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Robert Jeffery

Fowey has been associated with many celebrities, but surely the first was the unlikely figure of Robert Jeffery.

Born and baptised in the town, Jeffery, the son of a Fowey bargeman, was seventeen when, in 1807, he was press-ganged in Falmouth and taken aboard the Royal Navy brig Recruit which soon set sail for the West Indies.

By all accounts, Jeffery was a skulking, ill-disciplined young man, who was twice caught stealing rum and beer. The ship’s captain, the Hon. Warwick Lake, known as something of a hot-head, soon had enough of Jeffery’s behaviour and ordered he be cast adrift on the uninhabited island of Sombrero.

He was put ashore without food and water. Lake’s second-in command, Lt. Mould, seeing the lad’s bare feet were cut and bleeding from the sharp rocks, ordered he be given shoes, a knife and a few handkerchiefs, the latter to be used to signal any passing ship.

When Recruit reached the Leeward Islands, Sir Alexander Cochrane, the squadron commander, heard about Lake’s illegal act, and ordered him back to Sombrero to fetch Jeffery, but he could not be found and was presumed dead.

The marooning of Jeffery reached the Admiralty and was taken up in Parliament, resulting in Lake being court-martialled and dismissed from the Navy.

However, Robert Jeffery was not dead. He had survived on the deserted island for eight days, living on limpets and bird’s eggs. He was rescued by the schooner Adams from Marblehead, Massachusetts, which landed him in the New England port where he stayed for three years, working at a forge.

News he was still alive eventually reached London and a Navy ship was dispatched to bring him home. To his astonishment, he found himself a hero and celebrity. Newspapers took up his story and Jeffery began giving accounts of his ordeal in London theatres. An artist’s impression of “Jeffery The Sailor’’ on the deserted island is in the National Portrait Gallery.

He made enough money from his celebrity status to purchase a small schooner. He returned to live in Polperro, and died there from consumption in 1820.

There is an interesting coincidence about his remarkable story. The ship which rescued him was from Marblehead. Prior to taking that name, the New England port was originally named Foy, after the Cornish town where Jeffery was born.

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