On 22 October 1707 Admiral Sir Cloudsley Shovell was guiding his fleet of fifteen Royal Navy ships back towards the England coast after a failed attempt to defeat the French fleet near the Mediterranean port of Toulon during the War of the Spanish Succession.
It was a difficult voyage. The weather was stormy, and Shovell, though he was under the impression that he was off the coast of Brittany, was actually approaching the Isles of Scilly. Four of his ships struck the perilous Western Rocks and foundered. Up to 2,000 sailors were drowned. Shovell was on board the flagship, the Association, from which there were no survivors. His own body was washed up at Porth Hellick bay on St Mary’s, seven miles from the site of the wreck, and was buried above the shore nearby (a modern plaque marks the event).
A curious myth sprang up about the Admiral. An islander was said to have confessed on her deathbed, years later, that she had come across Sir Cloudsley, still barely alive, on the beach at Port Hellick. She spotted a large emerald ring on one of his fingers. It was illegal to strip corpses of their objects, but not to take them from the living. The woman therefore removed the ring and promptly murdered the Admiral, suffocating him with the folds of her skirt.
Scillonians had a reputation, rightly or wrongly, for plundering the wrecks of ships that came to grief in their waters, and this story depends on that tradition – all too conveniently. It seems unlikely that Sir Cloudsley could have survived such a long period in the sea to have reached land alive.
The loss of the navy’s ships with so many casualties came as a bad shock to the government. It was realised that the reason for the disaster was the inability of sailors to calculate accurately the longitude of their vessels. In 1714 Parliament passed the Longitude Act, which offered a series of prizes of £10,000 and more to the person who devised a successful means of determining longitude at sea. It was the Yorkshireman John Harrison who finally developed the marine chronometer and solved the problem.
Sir Cloudsley’s visit to Scilly was a short one. By order of Queen Anne his body was exhumed, embalmed in Plymouth, transported to London and reburied in Westminster Abbey on 22 December 1707, with great ceremony and a marble memorial carved by Grinling Gibbons. This makes him an early candidate for the curious English tradition, most familiar from the posthumous treatment of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, of deifying heroic failures.
A short distance along the south coast of St Mary’s lies another prominent visitor to the Scillies – a willing and a permanent visitor, this time. Harold Wilson’s grave is in the overspill cemetery of the churchyard at Old Town. A modest headstone records his basic details, and the Latin tag ‘Tempus imperator rerum’ (‘time the emperor of things’) places his achievements in due perspective. In the older part of the graveyard I met a man cutting the grass. Born and bred on Scilly, he said he had known Wilson (‘though I knew his bodyguards better’), but he failed to volunteer any opinion about him, except to say that he loved the Scillies.
Wilson first came to St Mary’s in 1952 and was so taken with the island that he built a small house on the edge of Hugh Town, where he and his family could stay on annual visits. They called it ‘Lowenva’ (Cornish for ‘Happy Place’; in Welsh it would be ‘Llawenfa’). It’s a very modest, deliberately plain rectangular bungalow, with a simple lawn to the front.
Harold Wilson was perhaps the first British Prime Minister to appreciate the need to spend time on his media image. The press would follow him to Scilly on holiday and he was happy to give them attention. A famous photograph from 1965 shows him on the (uninhabited) island of Samson, lying on the beach surrounded by reporters – all men, with pens and notepads at the ready – and discussing with them, it seems, ‘Singapore, Anglo-Russian relations, trade figures and the prospects of a Labour-Liberal coalition’. He’s wearing shorts – no earlier Prime Minister would have considered them respectable – and his trademark pipe is in his mouth.
The pipe, or at least a pipe, is exhibited in the Isles of Scilly Museum in Hugh Town. You have to search hard, down in the basement among all the wrecks, gigs and lifeboats, to discover a rather neglected display on Harold Wilson. There’s also a golf ball, and a Gannex raincoat that was another part of his self-image armoury.
It may be true that the beginnings of political ‘spin’ can be traced back to Harold Wilson, but his media manipulations look innocent enough from the perspective of today. What’s more striking, to judge from the Scilly evidence, is his refusal to treat himself or his family as exceptional in any way. His modesty is a refreshing contrast to the self-aggrandising and self-enriching egotism of Tony Blair. Wilson’s achievements are not much discussed today, except perhaps for his establishment of the Open University, one of Britain’s greatest post-war inventions. The epithet ‘pragmatist’ still attaches itself to him, as if he held fast to no principles. But it’s interesting, at least, to notice that by the time he resigned, in 1976 – Wilson was one of the very few politicians not to end their careers in failure – inequalities in income and wealth were at the lowest they have ever been in the UK. The accelerating pace of economic inequality since 1979 is arguably the prime reason why we are in our current perilous condition.