea-chests contained the chattels and other revenues of the Copinger royalty of the sea.  No man ever essayed the perilous descent into the cavern except the captain's own troop; and their loyalty was secured not only by their participation in his crimes, but by a terrible oath.  The terror united with Copinger's name throughout the coast was so extreme that the people themselves, wild and lawless as they were, submitted to his sway as though he had been the lord of the soil and they his vassals.  .  .  .  .

The Kilkhampton parson hated rook-pie.  Copinger knew it.  He invited him to dine with him one day.  A large rook-pie was served at one end of the table, and roast rooks at the other, and the parson, who was very hungry, was forced to eat of them.  When he departed he invited Copinger to dine with him on the following Thursday.  The smuggler arrived and was regaled on pie, whether rabbit or hare he could not decide.  When he came home he found a cat's skin and head stuffed into his coat pocket, and thereby discovered what he had been eating.  He was furious.  He had a favourite mare so indomitable that none but Copinger himself could venture on her back, and so fleet and strong that he owed his escape from more than one menacing peril to her speed and endurance.  Shortly after the dinner off catpie the rector of Kilkhampton was walking homeward along a lane when he heard behind him the clattering of horse hoofs, and a yell such as might have burst from the throat of the visible demon when he hurled the battle on the ancient saint.  It was Cruel Copinger, with his double-thronged whip, mounted on his terrible mare.  Down came the fearful scourge on his victim's shuddering shoulders.  Escape was impossible. Circling, doubling like a hare, twisting aside, crying aloud for mercy, all was vain.  He arrived at last at his own house, striped lika a zebra, and as he rushed in at the gate he heard the parting scoff of his assailant: "There,  parson, I have paid my tithe in full; never mind the receipt.'

It was on the self-same animal that Copinger performed another freak.  He had passed a festive evening at a farmhouse, and was about to take his departure, when he spied  at the corner of the hearth a little old tailor of the country side, who went from house to house to exercise his calling.  He was a half-witted, harmless old fellow, and answered to the name of Uncle tom Tape.

Ha!  Uncle Tom!' cried Copinger; 'we both travel the same road, and I don't mind giving thee a hoist behind me on the mare.'  The old man cowered in the settle.  He would not encumber the gentleman; was unaccustomed to ride such a spirited horse.  But all his excuses were overborne.  The other guests, entering into the joke, assisted the trembling old man to mount the crupper of the capering mare.  Off she bounded, and Uncle Tom, with his arms cast with the strong gripe of terror around his bulky companion, held on like grim death.

Unbuckling his belt, Copinger passed it around Uncle Tom's thin, haggard body, and buckled it on his own part.  When he had fairly secured his victum, he loosened his reigns, and urged the mare with thong and spur into a furious gallop.  Onward they rushed, till they fled past the tailor's own door at the roadside, where his startled wife, who was on the watch, afterwards declared 'she caught sight of her husband clinging on to a rainbow.' Loud and piteous were the outcries of  Tailor Tom, and earnest his shrieks of entreaty that he might be told where he was to be carried that night, and for what doom he had been buckled on.  At last, in a relaxation of their pace going up a steep hill, Copinger made him a confidential communication.  "I have been,' he said, 'under a long promise to the devil that I would bring him a tailor to make and mend for him, poor man; and as sure as I breathe, Uncle Tom, I mean to keep my word to-night!'

The agony of terror produced by this revelation produced such convulsive spasms, that at last the belt gave way, and the tailor fell off like a log among the gorse at the roadside.  There he was found next morning in a semi-delirious state, muttering, at intervals, 'No, no; I never will.  Let him mend his breeches with his own drag chain, as the saying is.  I will never so much as thread a needle for Copinger nor his friend!'...

But the end arrived.  Money had become scarce, and the resources of the cave began to fail.  More than one armed King's cutter were seen day and night hovering off the land. Foreigners visited the house with tidings of peril.  So he 'who came with the water, went with the wind.'  His disappearance, like his arrival, was commemorated by a turbulent storm.  A wrecker, who had gone to watch the shore, saw, as the sun went down, a full rigged ship standing off and on.  By-and-bye a rocket hissed up from the Gull Rock, a small islet with a creek on the landward side, which had been the scene of many a run of smuggled cargo.  A gun from the ship answered it, and again both signals were exchanged. At last a well-known and burly form stood on the topmost crag of the island rock.  He waved his sword, and the light flashed back from the steel.  A boat put off from the vessel, with two hands at every oar; for the tide runs with double violence through Harty Race.  They neared the rocks, rode daringly through the surf, and were steered by some practiced coxwain into the Gull Creek. There they found their man.  Copinger leaped on board the boat, and assumed the command.  They made with strong efforts for their ship. It was a path of peril through that boiling surf.  Still, bending at the oar like chained giants, the man watched them till they forced their way through the battling waters. Once, as they drew off the shore, one of the rowers, either from ebbing strength or loss of courage, drooped at his oar.  In a moment a cutlass gleamed over his head, and a fierce stern stroke cut him down.  It was the last blow of Cruel Copinger.  He and his boat's crew boarded the vessel, and she was out of sight in a moment, like a spectre or ghost. Thunder, lightning, and hail ensued.  Trees were rent up by the roots around the pirate's abode.

John Copinger maintained his reputation for cruelty in after years, and was in the habit of throwing his children into the sea to teach them to swim.  It is well-known, too, that he took his son Daniel, a lad of only ten years, to London, when the youth having been brought up at Roscoff, in Brittany, was not so at home among English people as he would have been had he been educated here, and his English was somewhat faulty.  This vexed his father, and vowing he would soon "find him an English tongue," he took him out into the streets of the great metropolis and lost him!

There was a John Coppinger living in London at the same time that the above John Copinger was flourishing in Cornwall.  He was a Registrar of the Court of Chancery, and made his Will, 4th April, 1800, which was proved in June, 1809.  He was left a gold watch, by a codicil to the Will of Robert North, of Scarborough, who died in 1760, in the following terms:

To John Coppinger, Westminster, Solicitor in Chancery, my gold watch, that when he looks at it he may remember that time will not last for ever.

The Royal Institution of Cornwall published, in 2017, an article on Cruel Copinger.


[1] Her husband settled upon her an annuity of £300 per annum, which was secured by his bond only.  Her only son by Trefusis, a midshipman in the Royal Navy, was killed with his uncle, Stephen Copinger, in Lord Howe's victory on the glorious first of June.  Her husband died, and in 1780 she married Robert Tuite of Copenhagen, chamberlain to the King of Denmark.  Their marriage settlement bears date the 23rd June, 1780, and by it the annuity is settled on Mrs. Tuite.  After seven years of married life, "finding their dispositions to be dissimilar, and that their living together produced mutual unhappiness," they agreed to live separate. In 1796 Tuite instituted proceedings in Denmark for a divorce, which he obtained, and by his interest with the King, on the 29th January, 1796, received the Royal licence and permission to marry again; the like Royal licence and permission being granted to his divorced wife.  Mary Ann Tuite died in 1807 without having made any will, and at her decease there were arrears of her annuity for about twenty-five years owing from her first husband's estate, thus amounting to some thousands.  A part of the money was brought into Court in the suit of Trefusis v. Lord Clinton (1819 and 1826).  Robert Tuite died 22nd December, 1810, and his executors immediately claimed this money in Court on the ground that a decree in a foreign Court could not dissolve an English marriage, and a Chancery suit ensued, which lasted nearly twenty years.  The suit entitled "McCarthy v. Decaix" and the Bill was filed in Easter Term 1814.  The case came on before Lord Eldon and before Sir John Leach, and was ultimately decided by Lord Brougham in 1831.  It is reported in the second volume of Russell and Mylne's Reports, p. 614.



Contact us by e-mail   mailto:copinger@talktalk.net

This page was last updated on 22 April 2018. 

Copyright © 2018   I. S. Copinger