The Tragedy of Tregonhawke Bay

Tregonhawke Memorial (Photo: Henry Spender)

When I was a youngster, I was taken by my father to see a memorial at Tregonhawke on the cliffs above Whitsand Bay in Cornwall. The view from the memorial is quite lovely, a long sandy beach, some rocks and the white-crested waves lapping rather than crashing into the shore.

Perhaps it isn’t the best water for surfers – there are better places in Cornwall – but it is highly inviting for swimmers. On a hot summer’s day nothing could be more perfect than to pick your way down the steep path and stretch out on the sand. Enjoy the sun. Take a swim.

Except. Maybe not for my family. Not if they cast a glance at the granite memorial with the Celtic cross. For on it there is a legend.

“In the beloved memory of
Edward Spender
Aged 44 years
And of his sons
Reginald and Sidney
Who were drowned whilst bathing
Beneath this cliff
On Whit-Sunday June 9 1878”

The story of the family tragedy was that my great-grandfather, Edward Spender, had died in quicksand one sunny summer’s day on a beach in Cornwall, along with two of his young sons, Reginald and Sidney.

On top of that, so the story ran, my great-grandmother, who was heavily pregnant, was watching from the top of the cliffs as the three of them disappeared. The unborn child was later baptized Reginald Edward Sidney– he would always be Uncle Rex to my father – as a commemoration to the three victims.

In fact, that is not quite the whole truth. Some of it is right but the details are somewhat different.

Let’s roll back the years.



Edward Spender was a highly successful newspaperman at the time of his death in 1878
Edward Spender was a highly successful newspaperman at the time of his death in 1878

In 1878, Edward Spender was what you might want to describe as a successful man. Born in Bath in 1834, son of a prominent surgeon, he had gone into journalism and happened to do so at the perfect time.

As a young man, he would doubtless have read Howard Russell’s accounts in The Times of the war in Crimea and noted the speed with which they had reached London. The industrial revolution which saw Britain opening up to cross-country train service and the wire service made the business of reporting news far quicker than it had ever been.

Edward Spender saw the potential for a daily newspaper in the regions, immediately able to report what was going on in London; in Parliament, in the courts, in the heart of the nation.

To this day Spenders have been good at spotting openings and ideas, less good at following them through, lacking perhaps the business savvy to make them work. If Edward was like that, then he was also lucky. His sister Caroline had married a man called William Saunders, eleven years Edward’s senior who also saw the possibilities. And had the capital and business acumen to do something about it.

They went into partnership and in 1860, when Edward was just 26 years old, they set up the Western Morning News as a daily newspaper in Plymouth, some 238 miles (383 kilometres) south-west of London. Saunders was the business, Spender was the editorial.

Four years later and now a married man, Spender opened up the newspaper’s London office. Contemporary accounts call him the “Prince of the Lobby” although there do not appear to be any records to that effect at the House of Commons. Sadly, much of the Western Morning News archive went up in smoke during the air raids of the Second World War.

An article which appeared in the Western Morning News in June 1978, marking the centenary of his death, says he was a prolific contributor to periodicals and certainly he must have had a few strong connections as The Times and the Manchester Guardian both ran obituaries.

Spender’s book was described as “sensible” by The Spectator

He found time to travel to Norway, writing a series of articles for the London Quarterly Review. His book Fjord, Isle and Tor, published in 1870, also includes pieces on the Channel Islands, the Scilly Isles and, somewhat presciently, Cornwall. No mention of Tregonhawke, though. The Spectator called it “a very sensible book, which anyone who meditates a first visit to the countries treated of should provide himself with”.

My grandfather Arthur Edmund Spender was only seven when his father drowned but he must have been quite a role model. Edmund would also go on to become a journalist, acting as editor and managing director of the Western Morning News. When his book Two Winters in Norway came out in 1902, it had echoes of his father’s over 30 years before.

Edward’s reputation as a journalist may also have had a small influence on two of his nephews although it was mainly through the patronage of William Saunders, their aunt Catherine’s husband, that John Alfred and Harold took to the press.

JA Spender was to become a highly influential editor of the Westminster Gazette; Harold Spender was less corporate in his freelance approach and wrote a number of books such as At the Sign of the Guillotine, Byron and Greece and The Cauldron of Europe. I have one of the biographies he wrote on General Smuts. It sits proudly on my bookshelf alongside the poetry of his son, the best known of our clan, Stephen Spender.



Two weeks before Spender went down to Plymouth, HMS Pinafore opened in London
Two weeks before Spender went down to Plymouth, HMS Pinafore opened in London

The early part of 1878 had provided its fair share of stories to keep a newsman busy. On the lighter side was the arrival in London in January of Cleopatra’s Needle. Sadly it wasn’t actually erected on the Embankment until September but certainly its initial arrival from Egypt spawned a good few column inches. On a more serious note, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli sent the fleet into the Dardanelles as the Ottomans squared off with the Russians.

On May 25, Edward Spender and his wife Ellen were more than likely present at the opening of Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore at the Opera Comique.

Edward and Ellen had married on February 18, 1862 at St Andrew’s Church in Plymouth. Her father was also a doctor. Thirteen-year-old Reginald and eleven-year-old Sydney were the eldest of the growing brood.

Edward may even have had time to put the finishing touches on a piece about the Ottoman’s handing over Cyprus to the British on June 4 before he set off on the train for Plymouth on Friday June 7, a chance to combine some business with an outing for his two sons who were boarders at Honiton Grammar School (cost 30 pounds a year), which later became Allhallows.

As Edward and his family were now based in London, he made a point of staying with his wife’s brother Russell Rendle. Ellen was well advanced in yet another pregnancy which may have been why she decided not to go down to see the boys that weekend.

Edward picked up the boys in Honiton and then continued on the train, across Dartmoor, down to Plymouth. Perhaps Edward went into the newspaper office to see Saturday’s paper put to bed and he may have spent some time writing on Saturday for Monday’s edition.

A Saturday evening spent with the boys and their uncle Russell during which they may have hatched their plan to go to church – it was Whit Sunday after all – and then head for the coast. Whitsand Bay at Tregonhawke, just a few miles to the south-west of Plymouth.



Whitsands Bay is an attractive place to while away a summer's afternoon (Photo: Henry Spender)
Whitsands Bay is an attractive place to while away a summer’s afternoon (Photo: Henry Spender)

The Victorians believed in physical health. Cricket was already a summer passion – England had played Australia in Melbourne just a year before in the first ever Test match – while rugby was already thriving in the heartland of the south-west. Plymouth RFC and Devonport Albion RFC had both been formed within the previous three years.

The Wenlock Olympian Games had been set up by William Penny Brooks in the village of Much Wenlock in 1850 and was well-established.

Muscular Christianity was more than just a concept; it was an ideal, a vital foundation stone as Britain expanded its influence and wealth through the Empire.

Reginald and Sidney would have been all in favour of a day at the beach, even if it wasn’t that easy to reach. They would have had to pick their way from the top of the cliffs down a steep narrow path down to the Rame Head end of the beach.

The three Spenders headed into the chilly sea while Russell bade his time on the sand. When he noticed one of the boys go too far out, he decided it was best to join them in the water.

He stumbled as he entered the water. The following account is taken from the Western Morning News of June 10, 1878.

WMN“As he raised himself he saw Mr Spender standing with his face towards the shore, in water apparently only four feet deep with a wave advancing on him from behind.

“As it approached Mr Spender seemed to rise with it but when it had passed over neither he nor his sons were to be seen.

“In vain Mr Rendle – at that moment more surprised than alarmed – looked for them round the rocks and out seawards.

“They were gone and after a few minutes’ fruitless searching and watching, Mr Rendle ran to the coastguard station, a mile distant and fetched the men but they only confirmed his fears.

“Evidently Mr Spender and his two sons had been swept under and drowned by the action of the waves on the treacherous sand.”

The body of Edward Spender was washed up on Whitsands three days later, close to where he had last been seen by his brother-in-law.

The boys were not discovered until June 22, almost two weeks later. They were floating in the water about a mile away.



Because of Edward’s prominence there was plenty of coverage of the tragedy and speculation about the cause of the drownings.

The bay is notorious for its rip tides so the obvious conclusion is that the three of them were bowled over by a big wave and sucked out to sea.

But the fact that Edward’s body was found close by led the Western Morning News to come to a different conclusion: that they were knocked over and buried in the sand long enough to drown.

At the inquest, evidence was given that said the state of the bodies suggested they had been embedded in the sand, feet downwards and had only recently resurfaced.

The Whitsand Surf and Life Saving Club at the Spender Memorial (Photo: The Club)
The Whitsand Surf and Life Saving Club at the Spender Memorial (Photo: The Club)

The Whitsand Bay Surf Life Saving Club does a great job these days of minding the beach and making it safe for swimmers. I mentioned the various theories about the deaths and this is a selection of their replies:

Anthony Thorpe – “Biggest danger to swimmers is rip currents, usually at low tide. I’ve always heard they drowned by the rock below the monument – called Spender Rock. At high tide when there is a little bit of swell there can be a rip current that runs alongside this rock going out to sea – sounds most likely.”

Matt Keeble – “It’s pretty unlikely that they got their feet stuck in the sand and drowned. The rips are pretty bad there at times

Daniel Holley – “I would agree that rips are much more likely than feet in sand although waves could have been a contributing factor and might have seemed the cause to an onlooker.”

Adam Wooler – “It was more likely a rip current associated with the rock that prevented your (great) grandfather from being able to get to the shore. People have often said there is ‘quicksand’ at Whitsand Bay and this is what you may have heard too. However, in my experience you do get ‘mushy sand’ around the rocks in many places but this is caused by the rip currents stirring up the sand but I have never come across sand mushy enough to trap an adult.”

Tregonhawke Memorial (Photo: Henry Spender)

Was it the sand, that ‘quicksand’ I had heard about when I was young? Was it the tide that just dragged the three of them out to sea? We don’t know. We never will. But every time a Spender takes a trip down to Cornwall, and feels tempted to stop by the memorial in Tregonhawke, you can be sure that they won’t be dipping a toe into the mighty Atlantic beyond.

©Barney Spender 2014

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