The Clifftop Cross Lamorna by Michael Tangye

On the cliff-path westward from Lamorna, St. Buryan, stands a solitary granite cross inscribed D.W.W. MAR 13 1873. No book tells the story behind this single memorial.

David Watson was a delicate young man, 23 years of age, who lived with his parents at Canterbury where the family was highly respected. An undergraduate of Jesus College, Cambridge, his great passion was botany; it was therefore with great excitement that he travelled to Penzance in March 1873 in anticipation of studying the numerous wild flora which abounded in spring on the remote cliffs and moors of West Penwith.

Accompanied by his two sisters, an aunt and a cousin, they had booked accommodation, for six or seven weeks at Beachfield House, from whence they ventured daily into the surrounding countryside to explore and to indulge in their hobbies.

On Thursday 13th March 1873, they visited Lamorna. At that time the granite quarries were fully productive, their spoil heaps balanced like giant playing bricks above the little harbour. It was, therefore, probably not the peaceful scene which prevails today as the sound of metal hand drills and “jumpers” against granite, the booms of blasting, and the shouts of men echoed in the valley and cove. S.J. “Lamorna” Birch, the celebrated artist, had not yet settled in the valley but there were many who had already recognised its beauty.

The ladies decided that they would be content to stay and sketch the little harbour with its limekiln and ochre granite cliffs, allowing David to walk westwards along the narrow cliff-path to study the numerous flowers.

Sketch by Micahel Tangye

By late afternoon, the ladies, having completed their sketches and becoming anxious on David not returning, set off along the cliff in search of him. They passed Lamorna Point and on arriving at the monolithic rock which forms Carn Barges (or Buzzards Carn in English), they were horrified to see his body floating, motionless in the sea at the foot of the sheer granite cliffs.

Tearfully, they hitched up long skirts and hurried back to Lamorna with their sad news, from where a small boat immediately set off to retrieve the body. However, large waves dashing against the cliffs foiled their efforts. A second attempt was made that night when men descended the cliff on ropes in brilliant moonlight and found the body jammed tightly in a rock crevice. Ropes were placed around it and it was eventually dragged free, pulled up the cliff-face and taken to Penzance where death was certified by Dr John Quiller-Couch.

It was correctly assumed that poor David, on plucking some fine ferns from the cliff-edge, had fallen forward over the cliff into the sea, fracturing his skull during descent. On checking his affects, his purse, containing several notes and a sixpence, and his watch, were all found but the watch chain and a ring from his finger were missing. A reward was immediately offered for their finding, and shortly afterwards John Trenoweth of Lamorna, a stone-cleaver employed in the granite quarry, brought them to David’s family and accepted the reward. The police were then, naturally, informed and, because of the incriminating circumstances, John Trenoweth was arrested. However, he was later released on saying that he had heard of the loss of the articles on the Saturday and had searched the spot on Sunday, finding the chain and ring.

The holiday, which had commenced with such joyful anticipation, ended with the family returning sadly to Canterbury with the body of David in a coffin. But the story was not ended. The family, no doubt grateful for the kindness which they had experienced in their grief, gave £100 to the church of St. Buryan, the parish in which “Cairn-a-barges”, as the newspaper of that period spelt it, lay. Wishing to have a more permanent memorial to David, they also decided to erect a granite cross to his memory on the cliff near Lamorna. This was finally carved in March 1875 by Messrs Bradbury and Son, of Penzance – “a handsome cross in Cornish granite and about five and a half feet high for the spot on the cliffs near Lamorna which proved fatal to young Mr. Watson…. The cross bears the simple inscription, cut plainly in granite `D.W.W. MARCH 1873′ .”
We do not know if the cross was erected in 1875, or later, as the newspaper of the period reported that the permission needed for its erection was delayed because of the death of Mr. Reginald Paynter of Boskenna, the owner of the land. We do know that family friends of David donated a further £100 to the church of St. Burvan. Today, as we walk from Lamorna in the direction of Tater Du lighthouse we pass the simple cross which stands at the cliff-edge within the shadow of the towering mass of Carn Mellyn (or Yellow Carn). This spot, some distance from Carn Barges, was probably chosen as being more convenient for the transport of the heavy- memorial and being nearer to Lamorna it would be viewed by more people.

Many years ago. when this writer’s children were young, a pause was always made at the cross; bluebells, primroses and wild violets were placed in the four holes which surround its expanded arms, and a silent prayer was said. No doubt David Watson, the botanist, appreciated this gesture!

Grateful thanks to the original Cornwall Local Studies Library, Redruth, for use of newspaper microfilms of the period discussed.