Cornwall's rugged coastline has long been a haven for wreckers and smugglers but the most wicked of all must surely have been "Cruel" Coppinger.
Cornish balladeer Rev. Hawker of Morwenstow wrote of the vile deeds of this Danish privateer who first came ashore from a vessel wrecked at Welcombe Mouth on the borders of Devon and Cornwall in 1792.Coppinger was the sole survivor.
A huge figure of a man, he found refuge at a local farm and, when the farmer died he married his daughter Dinah.
Coppinger proved to be cruel and sadistic, and though she bore him a child, his son was both deaf and dumb and, like his father, incredibly cruel, torturing animals and, it's said, even killing one of his own friends.
Coppinger press-ganged the local people into forming a band of smugglers and wreckers under his leadership, threatening them with violence and worse if they showed mercy to the sailors they shipwrecked. Even the Revenue Officers avoided Coppinger and his gang of cutthroats.
One legend tells how he lured a Revenue cutter to its doom in a dangerous cove of which he alone knew the soundings. All aboard the cutter perished. Coppinger amassed wealth through his misdeeds, and his ownership of a small estate is documented, but though legend tells us he left Cornwall at last, boarding a small ship just one step ahead of the authorities never to return, it is also said that he died in old age, penniless.
Dinah Coppinger died in 1883 but her husband's legend survives, immortalised in Hawker's ballad:
"Will you hear of Cruel Coppinger
He came from a foreign land;
He was brought to us by the salt water,
He was carried away by the wind!"
Who was the real Coppinger?
Before the French Revolution a certain John Coppinger was a successful wine and spirit merchant in the French port of Roscoff and certainly supplied Cornish smugglers with their contraband. Likewise, a Daniel Herbert Coppinger was known to be a local rouge and smuggler who claimed to be an ex Navy officer. He did marry a lady by the name of Hamlyn, but Ann not Dinah.
The Cruel Coppinger of legend seems likely to have been a combination of the two of them.