(28)  John Copinger


This gentleman left Cork about 1760, and fixed his residence at Roscoff, in Brittany, where he purchased an estate and erected several houses.   During the revolution, 1793, his property was destroyed.   Shortly after this he settled in Cornwall, where he purchased an estate called Trewhiddle.  He seems to have acquired a considerable fortune, for on the marriage of his daughter Marianne, with the Hon. Robert Cotton Trefusis, he gave her as a portion a sum of £40,000.[1]   There are legends containing more or less of truth still to be met with on the coast of Cornwall respecting this eccentric character.   It is said that his arrival in Cornwall was signalled by a terrific hurricane.

The storm came up channel from the south-west.  The shore and and the height were dotted with watchers for wrecks - those daring gleaners of the harvest of the sea.   It was just such a scene as is sought for in the proverb of the West:

A savage sea and a shattering wind,
The cliffs before, and the gale behind.

As suddenly as if a phantom ship had loomed in the distance, a strange vessel of foreign rig was discovered in fierce struggle with the waves of Harty Race.   She was deeply laden, or water-logged, and rolled heavily in the trough of the sea, nearing the shore as she felt the tide.   Gradually the pale and dismayed faces of the crew became visible, and among them one man of herculean height and mould, who stood near the wheel with a speaking-trumpet in his hand.   The sails were blown to rags, and the rudder was apparently lashed for running ashore.   But the suck of the current and the set of the wind were too strong for the vessel, and she appeared to have lost her chance of reaching Harty Pool. It was seen that the tall seaman, who was manifestly the skipper of the boat, had cast off his garments, and stood prepared upon the deck to encounter a battle with the surges for life and rescue.   He plunged over the bulwarks, and arose to sight buffeting the seas. With stalwart arm and powerful chest he made his way through the surf, rode manfully from billow to billow, until, with a bound, he stood at last upright upon the sand, a fine stately semblance of one of the old Vikings of the northern seas.   A crowd of people had gathered from the land, on horseback and on foot, women as well as men, drawn together by the tidings of a probable wreck.   Into their midst, and to their astonished dismay, rushed the dripping stranger; he snatched from a terrified old dame her Welsh cloak, cast it loosely around him, and bounded suddenly upon the crupper of a young damsel who had ridden her father's horse down to the beach to see the sight.   He grasped her bridle, and shouting aloud in some foreign language, urged on the double-laden animal into full speed, and the horse naturally took his homeward way.   Strange and wild were the outcries that greeted the rider, Miss Dinah Hamlyn, when, thus escorted she reached her father's door, in the very embrace of a wild, rough, tall man, who announced himself by a name - never afterwards forgotten in those parts - as Copinger, a Dane.   He arrayed himself without the smallest scruple in the Sunday suit of his host.  The long-skirted coat of purple velveteen with large buttons, the embroidered vest, and nether garments to match, became him well.   So thought the lady of his sudden choice.   She, no doubt, forgave his onslaught on her and on her horse for the compliment it conveyed.   He took his immediate place at the family board, and on the settle by the hearth, as though he had been the most welcome and long-invited guest in the land.  Strange to say, the vessel disappeared immediately he had left her deck, nor was she ever after traced by land or sea.   At first, the stranger subdued all the fierce phases of his savage character, and appeared deeply grateful for all the kindness he received at the hands of his simple-hearted host. Certain letters which he addressed to persons of high name in Denmark were, or were alleged to be, duly answered, and remittances from his friends were supposed to be received.   He announced himself to be of a wealthy family and superior rank in his native country, and gave out that it was to avoid a marriage with a titled lady that he had left his father's house and gone to sea.

Such is the graphic account of a writer of an article entitled "Cruel Coppinger," in All the Year Round, December 15, 1866.   An element of truth there is undoubtedly running through the tale, for John Copinger was wrecked on the coast of Cornwall, and was of a character not unlike that there depicted.   As he had his own schooner, and was frequently employed on important secret services for the government, no doubt an air of mystery was attached to his proceedings in the eyes of the simple country folk amongst whom he usually resided.  In another part of the article the writer says -  

At one time he chanced to hold enough money to purchase a freehold farm bordering on the sea.   When the day of transfer arrived, he and one of his followers appeared before the astonished lawyer with bags filled with various kinds of foreign coins: dollars and ducats, doubloons and pistoles, guineas - the coinage of every foreign country with a seaboard - were displayed on the table.  The man of law at first demurred to such purchase money; but after some controversy, and an ominous oath or two of 'that or none,' the lawyer agreed to take it by weight.  The document bearing Copinger's name is still extant. His signature is traced in stern, bold, fierce characters, as if every letter had been stabbed upon the parchment with the point of a dirk.   Underneath his autograph, also in his own writing, is the word 'Thuro.'

In this again there is a foundation of truth, for Copinger did purchase a freehold farm bordering on the sea.   It was near to St. Austell and called "Trewhiddle."   The rest of the article, however, or the greater part thereof, is undoubtedly drawn from the writer's imagination.   It is attractive and interesting, but at the expense of both the moral character of Copinger, and, it is to be added, of truth.   The writer mentions that there was a ballad in existence within human memory which was founded on the history of this singular man, but of which the first verse only can now be recovered.   It runs:-

The account quoted from All the Year Round, is by the Rev. R.S. Hawker, Vicar of Morwenstow, and appears also in Footprints of Men in Far Cornwall, and also in Baring Gould's Vicar of Morwenstow.  On further investigation it is found that there is more of truth in the account than was at first supposed.   No evidence being obtainable of the details in the Dinah episode, we are disposed to give the hero the benefit of the doubt.  But far from wishing to impugn the author's veracity in other portions of his recital, we feel bound to give the sequel of the narrative, two of the following incidents being admitted as incontrovertible facts, according to the traditions of the family, and are corroborated by the testimony of reliable witnesses.  In continuing his account of John Copinger, Hawker says:  

John Copinger maintained his reputation for cruelty in after years, and was in the habit of throwing his children into the sea to teach them to swim.   It is well-known, too, that he took his son Daniel, a lad of only ten years, to London, when the youth having been brought up at Roscoff, in Brittany, was not so at home among English people as he would have been had he been educated here, and his English was somewhat faulty.   This vexed his father, and vowing he would soon "find him an English tongue," he took him out into the streets of the great metropolis and lost him!

There was a John Coppinger living in London at the same time that the above John Copinger was flourishing in Cornwall.   He was a Registrar of the Court of Chancery, and made his Will, 4th April, 1800, which was proved in June, 1809.   He was left a gold watch, by a codicil to the Will of Robert North, of Scarborough, who died in 1760, in the following terms:

To John Coppinger, Westminster, Solicitor in Chancery, my gold watch, that when he looks at it he may remember that time will not last for ever.


[1] Her husband settled upon her an annuity of £300 per annum, which was secured by his bond only.   Her only son by Trefusis, a midshipman in the Royal Navy, was killed with his uncle, Stephen Copinger, in Lord Howe's victory on the glorious first of June.   Her husband died, and in 1780 she married Robert Tuite of Copenhagen, chamberlain to the King of Denmark.   Their marriage settlement bears date the 23rd June, 1780, and by it the annuity is settled on Mrs. Tuite.   After seven years of married life, "finding their dispositions to be dissimilar, and that their living together produced mutual unhappiness," they agreed to live separate. In 1796 Tuite instituted proceedings in Denmark for a divorce, which he obtained, and by his interest with the King, on the 29th January, 1796, received the Royal licence and permission to marry again; the like Royal licence and permission being granted to his divorced wife.   Mary Ann Tuite died in 1807 without having made any will, and at her decease there were arrears of her annuity for about twenty-five years owing from her first husband's estate, thus amounting to some thousands.   A part of the money was brought into Court in the suit of Trefusis v. Lord Clinton (1819 and 1826).   Robert Tuite died 22nd December, 1810, and his executors immediately claimed this money in Court on the ground that a decree in a foreign Court could not dissolve an English marriage, and a Chancery suit ensued, which lasted nearly twenty years.  The suit entitled "McCarthy v. Decaix" and the Bill was filed in Easter Term 1814.   The case came on before Lord Eldon and before Sir John Leach, and was ultimately decided by Lord Brougham in 1831.   It is reported in the second volume of Russell and Mylne's Reports, p. 614.



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