Smuggling in Cornwall

Smuggling in Cornwall

Franklondya En Kernow


Cornwall's favourite employment

Cornwall was suitable for smuggling in that it had a long expanse of rocky, virtually uninhabited coast, with few revenue men to patrol the Coastal Footpath. The goods smuggled included tea, brandy, gin, rum and tobacco. Following numerous increases in tea tax, tea could be bought in Europe for 1/6th of the price in Britain, while French brandy was only 1/5th of the price.

Initially, smuggling took place fairly openly with cargoes landed directly on the shore. This was made possible by the involvement of all sections of the community, from the local landowner downwards. The involvement of the gentry would range from turning a blind eye, to full scale involvement. The Killigrew family who established Falmouth, was one family whose money and influence came from smuggling and piracy.

Smuggling boomed until the end of the 18th century. Some sources say 500,000 gallons of French brandy per year were smuggled into Cornwall. In addition ships returning from the far east would heave to off shore and sell china, silk and cotton goods free of tax to local boats. In 1763, three East Indiamen in Falmouth harbour, are said to have sold £20,000 of goods in this way.

However from around 1800 the Revenue men became more organised and proactive. Smuggled goods had to be dropped off in remote coves, and picked up again when the coast was clear. Tunnels and passages were dug out of the rocks to expedite movement.

The risks involved in smuggling were high. A minimum penalty of transportation to colonies such as Australia, was common, and often the penalties were much more severe. Robert Lang, a smuggler from Veryan, is recorded as being hung at the crossroads of Ruan Lanihorne and St. Mawes as an example to others.

Once landed, much of the contraband made its way up country. On the windswept wastes of Bodmin Moor, Jamaica Inn is perhaps the best known of all smuggling haunts, thanks to Daphne Du Maurier's novel. It is surrounded by barren country and often hemmed in by chill winds and thick mists, and the approach is perhaps more spectacular than the building itself.


Perhaps most famous of the smugglers at this time was the Carter family of Prussia Cove, where John Carter the eldest son, because it is said, of his deep admiration for Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, named the cove so. His activities were legendary, but he eventually "retired in the early 1800's.

The brother and sister team, Fyn and Joan, were notorious smugglers, who used Looe Island as their base. Black Joan, as she was known, was the more violent of the two and is believed to have murdered a Negro whose ghost now haunts the island. Looe Island has had various owners, it was an ecclesiastical centre, then it passed to the Mayows in the 16th century and the Trelawny's from around 1600, and it was tenants of Trelawny who ran the trade in smuggled goods from the Channel Islands to Looe for over 80 years from the 18th to the 19th century. One story names the pair as Hamram, and his daughter 'Tilda; another account makes them brother and sister, Fyn and Black Joan. The pair stored contraband in a hidden cave and the smuggler paid a fee for each tub so concealed.

Baring-Gould in "A Book of Cornwall" relates a story of a tavern keeper, an evil faced man, who had been a smuggler in his day: He and his men were rowing a cargo ashore they were pursued by a revenue boat. Tristam Davey,the smuggler, knew this bit of coast perfectly. There was a reef of short slate rock that ran across the little bay, Tristam knew how to clear the reef, but the revenue boat following did not. It hit the reef, and Tristam shot the mate of the revenue boat, leaving the rest to fend for themselves in the water.

Another legendary smuggler was "Cruel Coppinger",whose biography was written by Rev Robert Hawker. reputed to have coerced villagers through fear and intimidation, into smuggling, when he came to live in Cornwall after shipwrecking on the safe houses, in villages throughout the north coast, especially around Bude. His son is said to have inherited his barbarous ways and to have laughingly killed his playmate as a young child.

Smugglers Beaches in Cornwall

The coast just south of Bude has many smuggling stories connected with it, probably due to the little inlets and coves such as Crackington Haven and the wide open beaches like Widemouth Bay. Poundstock was a centre for smuggling and piracy from 1300 until the Black Death wiped the village out in 1348. However, smuggling and wrecking continued after the village was refounded.

Port Isaac has many secret caves and coves where contraband could be hidden and has a pub that has a secret escape tunnel used by smugglers that leads down to the beach.

In 1765 a beach two miles west of Padstow was in use as a landing point, and William Rawlings wrote in that year to the earl of Dartmouth that his servants encountered 60 horses carrying a cargo from the beach some three miles from St. Columb...'having each three bags of tea on them of 56 or 58 pounds weight'

When pepper was taxed heavily, it became a popular item for the Cornwall smugglers, and tiny Pepper Cove a little way north of Porthcothan takes its name from the boatloads of spice that were landed there. 4 miles south of Padstow. Walk across the beach, and South along the cliff path for about 600 yards. Pepper Cove is the 3rd inlet. It's an archetypical smugglers' cove: the entrance from the sea is narrow, and fringed with jagged rocks; once inside, a smuggler's vessel would be totally hidden by the high cliffs, so that unloading could be a safe and leisurely activity. The beach is sandy and free of rocks, and the gradient is sufficiently gentle that even a large boat could have been beached quite easily. Nearby is Wills Rock where smugglers left a revenue man on the rock to drown in the rising tide; but the officer lived to tell the tale.

On the coast north of Hayle, the B3301 coast road to Portreath passes several landing points: Hell's Mouth some five miles from Hayle, was a landing spot; and Ralph's Cupboard (named after a smuggler), a mile outside Portreath at was used for storage. And there is a report of James Bawden of Gwithian being tried in 1801 for smuggling.

Hayle was a landing place for smugglers, and in the garden of a house that was formerly the local youth hostel there is a tunnel that was probably used for smuggling. A sloping trench leads down from ground level to the arched tunnel entrance, where the hinges for a gate or door can still be seen. The tunnel is still open, and runs due north for hundreds of yards. It is possible to walk along it. It seems authentic as any: it is the right shape; it runs towards the coast; it even has a drainage gulley along its length to keep the flat floor dry.

At St. Ives Bay, the collector of customs was a John Knill, who dabbled in smuggling a little himself. When he was mayor (in 1767) he paid for the fitting out of a privateer, which was used as a smuggler. One story links Knill to a boat loaded with china that ran aground at the Hayle side of Carrack Gladden. The crew escaped, and someone removed the ship's papers since they implicated Knill and a squire from Trevetho. Roger Wearne, the customs man of the time, helped himself to some of the cargo, but as he was climbing down from the vessel, one of the locals noticed his bulging clothes, and a few well-aimed blows ensured that the china was worthless.

The Blue Bell Inn at St. Ives was once the haunt of a Dutch smuggler called Hans Breton. It was said that he was in league with the devil, and that he paid duty on only one keg of brandy. This, however, never seemed to empty, and lasted him 22 years.

Also at St. Ives in 1851, a notorious local smuggler called James 'Old Worm' Williams landed smuggled Irish whisky close to the St. Ives breakwater, and hid the barrels in fishing boats and pig sties near the water. Later that night, three carts collected the haul, a coastguard drinking in the George and Dragon in the market place noticed them, but he was bound and gagged by locals. After some time, though, he managed to free himself, but could not find the carts full of contraband. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

At St. Ives in the 1870's a local boat called Old Duchy smuggled rum from Holland. The trips ended when the excise-men put spies among the fishermen.

At Trencrom Hill, Lelant, one of two granite cottages once known as Newcastle was used as a 19th century kiddlewink - a beershop. Smugglers excavated a cave alongside for the concealment of contraband. The cottages still stand on the hill, but are private houses - there is no public access to them. The church at Lelant was also used for the storage of contraband spirits.

At St. Just, a short two smugglers - Oats and Permewan - were active around 1818. They employed a middle-man, who paid the merchants in France. But the middle-man, Pridham, got greedy, kept the payments and threatened to report the smugglers to the authorities. An eventual court case never got anywhere.

Sennen was a centre of the free-trade. The inn was owned by the farmer who ran local smuggling operations, with the help of the landlady of the inn, Ann George, and her husband. The Georges fell out with their landlord, and later testified against smugglers in a court case. In 1805 when the excise men impounded a large cargo - 1000 gallons each of brandy, rum and gin, and a quarter of a ton of tobacco. The owner of the cargo eventually appeared in court. The main witness for the prosecution was Ann George, but she was regarded as such a malicious gossip that the case was dismissed.

Thomas Johns, a known smuggler and agent of smugglers, was the landlord of the Kings Arms public house, formerly on the site of Belmont House in St. Buryan village square

The name of Lamorna's pub, The Wink, alludes to smuggling, 'the wink' being a signal that contraband could be obtained.

The Penzance revenue men were ineffective in early years. In 1767 nine smugglers' vessels, including armed sloops, sailed from Penzance harbour in broad daylight; a man of war looked on, powerless to stop them. Five years later a customs boat from Penzance was plundered and sunk by smugglers, and in the same year, another smugglers' boat captured the revenue cutter Brilliant, which was lying in Penzance harbour with seized goods on board. The excise-men were weak, and the smugglers had strong local support. In 1770 the Mayor of Penzance was bound over with a large financial surety, to cease smuggling.

At Ludgvan, two miles north east of Penzance, the customs officers could not sell seized liquor in 1748, because of the vast quantity smuggled in. Smugglers were asking 3/3 a gallon for the illegally imported liquor: the reserve price on the seized goods was 5/6.

The remains of John 'Eyebrows' Thomas can be found in Gulval Churchyard near Penzance. John was a local pirate and smuggler who operated from Marazion. At his death in 1753, Marazion parish refused to allow him to be buried in his home town, so his family were forced to pay Gulval to provide him with a final resting place instead.

Mousehole is the most westerly of the Mount's Bay smuggling villages. Contraband was carried around openly during the day - when asked why he had not apprehended the villains, the preventive assigned to the town said he had been pelted with stones, and lay in his bed recovering. Around 1780 charges were brought against the Mousehole officials for accepting bribes and co-operating with the smugglers. Richard 'Doga' Pentreath of Mousehole was described by the Penzance Collector of Customs as 'an honest man in all his dealings though a notorious smuggler'. Another smuggler, Thomas Mann, was also described as honest.

Buildings at Helston were frequently pressed into service to house smuggled goods in transit from the coast. George Michell drove a cart load of silk up to the Angel In pub, but the landlady warned him of a party of searchers, awaiting his arrival. Michell sent his son round to the yard with the cart, walking brazenly into the bar, and bought the crowd of searchers a drink. Michell spun out the conversation for a good while, eventually, they heard a rumble of cart wheels, and, rushing to the window, the searchers saw an old horse-drawn hearse driving off which they dismissed as a pauper's funeral. Not surprisingly when the officers eventually got round to searching Michell's cart, they found only innocent provisions.

Mullion Cove at the east of Mounts Bay was a favourite landing place for contraband. On one occasion, Billy of Praow was bringing brandy ashore, when the cargo was captured by a government brig. News of this spread, and the local people raided an armoury at Trenance, and opened fire on the brig in the bay until the cargo was returned.

The Spotsman, a prominent local smuggler was returning from France with a cargo of brandy, and landed the goods between Predannack Head and Mullion Cove, at a spot called locally 'the Chair'. On discovering that the excise-men were planning to raid his beach, he hid the casks in a mineshaft. On another occasion the Spotsman was slow to reply to a challenge by another smuggler, and was mistaken for a revenue man and shot. Fortunately he lost only his thumb in the encounter.

Lieut Drew, the chief Coastguard for the Mullion area, is credited with smashing the smuggling ring in the district. Drew and a fellow coastguard interrupted a run, and hauled in 100 tubs that had been hidden at sea. Later Drew interrupted another attempt to run goods in at Angrowse Cliffs and recovered nearly 100 tubs that had been sunken by the ship. By 1840 the game was effectively up.

At Gunwalloe a little way to the north, caves on the beach were said to be linked by a tunnel to the belfry of a nearby church, and another passage joined the Halzephron Inn to Fishing Cove, the home of a local smuggler called Henry Cuttance.

Local legend tells that tunnels connect caves in the cliffs to Methleigh Manor in Porthleven a mile or so away. The Ship Inn at Porthleven was rumoured to have numerous escape routes; these must be very cunningly concealed, because a search by the present landlord revealed no trace.

The smugglers of Falmouth operated on an extraordinary scale. In 1762 three East Indiamen returning to Britain from China anchored in the bay, and for a fortnight held a regular on-board bazaar, selling silk, muslin, dimityes, china, tea, arrack, handkerchiefs and other goods. The Falmouth postal packet ships were also heavily implicated in smuggling. War led to larger crews on the packet boats, and this in itself was good for trade in Falmouth.

1743, though, brought an unexpected crack-down which strangled Falmouth trade. A Times report of 1786 tells of a skirmish between the "Happy Go Lucky", a smugglers boat from Falmouth, and the revenue cutters.

Newspaper reports for 24th May 1839 tell of a schooner loaded with coal docking in Falmouth harbour. The coals were gradually unloaded. But a suspicious customs officer bored holes in the hull with a gimlet. Withdrawing the gimlet, the customs officer received a face-full of brandy, from a tub stowed in a cavity between the false interior of the hull and the outside. Altogether there were 276 barrels of brandy and gin in the space. The ship had been operating for three years without detection.

The creeks south of Falmouth, notably at Gweek and Helford, also proved useful to smugglers seeking privacy for their activities, as did the beaches and small fishing ports at Porthallow, Porthoustock, Godrevy Cove, Coverack, Black Head and Kennack Sands. In September 1840 a thirty strong gang of smugglers using several carts broke open the custom-house at Helford, and removed 126 half ankers of Brandy, which had been confiscated a few days before at Coverack. They worked from 1 to 1.30, but generously left three barrels for the excise-men. The customs-man on station heard the doors being forced, but was powerless to do anything. The tubs had been seized from the Teignmouth - they were lashed to the outside of the boat (although this technique was common in Kent, it was less convenient for the long crossing to Cornwall). When the vessel reached the beach at Gweek, the crew hailed two men on the beach for help - they proved to be customs officers, who drew their pistols and arrested crew, ship and cargo.

Just to the south of Mylor, at Penryn, local legend tells of a tunnel linking the shore to St. Gluvias' Vicarage, and further down the creek on the south side, there are two caves used for storage. A tunnel on the same site has now been blocked. Near to one of these creeks in 1801 a mounted smuggler carrying two ankers of spirits was surprised by a customs man. The smuggler rode off at speed and eventually plunged into the water to escape. The smuggler escaped, but his horse drowned and with the help of the ferry-man the preventive rescued the barrels.

Close to Truro, Sunset Creek, opposite Malpas, was the site of Penpol Farm, which featured a sunken road, and hiding places in caves and woodland. Tresillian Creek to the east and Mylor creek to the south were also popular landing places: at Mylor can still be seen a memorial dated 1814 to a fishermen who had the misfortune to be shot in error by revenue men.

Smuggling stories around St. Anthony's Head, and the peninsula of land leading to it are many. One story tells of a St. Mawes customs officer who realised that the Porthscatho smugglers operating in Gerrans Bay kept watch on hills overlooking St. Mawes harbour, so that they had time to disperse if a revenue boat approached around the headland. By carrying a small boat across the isthmus, he mounted a surprise attack.

St. Mawes was the base for Robert Long, a 17th century smuggler who met an untimely end - he was executed, and his body was hung in chains on the road from the town to Ruan Lanihorne.

Like Cawsand, Mevagissey was a town renowned for its boat builders. The large vessels built here in the 18th century when smuggling still took place relatively openly were capable of tremendous speeds, and could make the crossing from Roscoff in France in a day or less.

The story of an abortive 1835 landing close to Fowey and its court sequel is interesting. Two coastguards from Fowey went to Lantick Hill, and hid in bushes near Pencannon Point. After a wait, at least 100 men arrived on the beach - 20 of them batsmen. One of the coastguards went to get help, and when reinforcements arrived the party of six preventives challenged the smugglers, and there was a fierce battle; one of the coastguards was knocked unconscious, but five smugglers were eventually arrested. A party from the revenue cutter Fox eventually met up with the six coastguards, and captured 484 gallons of Brandy. When the case came to court, the defence argued that the clubs were just walking sticks, the local vicar was called as a character witness for one of the accused, and local farmers vouched for the good name of the others. The jury acquitted, adding that they did not consider the clubs to be offensive weapons. Contraband from this abortive landing may have been headed the King of Prussia Inn on the quayside at Fowey, since the smuggler Richard Kingcup was at one time the landlord there.

A colourful Polperro legend involves 'Battling Billy', who ran the Halfway House Inn. Billy used a hearse to carry his contraband inland. One day while brandy was being loaded by daylight, the revenue arrived, Billy was shot in the neck and he was killed instantly, but his whip-hand continued to urge the horses on. When they reached Polperro, the dead man drove straight down the main street, off the quayside and into the harbour. Battling Billy's ghost still haunts the narrow cobbled streets. Another tale involves the Lottery, a Polperro smuggling vessel wanted by the customs authorities. When the Cawsand customs men saw the ship becalmed half a mile from Penlee Point, they put to sea several rowing boats. The crew of the Lottery, opened fire when they were still some distance away. One of the crew in the King's boat died of his wounds. The crew of the Lottery became outlaws in their home town. Eventually the prime suspect, Tom Potter was arrested and executed.

By the late 18th century, much of the success of the smuggling trade through Polperro was controlled by Zephaniah Job (1749–1822), a local merchant who became known as the 'Smugglers' Banker'.

The village of Talland near Looe was at one time a thriving community, and the bay was a favourite landfall for smuggling boats from the continent. All that now remains of the village is the church high on the steep hill above Talland Bay.

Through the 17th and 18th centuries Looe Island was used by smugglers to avoid the British Government's revenue cutters out of Plymouth and Falmouth and the island was a very handy place for unloading.

Near the door of the church in the south-west corner there is an interesting tombstone commemorating Robert Mark. Local legends differ about Mark's identity. One story has it that while on a smuggling trip he died from wounds inflicted by a revenue man's pistol ball. A smuggler of the same name was sentenced in May 1799 for resisting arrest when the smuggling vessel Lottery was captured. However, another account makes him not a free-trader but a revenue man who was shot in a cellar on dry land; Jonah Puckey, the ringleader of a smuggling gang, reputedly fired the shot that killed him.

The open beaches of Whitsand Bay made a fine landing when the coast was sufficiently clear for covert runs, but smugglers seeking a more discreet approach headed for Looe, and brought the goods ashore on Looe Island. In West Looe the The Jolly Sailor Inn was a smuggler's haunt, and here too the story is told of how the quick-thinking landlady once concealed an illicit keg beneath her petticoats during an unexpected search. While the preventives searched, she calmly knitted.

The vast natural harbour of Plymouth had a naval presence throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The city itself formed the largest market for contraband in Cornwall, so it's not surprising to find some notorious villages nearby. Goods brought in to the twin villages of Cawsand and Kingsand there could be easily ferried across the harbour to Plymouth. A Times report of 1785 tells of a naval officer killed by smugglers. Both towns were hotbeds of smuggling - in 1804 the revenue services estimated that 17,000 kegs of spirits had been landed here in just one year. Harry Carter, a famous Cornwall smuggler, often used Cawsand for his smuggling activities, and on one of these trips his boat was boarded by sailors from a man-of-war anchored nearby. In the hand-to-hand fighting that ensued, he sustained a cutlass wound that almost killed him.

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