Cornwall  Smugglers


Coast Guard / Revenue / Salt Officers


The "Corlyon's", Both Sides of the Fence


Alan Lightfoot

Joan Lightfoot, Alan's wife kindly sent me this article which her husband had been working on at the time of his death. I hope that with the help of readers we may be able to add more to this page which is dedicated to Alan.  

An account of the Corlyon familys involvement in smuggling on the south-western coast of Cornwall from 1780 until 1860

(Including extracts from the books Brandy for the Parson by Frank Pearce, and A Biographical Chronicle of the Fishing Village of Coverack, By Cyril Hart (ISBN:0 9516965 1 3 

Background on Smuggling

Fifty per cent of spirits drunk in Great Britain at the end of the eighteenth century were estimated to have been smuggled into the country. There was a thriving industry of Dutch Gin distillation in Schiedam. It was produced expressly for sale to British smugglers. Brandy, tobacco, silks and so on were only part of the trade, which was two way. Unstamped Cornish tin was exported illegally to Brittany and the continent beneath cargoes of pilchards. Back came the boats loaded with cognac and other goodies.

Prior to the Customs Service being reorganised in 1822,  the customs preventative services along the southern coast of England, and especially on the Cornish and Devon coasts, were at worst almost non-existent and at best ineffective. English governments were very reluctant to incur any costs, even in such a good cause as bringing in revenue. The early preventive services were all privatised. An individual would be licensed, much as privateers were licensed, to catch smugglers and impound their cargoes and vessels. The owners, officers and crew of such a private revenue collector would receive a generous proportion of the value of their catch, and a 20 reward for each smuggler convicted.

The fact that Customs posts were placed at Gweek, Coverack, Cadgwith and Borgwitha, which is halfway between Coverack and Cadgwith, indicates the intensity of smuggling on the Lizard peninsula. Informers were pardoned by the authorities for giving information leading to the arrest of other smugglers, so their lives were not exactly carefree. Under the terms of the 1736 Act a smuggler could betray his friends and receive £50 a head if two or more were captured. He would also receive a pardon for his own smuggling activities. There was a sliding scale of fines, depending on whether or not the Revenue Officers were injured or killed by the smugglers in a skirmish At that time, brandy on which tax had been paid cost about one pound five shillings a gallon, rum was eighteen shillings a gallon and a dozen bottles of claret cost between three pounds twelve shillings and four pounds ten shillings, according to quality. A dozen bottles of champagne could be had for four pounds ten  shillings. The best quality champagne would cost seven guineas (that is seven pounds seven shillings) for the same amount

John (Red Shirt) Corlyon of Coverack  Smuggler and Fisherman

The little fishing cove of COVERACK, lying on the eastern coast of the Lizard peninsular, laced by its clean thatched white cottages, each skirted with borders of colourful flowers, has a long history of smuggling, with many stories of its fortunes and misfortunes during the 18th and 19th century. Poised on the rocks, overlooking the harbour, stands a quaint 500 year old cottage, now known as the Old Post Office. The thatched roof has long since disappeared and it no longer serves the public, but it is reputed to have been a smugglers haunt and is supposed to have a secret chamber somewhere within its walls. When cargoes were landed, they could not always be spirited away on horseback. It is difficult to discover exactly what happened to the kegs. On approaching Coverack Quay from seawards the Old Post Office stands out as the most likely place to store contraband. The building is perched on the water�s edge and has its own slipway. Not much evidence has been found of the reputed secret passages and if there were any underground stores, they have been blocked up and filled in long ago, leaving no traces.

Before becoming a Post Office, it was an inn for a great number of years and appears to have been the focal point of village life. Such was the dearth of entertainment in those days, that the present owner can recall his grandmother telling him that on Saturday nights the village residents would gather at the inn for a musical evening. Earlier in the day, one of the locals had set off on his donkey along the lonely road to St. Keverne to fetch the only fiddler in the area and after the performance would take him back home again come rain, snow or midnight.

There is physical proof that many old houses in Coverack have secret hiding places. In nearly every small cottage there are three or four planks which can be removed easily from the floor of one of the bedrooms. Ostensibly this arrangement is to allow a coffin to be lowered to the room below. This is because the stairs are narrow and often have a sharp bend in them which prevents the passage of a coffin. The removal of planks also enabled other boxes containing contraband to be taken up to the room above and into the roof space or a secret chamber.

It is also a fact that the cob walls of cottages in Coverack are at least two feet thick. It is not surprising, therefore, that the rooms of these cottages seem small in comparison with the impression of size given by the exterior of the cottages. A closer inspection of the bedrooms of some of these cottages will reveal that even allowing for a two feet thick cob wall, the room is smaller than it should be. The reason for this discrepancy in size could be that a secret chamber exists between the wall of the bedroom and the exterior wall of the house. These chambers are large enough to store a good amount of contraband or to hide three or four men for a short while when they wish to escape the attentions of the Revenue men or the Press Gang. Most of these chambers have been found during renovations to the old cottages and are now incorporated in the rooms.

One of the central figures around which Coveracks smuggling history is built, is one John Corlyon. Late in the 1700s he came to Coverack to-set up a boat building business, but excellent though his craftsmanship was, the boat-building trade was not sufficiently prosperous to allow him to earn enough to keep his wife, Sarah, and family. To make matters worse, from other beaches along the coast, came news of fishermen turned smugglers, who were earning huge profits from their illegal activities. Faced with the alternative of starvation for him and his family or smuggling, he decided with his brother Edward to set up a smuggling connection at Coverack. Building himself a boat only 15 ft long, he set off on the long trip across the channel to the free port Roscoff in Brittany and returned with his first cargo of brandy, which he was able to dispose of with a handsome profit. As time went on, his smuggling connection grew rapidly, expanding into a very successful business and he was able to afford a much larger boat with a crew of six (possibly the Love of some 26 tons  needs checking!)). The first Coastguard appointed at Coverack reported that, despite his best efforts, 7000 ankers of brandy had been run up the previous year and accordingly he asked for more help.

If you ask Coverack people about smuggling they will tell you about the Love of Coverack which plied between Coverack and Roscoff and became a legend in her time, but of course, there are no official records of her runs. She was well known to the Revenue officers who had undercover men at Roscoff in order to find out what the smugglers movements were likely to be. The revenue spies would send warnings of possible landings on the English side of the Channel

John Corlyons smuggling connections in and around Coverack were mainly with the parsons and squires and even magistrates. At that time, it was a well known fact that few Cornish magistrates would convict a smuggler if caught, and consequently the Customs and Excise authorities would make every effort to send their prisoners well outside the area to be charged. Corlyons intelligence and shrewdness in this highly lucrative but dangerous business, compelled him to make his comings and goings a well kept secret between himself and his wife. No-one else ever knew when he was about to set off for his three or four day trip to Brittany or when he would return. It was a ceaseless battle of wits between him and the Preventive men in which the latter were always the losers.

It seems that everyone except the Preventive men stationed at Coverack knew when the Corlyons boat was due to arrive During the periods when John Corlyon was at home or moving around the village, he always wore a bright red shirt which, when he set off on one of his exploits across the channel, his wife would wash and hang it on the clothes line up on the Battery behind the house when he was due back,. The shirt could be clearly seen from a long way out at sea and the arrangement was that, as long as the shirt flew from the clothes line there was no danger in the area. If there were any Preventive men moving around the Coverack boundaries at the time when her husband was due to return, she, having been warned by the locals, would take the shirt off the line. If Corlyon returned at this time and saw no shirt flying he would stay at sea until all was clear.

The information system was well run and any move by the Customs Officers was rapidly relayed to John Corlyons wife, despite a law that no-one should give any signal from the coastline to approaching smuggling craft the usual thing was the lighting of a fire on the cliff top. In Corlyons case however, although the officers might have been highly suspicious, they could hardly issue a summons for someone NOT showing a signal. . What explanation was given for hanging out a red shirt to dry when it was raining at the time of the intended landing has not become part of Coverack folklore

Over several years Corlyon was successful in avoiding all the efforts of the Customs and Excise authorities to prove a case against him, but the time came when he was captured and imprisoned in the dungeons on St. Michaels Mount in Mounts Bay, near Penzance. Ever resourceful, he managed to escape one night, but in doing so, fell over the rocks and broke an ankle. Although in great pain, he made valiant efforts to reach the mainland. His dread of being handed over to the navy press gangs as punishment and being subjected to the floggings and the bad food of the time, spurred him on to try and swim from the island to the mainland, but the alarm was raised and he was recaptured.

There are no records to show what subsequently happened to John Corlyon and it has even been speculated that he was sentenced to do time in the Navy and actually survived his period and returned home. However, as he was only 32 years old when he was drowned and buried in St. Keverne churchyard in 1800, it is equally possible that he was drowned during his attempted escape from St. Michaels Mount.

Opposite the harbour there is a hill on which there is a row of old cottages, one of which is named 'Hillside' and was the home of John Corlyon. Between the two lower cottages, what appears to be a single common wall is in fact two walls and between them is a secret room about seven feet square. It was used as a store for contraband and as a hiding place for the men of the village when, as occasionally happened, a naval vessel called in at the cove and the press gang landed with the intention of rounding up every available man of serving age. However, as soon as the ship appeared in the bay, the men of the village would go to ground, lowering themselves into the secret chamber from the upstairs room and staying there until the press gang had departed. Hillside was, until recently, the property of the Corin family. They are descendants of the Corlyon smuggling brothers.

John (Revenue) Corlyon(1794 to 1860)  Master Mariner and Customs Officer

John Corlyon (1794) worked for the Revenue Service. In his capacity as a Master Mariner and Chief Mate of the cutter Active he would have been responsible for the pursuit and capture of smugglers as well as for the protection of English fishing vessels etc. Although working for the customs, he was engaged  by the Admiralty as it was they who looked after the revenue ships and the seafaring aspects of the Revenue Service. Hence his Naval uniform in his portrait.

He was the son of Sarah Bosanko (born abt 1771) and John (Jack) Corlyon (1768-1800), a well known and documented leader of the Coverack smugglers in Cornwall who at times operated in league with the Carters of Prussia Cove just down the coast. His father came to Coverack from Trelease Farm near St. Keverne during the late 1700s and set up a boat-building business but due to the bad economic situation throughout Cornwall at that time he was soon forced to turn to smuggling or see his family starve. His first smuggling boat was only 15 ft. long but soon his smuggling activities prospered to such an extent that he was able to afford a much larger merchant ship with a crew of six for his frequent trips across the channel to Roscoff in France.

A normal round trip to Roscoff would take three days and when he was due back Sarah, his wife, would hang out his red shirt on the battery above the house as a sign that the coast was clear of the Preventative, he would then wear the shirt whilst going about his other business in the village. It should be remembered that the lighting of a fire or any other form of signalling to assist smuggling was a severely punishable offence but in John and Sarahs case, although the officers might have been highly suspicious, they could hardly summons anyone for not making a signal.

The red shirt on the battery was also a sign to the land based members of his smuggling operation to get ready to unload the ship. In one year he is reported to have landed over 7000 barrels of Cognac up the slip-way at Coverack where the family lived at a cottage named Hillside which is still in use to this day. His uncle was a farmer at Trelease Farm, which is located a suitable short distance inland where it is thought that he stored the cognac in the barns and also in the tunnels which were either dug specially or these may even have existed from earlier times.

John Revenue Corlyon (1794) was only six years old when his father was drowned in 1800 and so it was unlikely that he was ever involved directly with his father in the smuggling trade (often referred to as Free Trading). It is possible that he may have become involved as a young man with his uncle Edward (1764), his fathers brother, who had been deeply involved in smuggling with his brother John (1768) and young John may perhaps have been caught and pressed into the Navy (Revenue Service).

John Revenues mother Sarah Bosanko, did however marry a Thomas Mildren, also of Coverack,  in November 1802 two years after John Red Shirts death  and so it is also possible that it was he, and not his Uncle Edward who eventually influenced him into joining the Customs Cruiser Service.  All this however is conjecture and more research is of course needed to clarify the true circumstances leading up to Johns enrolment in the Preventative Service. It was of course not unusual, and indeed it was a practice well exercised by the navy, to actively press fishermen with smuggling experience into the service as they were not only good, experienced and hardy sailors, but they also knew the coasts in great detail. Many so pressed rose quickly to become officers in the service but it has not been ascertained as to how John Corlyon aspired to this.

14 Jan 1794                John is born at Coverack

15 Oct 1820               Marries Jane Luke

24 Mar 1821           Joins the Active from the Hind (both Revenue Cutters) as Able Seaman 

27 Jul 1823             His first son, John Henry, is born.

1832                       Short detachment to the Diligence. Returns to the Active as Mariner.

19 Jul 1834            Jane Luke (1796), his first wife and mother of his six children, dies.

1835                      Marries Elizabeth Banfield Renfree at Budock. They have nine children.

1837                      On detachment to Plymouth on board the Governor

27 Dec 1837         At New Buildings Plymouth for birth of William Renfree.

6 Feb 1839           At Stonehouse Plymouth for birth of Alfred.

1844                     At Stonehouse Plymouth for birth of George Edwin .

6 Apr 1843          On board the Active at Lymington and promoted to Chief Mate after a short secondment to the Stork.

June 1844           Henry Corlyon (John Henry, first son by his first marriage) on board Active as Boy 2nd Class aged 15(?) who is later transferred                              to the Gertrude.

Oct 1844             Thomas Corlyon (Peter Thomas Luke, second son by his first marriage) also joins the Active from the Stag but a year later                                      (1845) moves to the Gertrude.

1846                    Joseph Robert Corlyon born at Lymington.

April 1847          Thomas (Peter Thomas Luke) rejoins the Active from the Gertrude as Ordinary  Seaman. Seven years later (1854) he obtains his                              Master Mariners Certificate in Liverpool (No. 21,518) and gets his first command, of many, the Ann Baker.

Sept 1848           At own residence awaiting Super Annuation Details. Letters to be viewed at Customs are dated 27 Dec 1848 Ref. No.167/16 149.

31 Oct 1849       John Corlyons last day at sea for the Revenue Service.

1851                   At 84 Mylor Bridge, Falmouth, as Master Mariner. Appointed Master of the steam   paddle tugs the Dandy and the Sydney.

17 Aug 1860      Dies at 10 Trevethan Terrace, Falmouth, of a severe cold.

 OBITUARY: Falmouth Packet 25 Aug 1860.  At Trevethan Terrace, Falmouth, on Friday the 17th inst., Mr. John Corlyon, aged 66 years. He was for many years an officer in the Revenue Service and subsequently, Master of the steam tugs Sydney and Dandy, deservedly respected by all who knew him.

Alan Lightfoot

Footnote March 14th 2003.

I received the following letter from John Pascoe of Coverack:-

 I am John Pascoe, The present owner of Trelease farm, which was once owned by the Carlyons, just thought you might be interested to know that we have found an underground tunnel, we do not yet know if it extends towards Coverack, but it is heading that way. We believe it to be a "smugglers  tunnel", but to date have no proof of this, it is old & dug by hand. My family has lived here for nearly 90 years & it has only recently come to  light.

All the best

Another letter came in from New Zealand where Pauline Cook is researching her Corlyon ancestors. If you are a member of  the family or have further information then please contact her by clicking on her name.

Yet another letter came in on the 19 Jun 2004 from Nick Waite:

Hi my name is Nick Waite my mothers father was John Corin of Coverack,a direct descendant of Jack Corlyon.We still use Corlyon as a family name and it was only due to my young daughters querying their middle names that we stumbled upon your fascinating website! I am familiar with the accounts of "Redshirt" through Grandads stories, he was born and raised at Hillside, Coverack. He retired back there after a career with Barclays bank, Helston,every childhood summer holiday was spent on Coveracks beach! Grandad was interviewed several times about smuggling, Lizard peninsula shipwrecks and the early days of the local RNLI. If you have copies of these or other info relating to our family tree I would be really interested to hear from you, our address is e-mail  Many thanks and congrats on a great site! Nick Waite

Another letter came from John Campbell:

My wife, Shirley Corlyon, is descended from John Corlyon (Red Shirt). His sons and wife's portrait hangs in our hall.  I have attempted to trace the family back into the 16th century.  John Corlyon the Chief Mate of the Revenue Cruiser "The Active" 1794-1861 had 15 children! He was baptised, I think, John C(a)rlyon in 1794 and the preceding members of the family also. His father, the smuggler, was I believe known as C(a)rlyon.  Perhaps son John changed his name to distance himself from his father.

Without being able to prove it the path seems to lead back to the Carlyons of Carlyon Bay and possibly Richard Carlighan, Prior of Launceston Priory in 1507-1521.  I am stuck at Richard Carlyon born about 1601 and married to Mary Dout in 1631in Mawnan

The earliest record of the name that I have found of Carlyon (Carlean also spelled Karlechyan) is in 1220 that refers to a mill in the Carlean woods near to Bonyalva.  It is in the Priory records. The canons of St Stephen rented the weir which they needed for their mill.  The weir is still there if a little broken down.  It is overlooked by a stone fort.  Corlyon does mean something like"Stone Fort"

Some of Alan Lightfoot's text was supplied by me as I have researched the Corlyons both at the PRO and in Scotland.

I see Paulune Cook is interested in Peter Thomas Luke Corlyon.  His second marriage was in Glasgow about 1870 to the daughter (Elisabeth Dickie)of a Scottish Lay Missionary John Dickie and Jane Dalziel and they had 3 children. Lizzie Jane,1873 Thomassin 1873? and John Dickie 1877.  He was resident on his sailing ship, The Marian of Liverpool,(1000 tonnes) at the time.  He was 43, a widower and she was 27.
I have a copy of his Masters Certifcate.  A copy because the original had been lost when his ship the Van Johnston was lost in the Baltic.  He also lost the Flechero off Cook's Point Auckland.  "Stranded, Partial Loss".

John Campbell, Queensbridge, Ash Priors, Taunton

Details of the "Fletchero"

Ship "Flechero" 
AJHR 1876 Section H26 page 14 
Return of Wrecks Date of Casualty : 8 Sep 1875 
Name of Master : Peter Thomas Luke CORLYON 
Age of Vessel : 9 years, 
A1 Lloyd's Rig : 
Ship Register Tonnage : 730 
Number of Crew : 18 
Number of Passengers : 
Nature of Cargo : Ballast 
Nature of Casualty : Stranded; partial loss Number of Lives Lost : Place of Accident : Cook's Point, North Head, Auckland Harbour Wind Direction : NE Wind Force : Fresh breeze 
Finding of Court of Inquiry No blame attached to pilot in charge.

Another letter arrived from Wichita, Kansas, USA on the 7th of august 2004:

What a great Web site.  Wish we had known about it when we were in Cornwall this Spring.  However, we were with a tour and didn't get to really see much of the area as you know how tours go the way of other things.

We did get to see the birthplace (Trealease Farms / Mills) of my Grandmother Rosaline Carlyon and my gr grandfather William Carolyn, son of John and grandson of John.  Unfortunately we didn't know of a tunnell under the now Pascoe house and Mrs. Pascoe didn't say anything.  The sale of that house-farm to the Pascoes helped pay the passage for William Carlyon's family to the USA, Where William in turn homesteaded on a beautiful steep hilly piece of property in Northeast Kansas that looks very much like Trealease Farm, but without the lovely sea.

Best Regards,

Richard "Dick" Volkman, Wichita, Kansas  USA

Another researcher has sent the following and can be contacted by clicking on the link below.

Dear Sir,
Late last year I was searching the web for information on the Renfree family as I am researching the family for family history. In the process of doing this, I came across "The 'Corlyons', Both Sides of the Fence".
In retracing some information I have just established that Elizabeth Banfield Renfree (born March 15,1812) is the daughter of John Renfree and Mary Banfield.
Is it possible you might be willing to (a) send me any family history you might have (birthdates etc) on this family, or (b) put me in touch with anyone who might be able to help with this request?
Naturally, I would be willing to share what little information on this family I have if anyone is interested with the Renfree connection.

Thanking you in anticipation of your reply.

Phillip Renfree  link.
Mildura. Australia.



    Copyright George Pritchard of Penhalvean 

Last modified: Saturday July 06, 2013 .

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