Little has been discovered about the pre-Christian history of the island although there is evidence of a Bronze Age burial on the adjacent mainland and it would be surprising if these people did not at least visit, if not settle, the island. The first known settlement on the island was 1085 when the Chapel was originally built.
Although popularly known as ‘Looe Island’, it has gone by many names in its long history. Among them it has been most commonly known as ‘Lammana’, ‘The Isle of Lemayne’, ‘St. Michaels Island’ and ‘St Georges Island’.
The earliest recorded name used for the island is ‘Lamene’, which is mentioned in a document from Pope Lucius II in 1144 as a possession of Glastonbury and a subsequent document dated 1168 from his successor, Pope Alexander III again refers to the island, although this time by the name ‘Lamane’. The name suggests the possibility of an early religious settlement, possibly Celtic, as the name appears to be derived from the Cornish word ‘ Lan’, which means ‘Monk’. Over time there have been many variations in the spelling but ‘Lammana’, which appear as early as 1200, is the most common.
The name of ‘St. Michaels Island’ is known to derive from a Cornish Celtic background while the contemporary title ‘St Georges Island’ refers to a Catholic legend that surrounds the island..
The Catholic background of Looe Island is well known and starts with the persistent legend that Joseph of Arimathea (the uncle of the Virgin Mary), took the infant Jesus with him to Cornwall on a voyage to trade tin, and left him on the island whilst conducting his business.
Whether or not you believe the legend, evidence survives that in 445 AD and probably very much earlier, tin was traded between Pheonecia and Cornwall. Furthermore, there is a 160 BC reference to tin being mined in Cornwall and taken to an island called ‘Ictis’. which means “joined to the mainland at low tide”.
After the initial religious involvement the island is recorded as being mostly uninhabited through the 1300s, and then completely uninhabited until the island’s chapel was endowed as a chantry chapel in 1534 by a family called Courtenay.
It is assumed that the island passed on to the crown in 1538 following the dissolution of the monasteries. By the 1600’s it is said that Elizabeth I needed to raise money and sold some of the land to Sir John Trelawny.The Trelawny family purchased the island fully in 1743.
In the mid 1700s Sir Harry Trelawny attempted to introduce some firs and other tree’s to the island but they did not grow and so seeds were used for a plantation of firs; it wasnt until the mid 1800’s that the island is recorded as being heavily wooded – resembling its current appearance, by which time the Finn family also inhabited the island.
The Finn family occupied the island since the latter half of the 18th century and were known for a mysterious link with the Mewstone; an uninhabited island off Wembury, near Plymouth. According to Rev. Stebbing Shaw, Finn was banished to Mewstone in 1774 for a term of seven years. The crime for which Finn was punished was as petty as being a nuisance to his neighbors, who may have made representations to the local magistrate to have him removed. In 1781 the ‘Mewstone Man’ moved to Looe Island with his wife, having served his sentence and gaining a taste for an isolated life. The Finn family are also linked with the Hooper family, having shared the island at some point, who were closely tied with tales of smuggling and treasure on Looe Island.
During the 19th and 20th century the island was rented too many different people and young families, it became well known as a haven and hideout for smugglers and pirates.
At the commencement of the 20th century the island was still in the hands of the Trelawne Estate of which the head at that time was Sir William Trelawny who inherited it when his father Sir John Trelawny died in 1885. In September 1912 it was let on a 21 year lease at £50 per year (expiring June 1933), to Henry St. John Dix Esq.
In 1964 the Evelyn and Roselyn Atkins, affectionately known as ‘Attie’ and ‘Babs’ moved to the island under unusual circumstances. The previous owner had been forced to leave through ill health, and to avoid the island being developed as a holiday camp he granted the sisters a private mortgage, knowing it would be safe in their hands.
While living on the island ‘Attie’ wrote two books, We Bought An Island and Tales from Our Cornish Island, both of which are avaliable in an omnibus edition that is currently available from the island shop in Jetty Cottage. The books tell the entertaining story of how the sisters came to fulfill the lifelong dream against all odds and light hearted accounts of the many adventures and problems faced by the sisters once established as residents.
Evelyn ‘Attie’ Atkins died in 1997 while Roselyn ‘Babs’ Atkins lived alone on the island until she died in 2004. Despite very substantial cash offers, ‘Babs’ ensured the continued conservation of the island by bequeathing it to the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, a selfless act that her sister ‘Attie’ would have applauded.
Smugglers and Free Traders
In the 18th and 19th centuries smuggling was a major industry in Cornwall despite the efforts of the understaffed revenue authorities and harsh penalties for convicted offenders. The high duties imposed on a variety of luxury goods imported from Europe by successive British governments made smuggling very profitable for anyone prepared to face a little more risk than most people at the time encountered in their everyday struggle to earn a living.
The Channel Islands were exempt from taxes imposed by a British parliament, and so they became the main center for the supply of goods. Cornwall’s proximity to the merchants of St Peter Port and Guernsey ensured that the trade in contraband goods was particularly active.
Looe Island was an ideal staging post for landing and concealing goods until it was safe to ferry them to the mainland. The contraband included small casks of spirits known as ‘tubs’, tea, silk stockings and other goods subject to a high duty.
No account if the smugglers of Looe Island would be complete without mentioning Thomas Fletcher, an Irishman who came to Looe as a coastguard in the 1830’s. He married a local woman, raised a large family and absconded from the coastguard service to join the smugglers. Thomas Fletcher joined Amram Hooper’s organization and used his knowledge of the coastguard to plan out his activities. He was given a walking funeral to his last resting place in Schlerder Abbey above Talland bay.
As Thomas had a large family, many descendants are still living in the area.
Thomas Fletchers connection to smuggling brought him to Amram Hooper and his organization. Amram was the chief smuggler in and around Looe at the time his family lived on Looe Island, between the 1790s and mid 1840s. They rented the property from the Trelawney family and were closely tied with the Finn family, who also inhabited the island during this time.
Tales of Amram and his grandson, Jochabed, appear in various stories about smuggling events in and near Looe, these were largely founded and recorded by Commander H.N.Shore at the turn of the 19th century.
Amram himself was a legendary man, whose family had been a ‘superior people’, most likely upper middle class, who were punished for some state offense. Amram was in a college of learning at the time and his whole career was wrecked.
Once relocated to Looe his new career as a smuggler was done in a spirit of revenge against the law of the land, more than for the profit it bought him. The local fishermen whom he employed to go out fishing with him said, when asked by his wife what they talked about, “his words were few, but pure silver every one of ’em“.
Other sources describe Amram as “most remarkable and evidently educated far above his surroundings, [he] had great personality and charm, clever, resourceful, a born leader and his associates revered him.“. He was noted to be a mostly silent man, no one knew where he came from and there were many tales and rumors surrounding his legend.
For all the good fortune this hidden network of caves could have offered to the smugglers of Looe there have been many other stories of hidden treasure on the island itself, as well as in the dozens of ships wrecked around the shallow waters of Looe Island. Being famous for free traders and pirates who knows what could still remain…
If smuggled goods could be secreted on the island so could treasure, and there have been many local stories of hidden caches and even a tunnel to the mainland at Hannafore. No doubt such convenient access to and from the mainland would have been a boon to smugglers, but the briefest consideration of the logistics involved in such an excavation, even with today’s technology. suggests this legend is no more than romantic fiction.
Treasure, or even perhaps the remains of some smuggled goods, is a more realistic possibility so there was considereabler excitement when, some years ago, the Atkins sisters received an authentically old-looking treasure map from a clergyman in Cumbria who stated it had been in his family for several generations. At the time they were too busy to investigate beyond experimenting with dousing which, to their astonishment, brought a strong reaction for both of them at the marked ‘X’ on the map. Some years later dousing produced the same reaction and at this point an island volunteer stepped in to excavate the area. Sadly his efforts were not rewarded although dowsing continued to bring a powerful reaction. More recently, a geophysical survey of the island suggests there is a large rock buried deep at the point in question but, alas, no horde of gold coins has been found.. yet.
Looe Island’s romanticized relationship to smuggling has always led to rumors and stories of treasure and secret caves, although no strong evidence for buried treasure or the infamous network of smuggling caves have been verified to this date.
Strangely, some interesting historical observations of the island have made claims of submerged networks of man-made caves which many believe may have been used for hiding contraband to collect at a later date. The validity of the reports are in question however, due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding their publishing.
On the 15th of September 1900 The Cornish Times reported that ‘Remarkable discoveries at Looe Island’ had been made, giving a description of the findings and promising a full detailed article in the next issue, but no such report ever appeared – fueling conspiracy theorists and treasure hunters curiosity in what, if anything, was actually found beneath Looe Island.
The original report that appeared in The Cornish Times told the story of two young men who had become enthralled with stories of smuggling and treasure while staying in Looe on holiday. Having nothing to occupy their time, these gentlemen (named as Messrs R. Lawson, of the Inner Temple, and F.A. Somers, F.S.A.) approached Sir William Trelawny for permission to visit the island to investigate further. What they found was astonishing.
The cave was soon found, and shortly after an adjoining one, which from its curious resemblance to the celebrated Etruscan caves at Clusia in central Italy, let the investigators to suspect that they had accidentally stumbled on a discovery unknown to even the old smugglers themselves. It was decided to make further excavations, and the most remarkable results were obtained.
At a distance of about 18ft below the surface, St. George’s Island was nothing but an extensive ramification of caves. Everything pointed towards the fact that these caves were originally above the ground as many of the larger ones – of which there were said to be dozens – were build of brick, similar to that used on the Hannafore Estate and probably obtained from the same source. They were evidently very ancient, probably prehistoric structures, several having collapsed over there long history.
The style of their ‘architecture’ was said to be that of a very early pre-mesopelagic or Etruscan design (around 800BC). It was noted in The Cornish Times that no human remains had been found and a cemetery discovered on the island was most probably made by monks at a much later date.
The last paragraph of The Cornish Times article states that further important developments are expected, and that excavations and finds are expected to be thrown open to the public.
A follow up, more detailed, article was to be produced in the next issue of The Cornish Times, but the article never appeared, and nothing was ever heard of these claims again. A quick search of the internet will find no information about or references to the article, the only evidence that such a discovery was made is the existence of the newspaper itself. What ever happened to the caves and their discoverers remains a mystery.
Cornwall abounds with ghost stories so it is not surprising to learn that St. Georgie’s has its own legends. Due to the island’s obvious connections with piracy and smuggling many people believe that the sightings and stories of past are more than simply myths; but may in fact be hoax’s and clever ruse’s put together to discourage people from visiting the island and uncovering its secrets.
One ghost legend is that of a black man, seen wondering the island with bloody covering his face. The sighting has been reported many times by different observers. Its it thought that he may have been a smuggler who was attacked and killed in a fight, possibly over withholding contraband or an argument over pay.
Another eerie ghost story is told by an old dressmaker who visited the island in 1850 and stayed overnight while working. The story was told in full by local author Elizabeth Shapcott in 1928.
The story tells that a local dressmaker was called to the island to work and stay overnight with the couple who were currently living there. The husband was called to the mainland for business and was unable to return until the next morning, when he did he was met by the dressmaker who was desperately trying to escape the island.
According to the old lady, the evening before she had been sitting upon the top id the island sewing when she had an awful feeling she was being watched, that someone was standing directly behind her,she had heard noises, felt hair raising prickles on the back of her neck and became awfully paranoid about her surroundings, so she returned to the house and brought the young couples infant back to the top of the hill with her for company. The rest of the day moved on without incident, happy with her work she retired to the house for the night, on her walk down she felt the same uneasy feeling that someone was watching her from the top of the hill and she hurried indoors.
About 9pm that night they retired, both sleeping in the same bed and the children in a cot in the same room. After sleeping soundly for some hours she was awakened suddenly – she heard no noise, but sleep entirely left her. The room had one door, beside the bed, nor was there any cupboard or recess, just plain walls, yet she stared around the room feeling something was out of place.
Gradually, opposite the bed a bluish light appeared and a figure of a man emerged out of the wall, a very tall, aristocratic looking man with gray hair and very beautiful hands with long fingers (she remembered and noted this detail in particular). He slowly crossed the room, the bluish light surrounding him like a haze, and in the next few steps he disappeared through the opposite wall. She was almost paralyzed with fright and lay awake until the dawn broke. At dawn she got dressed and after finding everything apparently in order left in a hurry.
Stories previous to the old dressmakers and many following it have told of seeing a bluish light flickering in intervals on the island, although no other account of seeing the ghost has been recorded.
Some years after the event a skeleton was dug up quite close to the seat on top of the hill, it was found to be that of a tall man with very long fingers. No record has been found to explain who the remains once were or why the body was laid to rest here.