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Cannibals arrive in Falmouth, Cornwall!

March 26, 2015
Falmouth, Cornwall

One morning we headed out from The Rathgowry Guesthouse into the centre of Falmouth, when we were surprised to see a plaque on a shop wall describing a trial that took place for cannibalism many years ago…in Falmouth!

The Story…

In the Spring of 1884, an Australian gentleman visiting England purchased a yacht, the Mignonette, which he wished to have delivered to his home in Australia. He found a man named Dudley who appeared capable of undertaking the task and he in turn, recruited three other men to help him: Stephens, Brooks and a lad called Parker.

During their voyage a terrible storm wrecked the yacht and they escaped into a dinghy.  

Struggling for survivalTheir tale of woe became alarming once they described how desperate they became in their fight for survival. They had no materials suitable for fishing – although at one point they had managed to land a turtle which sustained them for some considerable time – but several days later the men’s condition became critical and they considered the awful possibility of sacrificing one of their number for the benefit of the others.

At the time there appears to have been a procedure amongst seamen known as the ‘Custom of the Sea’. Central to this custom was that a means should be found to ensure that each man had an equal chance of living or dying. Apparently it was accepted that drawing the short straw – or some otherwise random procedure – would achieve this end.

Even if this custom had been as sound as Dudley believed, his account of what happened aboard the little boat appeared to have fallen short of the requirements. Instead of engaging a random selection process, he and his Mate, Stephens, focussed solely upon the boy, Richard Parker. Apparently, Parker had made himself ill by drinking water which had been contaminated by the sea; according to Dudley he was near death. It seemed only sensible that a very sick boy with no family connections should forfeit his life rather than any one of three men who had families of their own to support. The decision was made, but Brooks decided to have nothing to do with it. Dudley, in consort with Stephens, undertook the task. The boy died and the three men took sustenance from his body. Four days later on 26/27th July a German barque, the Montezuma carrying a cargo of nitrate from South America to Hamburg, hove in to sight. Their sorry plight was witnessed and their lives saved. They insisted on taking the body of Parker with them to give him a Christian burial in Britain.

Landing in Falmouth

In September the 6th, 1884, the Montezuma sailed into Falmouth. The survivors were taken to the Customs House and closely questioned. It did not occur to them that they had done anything criminal. Dudley told of their adventure with something resembling gusto and even insisted on keeping the penknife with which he had killed Richard Parker as a memento. They were stunned when they were put under arrest and charged with murder. The upright Dudley immediately insisted that he was the ringleader and that Brooks was completely innocent. Brooks was indeed discharged and became the prosecution’s chief witness.

The Trial

Throughout the trial – ‘The Mignonette, 1184 (Queen v. Dudley)’ and the preparations preceding it, public sympathy was almost entirely on the side of the “cannibals.” When Dudley travelled from Falmouth to London to meet his wife at Paddington Station, people took their hats off as he passed. The trial judge described Dudley as a man of “exemplary courage.” The mayor of Falmouth was threatened with murder for having arranged the men’s arrest. The prosecutor was similarly threatened, if he obtained a conviction. Most remarkably, Daniel Parker, Richard Parker’s eldest brother, forgave Dudley in open court.

Falmouth Cornwall, Trial for Cannibalism

Falmouth trial held for cannibalism

The jury on the case was no permitted to render a verdict, for fear it would simply acquit the defendants, but was merely allowed to determine the facts. Nor did the trial judge render a verdict. Instead by way of a highly unorthodox procedure, the case was brought before a five judge tribunal, presided over by Lord Chief Justice Lord Coleridge, who gave the opinion for the court: guilty as charged.

For all its rhetoric the court, however, did not want to be taken too seriously. A pardon by the home secretary had been arranged in advance, and when it came time to pronounce the death sentence, the judges did not even wear their black hoods as is customary on such occasions. .

The defendants were released from prison six months later. Brooks had already gone back to sea, but neither Dudley nor Stephens were enamored of the idea. Stephens settled down near Southampton and apparently supported himself through odd jobs. He continued to be absorbed by the events on the dinghy and over time went quietly mad. Thomas Dudley emigrated to Sydney, Australia, where he became a small shopkeeper and managed to keep his past history a secret. He too was haunted, however, by memories of the dinghy, which according to one report, he tried to relieve by great quantities of opium. He died as the first victim of the bubonbic plague that hit Australia in 1900.

There you have it!  Your challenge is to see if you can find the plaque on the wall along Church Street in Falmouth that refers to the trial!  To do that of course, you’ll need a wonderful place to stay, so why not book into The Rathgowry guesthouse in Falmouth, Cornwall and you are just a ten minute walk away from finding the plaque!  Check availability online or call us on 01326 313482. 


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