Who lived on the Great Mewstone?

The Mewstone at Wembury

The Great Mewstone is now a nature reserve, home to a range of seabirds, but did you know that people once lived there?

In 1744, a local man found guilty of a minor crime was sentenced to stay on the island for seven years. He had the last laugh since he decided to stay on the island for the rest of his life, not once returning to the mainland. His daughter, known as ‘Black Joan’, remained on the island. She married and raised three children.

By the early 1800s a new family had moved in. Samuel Wakeham and his wife, Ann set up home on the island when Sam was due to be transported to Australia, instead negotiating to live his years of exile on the Mewstone. They enlarged an existing house, the odd turret-shaped building that reamins today, and cleared a garden to grow food and keep some animals.

Sam Wakeham's cottage on the Mewstone - now just home to seabirds
Postcard of the unusual shaped cottage built by Sam Wakeham
Sam Wakeham's cottage on the Mewstone - now just home to seabirds

Sam offered boat trips from Wembury beach to the Mewstone. His instructions for people to summon him were printed in a letter in the magazine, South Devon Monthly Museum in 1834.

" If any genteciman what likes a wark, he can wark to the shoar at Wembury, and if they holds up there white pockethanchecuffs for a signal, an ile cum off in me bote and fetch them to the island for two pence appease."
- Samuel Wakeham

Sam might have stayed on the island for the rest of his days, had he not been caught smuggling. He was lured into a trap by an excise man and had to leave the island.

Nobody is recorded to have lived on the island since. The island was sold in the 1927 sale of the Langdon Estate and bought by Mr Stansell of Heybrook Bay for £500. He sold it on a year later to a Miss Goldman of London for £575, who then presented it to her brother as a wedding present.

In recent history

The Great Mewstone was bought by the War Office because it was in the line of fire from gunnery school HMS Cambridge, formerly based at Wembury Point. They restricted public access to the island, a move that greatly benefitted the wildlife living there.

Following HMS Cambridge's decommission, the National Trust ran a successful fundraising campaign that resulted in acquiring both Wembury Point and the Great Mewstone. The old gunnery school was demolished, with a lot of work put into reclaiming and encourgaing a natural coastal landscape, and preserving the island to protect the birds and wildlife that have flourished there.

The triangular island is an iconic part of the South Devon coastline, and can be seen from Wembury Beach and Wembury Point.  It remains that the Mewstone is not open to the public, and makes for a very important site for a variety of seabirds like shags and cormorants.