Mewstone and Starfish

mewstone1This small rocky island about 800 feet off the South Devon coast at Wembury is known as the Mewstone.

 Although uninhabited, people used to live on this small rock.   Way back in 1744 a local man, found guilty of some petty offence, was sentenced by a magistrate to be ‘transported’ to the island for seven years. Not only did he remain there quietly with his family for the entire time without once setting foot on the mainland but, when the time came for the family to leave, his daughter chose to remain behind. ‘Black Joan’, as she was called, eventually married and had three children on the Mewstone before her husband drowned after falling off a rock.

Several inhabitants followed Black Joan, the last being Samuel Wakeham and his family. He enlarged an existing house there for his wife Ann (whom he married in 1833 in Wembury Church), thus creating a highly unusual turreted building.

mewstone cottage

The abandoned cottage that was home for many years.

Sam also created a garden by clearing stones and manuring the land with seaweed and sand carried up from the beach. Poultry and a couple of pigs were kept, and the island was the warren for the Langdon Estate.   Living rent free, Sam protected the rabbits from Poachers by; it is said, putting a bullet through their coat tails to warn them off – before any bones were broken.  During the proper season, Sam and his family were allowed to shoot and eat as many rabbits as they wished.

Sam’s life on the Mewstone was less isolated than that of some earlier residents. The glitterati of 19th century Plymouth would hire boatmen to take them out to the Mewstone for afternoon picnics on the rocks and look back at the fabulous Devon coastline.  Sam soon capitalised on this and made it known around that if visitors would stand on the beach, and wave a white handkerchief, he would, for two pennies, row out to ferry them across.  He even carved steps in the rocks for the ladies to walk up in safety.

Sam Wakeham managed to lose his kingdom because in addition to his role as gamekeeper, small farmer and boatman he indulged in an activity the authorities will not tolerate, then or now, smuggling.  After being ambushed by the local excise officer, Sam and his family were evicted from the island.  He ended his days as a Plymouth boatman, taking tourists around Plymouth Sound.

The Mewstone changed hands a couple of times and then for 50 years from 1956, the adjacent coastline and the island was under the restrictive control of the Military and became a firing range for Naval recruits.    In 2006 the land was returned to the nation under the custodianship of the National Trust, that great organisation that owns, administers and protects important Heritage sites around the country.  30,000 people donated money so that the National Trust could buy the Island and adjacent coastline.  The Mewstone is now a nature reserve and generally out of bounds to visitors.

The only current inhabitants are the sea birds who nest, breed and feed undisturbed in a rare protected avian haven.

Once a year, however their tranquillity is disturbed by the annual Mewstone Paddle, when hoards of people on boards, logs and rafts paddlerace out to the rock from Wembury Beach half a mile along the coast.  In so doing, they raise large sums of money for local Hospices and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLB).

There are those small band of people who like to swim across open water far out of reach of the shore and rest on the rocky skirt of the Mewstone.  You can see their adventures here:

At low tide on  the Wembury mainland, the exposed rock is full of pools and gullies.  A perfect place for the children to explore and look down into miniature universes full of  colour and teaming with life.



maggie and milly and molly and may

went down to the beach(to play one day)


and maggie discovered a shell that sang

so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and


milly befriended a stranded star

whose rays five languid fingers were;


and molly was chased by a horrible thing

which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and


may came home with a smooth round stone

as small as a world and as large as alone.


For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea –


e e cummings

. . . . . . . . . .and then the weather closed in, and it was time for us to go home.

In a matter of minutes low, fast moving mist shrouded the Mewstone

In a matter of minutes low, fast moving mist shrouded the Mewstone telling us it was time to leave.

About Bill Hayes

I have a very large sea shell collection; it's too big to keep at home, so I have left the collection scattered on various beaches around the world. Perhaps you've seen some it.
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10 Responses to Mewstone and Starfish

  1. john zande says:

    I’m a richer man for reading this.

  2. RMW says:

    Wonderful story, thanks!

  3. Bill, thank you. This is a wonderful story. As you say, thank goodness Mewstone ended up with the National Trust and not as a weapons dump for the military! The Sam’s of this world always end up with the wrong side of the stick.

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