Mark Milburn’s Cornish Wreck Ramblings, Part 6: Flotsam, Jetsam and as far as you could see a barrel


Wrecks happen, they always have, especially along an exposed coastline like the one around Cornwall. Many have heard the stories about the wreckers; were there really people out there, deliberately causing wrecks? The rumour goes like this, someone stood on a cliff waving a light. The light was supposed to look like a mast head light, at anchor, swaying gently in a protected cove. The unsuspecting ship out in rough seas, would see the light and head for the sheltered water. The ship would strike the rocks, the wreckers would kill anyone alive on board and steal the cargo. Were there really people doing that?

There are no records of anyone ever being prosecuted for such an action. There were prosecutions of people taking cargo from wrecked ships, as well as taking flotsam and/or jetsam. There were and possibly still are, some very old laws in place. One of which was the “right to wreck”. The “right to wreck” was an old manorial right to any wreckage, flotsam or jetsam, from a known or even an unknown wreck, along the coastline of the manor to which it was granted. They had to set a limit for the distance offshore, for most of these it was as far as you could see a barrel floating, from the shore. How this was interpreted is a wild guess, could a very tall person stand on a cliff, or did it have to be the from the beach?

Anyone else taking anything within the manorial coastline, was breaking the law. Whether or not these rights are actually still legal, is not sure. It is believed, that they are now no longer legal or have lapsed due to the rights being given to the original manor. The old “right to wreck” law, only related to things that could actually be seen, it didn’t relate to anything under the water; that belonged to Davy Jones.

As divers, most of us believe that “wreck” is a ship on the seabed or ashore. The Receiver of Wreck judges anything from a ship to be “wreck”, whether it is flotsam (floated), jetsam (jettisoned), lagan (jettisoned and buoyed) or derelict (drifting ship or, a part on the seabed with no hope of recovering). Anything we find and recover, that possibly came from a ship or a shipwreck, has to be declared to the Receiver of Wreck. This is true, even if the item washed ashore.

So when does litter become a reportable item? If it came from a ship, it is wreck, if it came from the land, it is litter. This litter can even include cannon balls fired into the sea, at a target or an enemy. If the enemy returned fire and the shot fell short, into the sea, that is wreck. It is about proving where the item came from. If the item has value, it is worth reporting, to be on the safe side. I found an onion bottle, just a random find whilst collecting scallops. I contacted the Receiver of Wreck and I was asked to complete a droit (legal salvage form). There are no known wrecks of this age, anywhere near this location. It must have come from a ship, as it was so far out, but, was it thrown or was it dropped by accident? I now have a letter stating it is legally mine.

Find out more about Mark and Atlantic Scuba at

Mark Milburn

Mark Milburn

Mark Milburn is the owner of Atlantic Scuba in Falmouth, Cornwall, England, and is an SDI/TDI/NAS/RYA Instructor and a Commercial Boat Skipper. Although often referred to as a maritime archaeologist, he prefers to call himself a wreck hunter. Find out more about Mark and Atlantic Scuba by visiting

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