^ Home
< Back
? Search
Print this page




Devon County

Devonshire Rgt.

Directory Listings





Parish Records




War Memorials



Since this piece was published , RNLI historian Alan Salsbury wrote to add the following interesting facts:

"Samuel Popplestone's medal was the very first to be awarded. It is now held in the Museum at Plymouth and has been the centrepiece of an exhibition held there recently. "

We would like to record our thanks to Alan for his contribution.


From The Times

17 March 1866.

"The Albert Medal for lifesaving is at last formally announced. It consists of a gold oval-shaped badge, enamelled in dark blue, with a monogram composed of the letters V & A, interlaced with an anchor erect, in gold, surrounded with a garter, in bronze, inscribed in raised letters of gold. "For gallantry in saving life at sea" and surmounted by a representation of the crown of the Prince Consort, and suspended from a dark blue riband of five-eighths of an inch in width, with two white longitudinal stripes. It will in future be granted to such as have distinguished themselves by their bravery in shipwrecks, or on other occasions, on the recommendation of the President of the Board of trade."

The Albert medal


Samuel Popplestone's cliff-top farm in 2011

Samuel Popplestone's farm on the cliff tops at Start Point (2011)

©Richard J. Brine


The first person to receive this award was Devon farmer, Samuel Popplestone. He received the medal in the presence of  Queen Victoria herself as a mark of appreciation of his gallant conduct in saving, at the imminent risk of his own life, the mate and three of the crew of the Spirit of the Ocean, which was wrecked on notorious rocks at Start Point on the 23rd March 1866.


The Spirit of the Ocean was a Nova Scotia sailing packet and at the time she was wrecked had 24 passengers on board in addition to her crew of 18. She had left the London docks on 18 March 1866, with a cargo valued at £60,000. Four days afterwards, she was caught in a terrific gale in Start Bay. The vessel managed to turn and the captain's plan was to head back to the relative safety of Dartmouth and she was seen trying to beat her way in that direction during the afternoon of that Friday by Samuel  Popplestone from the vantage point of his wind-swept farm on the cliff tops.


rocks and cliffs at Start Point on a calm day

Rocks at Start Point on a calm day

©Richard J. Brine


 He saw that most of her canvas was torn and that she was making only slow progress with the tatters of her sails streaming in the wind. He also knew just how dangerous this part of Devon's coast could  be and was relieved to see her swept past the dangerous Pear-Tree rocks but as the wind speed  increased he could see that her inevitable fate was to be driven on to the rocks below him as he stood on the cliffs. 

He immediately sent messengers to nearby Torcross and to the Coastguard Station at Hallsands asking for assistance but by the time he had found a small coil of rope and scrambled down the rock to the foreshore, she was grounded and beginning to break up. He tied the rope firmly around him  and stood on a rock with waves breaking all around  him to try to get the attention of the people on board. It was while he was doing this, that he was swept off into the sea himself and found himself in great danger. But a wave brought him back to the rocky shore and he was able to throw the end of his rope to a man struggling in the water who turned out to be the mate. In the hurricane-force winds which now developed, Samuel was able to assist to the shore, just one more seaman  - all of the remaining men and women were drowned including the captain together with several children.


Once on shore, Samuel's intention was to get the men to the safety of his farmhouse. But they were exhausted and needed help. which did not come until the arrival of the coastguards who scrambled over the cliff tops to haul the tiny group up the steep cliffs. Bodies were washed ashore for some time afterwards and the survivors were able to identify a few of those who  had been crew members but many passengers were not identified. Out of a crew of 18 and 24 passengers, including several children, only 2 people survived. Most of the bodies were buried in Stokenham churchyard.


Hallsands Customs Houses

The now ruined village of Hallsands - the white Coastgaurd cottages were on the clifftop

© Richard J. Brine


After the incident, a collection was taken up among the local gentry and Samuel was presented with a tea service, consisting of a silver teapot, sugar basin and cream ewer.  The teapot bore the following inscription: "Presented to S. Popplestone for heroic conduct, in saving life from the Spirit of the Ocean, wrecked off the Start March 23 1866". The presentation took place at the ancient Grammar School in Kingsbridge.


At the time of his heroic act, Samuel was a bachelor.  His farm was large and successful, giving employment to others and at Christmas 1867, aged 35 he married Sarah Ann Lidstone, a local girl who had been born in Loddiswell. The 1911 census states they had then been married for 43 years - there were no children. Finally, just before the 1881 census, Samuel became semi-retired and went to live in Plymstock before moving to 1, Grimstone Villas, in Plymouth where he died in the June Quarter of 1914 aged 83. We hear nothing further of him until a notice appeared in the London Gazette 2 July 1915 asking all those who had claims on the estate to send in the details to his solicitor so that the the estate could be wound up. The will had been proved by Sarah Ann and he had appointed as executors his nephew, Richard White Popplestone, a highly respected Plymouth draper and his brother-in-law, John Pearce. Sarah Ann died in 1931 aged 86. It is not known what became of  his medal - or his tea service.


From The London Gazette;

The citation for Samuel's medal

15 June 1866

The Spirit of the Ocean a barque of 557 tons, with a crew of 18 and 24 passengers, was wrecked on the rocks 400 yards west of Start Point, Devon, on 23rd March 1866. The mate and one of the crew were saved by Samuel Popplestone, unaided and at the imminent risk of his own life, in the following circumstances:

The vessel, with a part of her crew sick, and the mates and passengers assisting in working her, was caught in a strong gale from the south-west. On 23rd March she was off the Start in a very dangerous position. Mr. Popplestone saw that, if she failed to weather the rocks, she must be lost with all hands failing assistance from the shore. He sent a man on one of his own horses to Tor Cross, to rouse the villagers, and another to tell the coast-guard. The vessel had by this time struck on the rocks and was breaking up.

Mr. Popplestone took a small coil of rope, and went alone over the shore from rock to rock, until he got near to the vessel. The wind was nearly equal to a hurricane; it was raining, and the sea was very heavy and dangerous. As he stood on the rock nearest to the vessel, he was washed off, but by the help of a returning sea, regained his footing, and saved the lives of two persons.


Start Point Lighthouse on a foggy morning

Start point Lighthouse on a foggy morning

©Richard J. Brine


Start Point Lighthouse was erected in 1836 but could offer no practical assistance to the Spirit of the Ocean because at the time it could not be accessed by land - the crew had to be taken on and off by boat. A pathway, (the line of which can just about be seen above) was added later to improve access to a place which has been the scene of many shipping disasters over the years. The jagged rocks and their shallow covering of water continue out in the Channel for nearly a mile at this point.


More treacherous rocks off Start Point
The last remnants of what was once a mighty headland stretch out into the Channel at Start Point and still present shipping with one of its greatest hazards.




^ Home
< Back
? Search
Print this page