Cornwall  Smugglers


Coast Guard / Revenue / Salt Officers



Roscoff : A Famous Smuggling Port

Roscoff has a micro-climate ideal for growing onions, artichokes and cauliflowers and many British people will remember seeing "Johnny Onions" the Breton onion sellers with their bicycles festooned with onions as they called door to door to sell their goods.  Today we do not see them, for just like the French crabbers which used to bring them over and fished for spider crabs off the coast they are a thing of the past. On a trip to Brittany in 2002, I was determined to come home with a string of onions, but the only onion seller I came across was a Yorkshire man  who had retired to live in Roscoff and grew onions in his garden and sold them at his front door.

Today Roscoff is known to the people of Cornwall as the port of entry into Brittany when sailing from Plymouth on Brittany Ferries, however, in days past the port was known to every Cornishman and woman as �Rusco� and it is not unusual to come across the word in old documents. For instance, in a letter from Morlaix, dated May 15, 1586, we read of a �ship from Rusco�. Also Sir Francis Drake writing to Queen Elizabeth, dated April 28, 1587, mentions the village of �Rusco�.  This town, with a Russian-sounding name, lies on the north coast of Brittany, opposite Cornwall, and may be more precisely located by drawing a line due south from Plymouth across the Channel. Roscoff,  in fact, is the nearest French port to the Cornish shore; its position, in the centre of a circle whose circumference touches the Lizard on the one hand, and the Start on the other, supplying a clue to many curious circumstances in the history of its relations with the opposite coast.  

In 927 Athelstan, eldest son of Edward the Elder and grandson of Alfred, attacked and forced the withdrawal of the Dunmonii   from Exeter and a new border on the Tamar, was agreed with Hywel, the King of Cornwall, in exchange for an agreement to pay tribute to Athelstan. This allowed Hywel to keep some degree of autonomy within Cornwall but none-the less subject to the Saxon monarchy. This  amicable arrangement was not to last and in the year  931, the people of  Mousehole and Paul along with the rest of the populace  heard of the advance of a great army, with the king himself at it's head, intent on gaining submission from the Cornish people and with the object of clearing  out any remaining pockets of the rebel Cornish army. We are told he met no opposition as many  residents had  fled before him, some to the Scilly Isles and others at perhaps a safer distance to Brittany. It is at this time, according to Breton folk-lore, that  St. Pol or Paul, along with other Cornish Saints crossed from Cornwall to Brittany, a noted depot for saints in former ages, and founded a monastery on the island of Baa just off  Rosco and close to todays Saint-Pol-de-Lion. 

In 1066 the chance came for many Cornish families to return as mercenaries in the army of William the Conqueror. They were led by Alan Duke of Brittany whose reward for his part in the victory was the grant of land in Cornwall. Three years later the Domesday record was taken and the subsequent book records that the of the three hundred and fifty Cornish estates, some two hundred and twenty seven, valued at �424, were in the hands of Robert the Duke of Mortain, half brother of William the Conqueror. Of the remainder 67 were still  held by Anglo-Saxons and 56 by Bretons. 

Tywardreath Priory near Fowey, dedicated to Saint Andrew, was founded in circa 1088 on Part of the Dukes land and it flourished until 1536 when it was dissolved by King Henry VIII. This abbey was a Benedictine dependency of the abbey of Saints Sergius and Bacchus at Angers in Brittany.

It was at Roscoff, to, many centuries later, that Mary, Queen of Scots landed, when only five years old, to be married to the Dauphin of France. The chapel of St. Ninian, now a ruin, was built as a memorial of her visit. There is a tradition, moreover, that the outline of her foot was cut on the rock where she first stepped ashore.

Even more romantic were the circumstances attending the visit of another Royal personage�Bonnie Prince Charlie the Pretender�who landed here after his adventurous escape from Scotland. and it is said that the house he lodged in can still be found in the town.

Further evidence of the long-standing connection between the Britons on either side of the Channel can be seen on the gravestones and village names such as St Just and St Paul in Cornwall and Brittany.  The gravestones record names such as Herve (Brittany), Harvey (Cornwall), Tanguy (Tangye) Guy (Guy) and one that really demonstrates the link Trevanion.  In the 19th century a batch of French prisoners of war were being landed at Falmouth and one gave his name as Jean Trevanion of Carhayes in Brittany. No one believed him as at the time a John Trevanion was the owner of Carhayes just up the coast from Falmouth.

Although many Cornish boats had been trading with their counterparts in Brittany during the subsequent thousand years, other smugglers from England traded with the Channel Islands.  Roscoff became a major smuggling port in the 18th century, when the English Government, decided to put their foot down with the authorities of the Channel Islands and established Custom-houses in the Islands. Commenting on this arbitrary interference with trade customs, the historian of Guernsey writes :-

�The object of the British Government in framing this restrictive Act (1767) was evidently to protect her own revenue by putting a check to smuggling; but the scheme was not as successful as anticipated. High duties will operate as a bounty and encouragement to illicit trade, and if one opening be stopped another will soon be discovered. Thus it happened with the attempt of the British Government to secure its revenues by depriving the Channel Islands of their chartered rights. A large share of the illicit trade was transferred to Roscoff, a small village on the coast of Brittany. This insignificant hamlet immediately became an interesting object to the French Government, and it is worthy of note that no sooner were the officers of Customs established in Guernsey and Jersey than the question of making Roscoff a free port or port d�entrepot was discussed in the French Councils and immediately agreed to. Its effect was soon felt." 

This then was the start of an era of extraordinary prosperity for what until then had been an �insignificant hamlet.� used only by the Cornish smugglers. For the next fifty years or more the dialects of Scotland, Ireland, and the West-country must have seemed almost as familiar to the natives of Roscoff as their own mother tongue. Cornishmen flocked to this port, at all seasons of the year, oft-times crossing in small open boats at great personal risk in the pursuit of illicit gain. This was the golden age of Roscoff and this was again recorded by the historian of Guernsey:

 "Roscoff, till then an unknown and unfrequented port, the resort only of a few fishermen, rapidly grew into importance, so that from small hovels it soon possessed commodious houses and large stores, occupied by English, Scotch, Irish, and Guernsey merchants. 1.  These, on the one hand, gave every incentive to the British smugglers to resort there, and on the other hand the French Government afforded encouragement to the merchants.�    

Some faint conception of the volume of commerce that flowed from this small port into British homes may be gathered from the official record for March, 1832. Thus, in a letter to the Customs authorities in London, 

"a well-informed correspondent� writes from Roscoff:� �Smuggling has not been carried on here so extensively at any time during the last twenty years as it is now.� And he gives the following list of sailings and arrivals

Arrivals between March 13th and 31st�

Four Brothers 12 tubs
Goldfinch   17
Supply         9
Rose         13
Dove         18
Eagle         35
William      13
Love         26
Goldfinch (2nd trip)14
Eagle (2nd trip)35
Love (2nd trip) 2
Departures between March 15th and 27th.
*Goldfinch with 90 tubs for Plymouth.
Four Brothers ,, 20 ,         ,, Plymouth.
Goldfinch  ,, 120 ,       ,, Dartmouth.
Supply ,, 60 ,         ,, Dartmouth.
Rose   ,, 80 ,         ,, Lizard.
   Dove   ,, 125 ,, Cowes.
*Eagle ,, 150  ,, Fowey.
*Love ,, 125  ,, Coverack.
William ,, 80 ,, Falmouth."
* see note 2.

By the 1850's the reductions in the spirit duties at home diminished the smugglers� profits and this along with the introduction of the railways meant that the visits of Cornishmen to Brittany became less frequent. The tourist industry had arrived with over a thousand Mancunians arriving at Penzance on one day to visit the Lands End. The descendants of one of my wife's female Vingoe's decided to build the first Lands End hotel and many of the other smuggling families also invested in the tourist trade. The golden harvest of the Ruscovites was proportionately reduced and the little Brittany town became once again an �unknown and unfrequented port,� 

In no time, at all both Cornish and Breton's had forgotten the most eventful chapters of their history, which shows a shortfall in the educational system in that pupils on both sides of the channel left school without acquiring even the most rudimentary knowledge of a business which engrossed the time and energy of their ancestors !

The ignorance of strangers concerning the useful role which Roscoff once filled in the economy of Cornish households is less surprising. Even so versatile a writer as Charles Wood, in describing a visit to this Breton port, omits all mention of its commercial associations. Though what he does say amply confirms the statement as to its decadence. �Few scenes in Brittany,� he writes, �are more characteristic and impressive than this little-known town; the streets are deadly and deserted; never yet, in Brittany, had we felt so out of the world and removed from civilization.�

  Only once, and then quite unwittingly, does this writer bring us into touch with the vanished past. �It�s quaint houses are substantially built, and many of them still possess the old cellars that open by large doors into the streets; the cellars go far back, and light never penetrates into their recesses.� But why not tell us, Mr. Wood, the purpose for which these cellars were excavated? For thereby hangs an interesting story.

  The further allusion to a certain �stone pier� recalls some touching, albeit long-forgotten, associations of a widely different nature. For it was on this pier, during the last quarter of the 18th century, when the smuggling trade was in full swing, that Captain Harry Carter,3 the well known Mounts Bay smuggler and evangelist, conducted his Sunday afternoon services for the benefit of the gentle souls engaged in that exciting business. This strange blend of saint and sinner - a product which seems to have been indigenous to the �delectable Duchy� - took to smuggling very early in life, and one gathers from his autobiography that he was blest with a tender and enlightened conscience, and earnestly strove to raise the tone of the smuggling service, seeing that, at the age of 18, when he was already in command of a smuggling lugger, he made a law on board against swearing �under pain of punishment.�

  At the age of thirty the worthy captain would seem to have experienced a second and more convincing �call,� for it was then he started his Evangelistic Services on the pier at Roscoff. On one occasion, he tells  us in his autobiography, the congregation some twenty or thirty comprised �all the Englishmen in the town, who took off their hats and set themselves down.� While another time, three large cutters from Guernsey arriving, their captains and several of the men came to attend service at his house�all very serious, no laffing, no trifling conversations,� a pattern to many congregations at home. And so on. One can only hope that the good seed bore fruit, in spite of the unpromising soil.

  Meanwhile, acting on the principle that �Heaven helps those who help themselves,� the worthy captain neglected none of the material means for bringing his enterprises to a successful issue. Such entries in the diary as the following show with what excellent judgment the affairs of this world were conducted :- �Bought a cutter of 60 tons and 19 guns;� and, again, �a new lugger of 20 tons.� Nevertheless, as there is �no rose without a thorn,� so, in spite of a trust in Providence, backed up with guns and small arms, things sometime went awry, as witness the fate of �a lugger of 45 tons with 16 carriage guns� surprised by two man-of-war boats on the night of January 30, 1788, while landing in Costan (query Cawsand). And though, by God�s mercy, the skipper escaped, he must have spent a rather depressing New Year�s Eve, On the other hand, the Government paid him the compliment of offering a reward of �300 for his capture.3

But the scraps of local lore vouchsafed by the Smuggler-Evangelist were not entirely satisfying to Penzance Solicitor and local historian Mr. Bridger who took himself off to Roscoff, with a view to improving his own knowledge. He placed himself in communication with an esteemed inhabitant of Roscoff who, he was assured, knew more about the place then most people. The reply was prompt and courteous, and the following extracts from a mass of curious information placed at the writer�s disposal will, he feels sure, interest the public:- 

�Beyond what I now enclose no history of Roscoff exists, nor of its commerce, nor of its splendour in the last century. In the papers belonging to the old houses I have found little. Previous to the last century its traditions speak with terror of the incursions of the English, and the fights which took place on the coasts. Queen Mary Stewart took refuge here, and everything points to the conclusion that all the preparations for the voyage here were made by her countrymen resident in Roscoff.

�During the latter part of the 18th century privateering found here a good base of operations; and during the continental blockade, under Napoleon, tobacco was very scarce and dear in France, just as brandy was in England. The French Government permitted brandy to be exported, but confiscated tobacco and salt unsparingly, imposing the most formidable penalties, and this so arbitrarily, that the rich adventurers, with three or four exceptions, died in poverty; and little by little Roscoff fell into the precarious state in which it has remained since the first half of this century.

�Several of the old houses have subterranean passages, and very deep cellars. The earliest owners of these houses had English names, such as �McCulloch,� 4. �Greenlaw,� etc. The latter was owner of the house in which I live, and which was built in 1654-1771. The name has been Frenchified into �Sieur de Verte Loi.� Some of the houses of that period, built of granite, and more or less altered by repairs, have lost their venerable aspect.

�This little place had certainly a brilliant commercial period. The trade which was carried on between Roscoff and the south coast of England, from 1815 to 1840, consisted of brandy from this shore, and tobacco from the other side: the French exporting brandy into Great Britain by smuggling, and the English from Plymouth, and that neighbourhood repaying them in tobacco and money.

�Long before the date already named, this trade had existed, according to old documents, as far back as 1763; but from 1815 to 1840 the trade was very considerable. The firms of Malabee and de�Lisle, and others of less importance, made a wholesale business of it. Several times they had to pay heavy fines, the ships and cargoes were captured, and the crews imprisoned in the prisons and hulks at Portsmouth and Plymouth. If much was to be gained by the trade, the risks were certainly considerable.

�The establishments here have ceased to exist for a long time; the sheds and underground warehouses to which the goods were conveyed had doors that opened on to the sea, so that at high tide the boats passed loaded into the sheds. Once the boats were inside, the Custom-house authorities had no right to visit these warehouses, although they knew smuggled goods were there. The new law, made in 1840, permitted domiciliary visits, and a double watch being at the same time exercised on the English coasts, put an end to this smuggling trade.

�Malabee, Wege, and Bagot made small fortunes in the trade, and descendants of these families are still in Roscoff, and very much respected. I myself live in one of the sheds used for hiding the boats on returning from England with tobacco. I have made a chalet of it. I have also bought Bagot�s property, where are large cellars used for preparing the brandy for export�these places are well worth a visit.�

Mr Bridger went on: - "It is to be noted that the law of 1840, while affecting the importation of tobacco into France, and thus hampering the free interchange of commodities with the English smugglers, in no way interfered with the export of brandy. British smuggling boats, therefore, continued to resort to Roscoff as heretofore."

In the Customs� records of this date frequent mention is made of Irish agents at Roscoff, as also of the merchants �Mallaby,� �de�Lisle,� etc. From these documents it further appears that, in July, 1830, a notification was issued to the Coastguard stations to the effect that �the French Government having lately conceded to the ports of Morlaix and Roscoff the privilege of exporting tobacco and snuff in small packages, with a view to encouraging British and Irish smugglers to resort thither; in consequence of this measure, two French travellers have passed through Guernsey on their way to Ireland for the avowed purpose of organizing operations. 

Bridger, read the above remarks to an old smuggling acquaintance -  a well-known character - who in his day had made many a trip to Roscoff, and boasted a profound acquaintance with the ins and outs of the trade, the old man evinced the liveliest interest. He said the names of the merchants were perfectly familiar to him; but he strongly objected to the mention of �small fortunes� being made out of  the "business� small fortunes, indeed! Why, they must have made thousands of pounds: they were sending away at least a thousand tubs a week!� was the old man�s comment. Some of his further remarks are worth quoting.

�What you read out about the tobacco smuggling into France is quite true; but it was brought from Jersey, not England. The Plymouth chaps mostly used to get the tobacco, and exchange it with the merchants at Roscoff for spirits. You see there were no duties in the Channel Islands, that was why tobacco was so cheap there. But besides tobacco, it was a common thing to take nick-nacks over to sell, and then to pay for the spirits with the proceeds. For instance, I took over an anvil one trip and sold it for �7�it only cost me �3 in England. Then you could buy needles in England for a penny or two pence a dozen, and sell them in France for a franc. White stockings, again, would cost you a shilling the pair, and fetch five francs at Roscoff. Files, too, costing three-pence, would fetch a franc and a half. We could make a lot of money in that way, you see, and pay for the liquor we bought. We made just as much coming back as we did going there; for instance, tea could be bought at Roscoff for ten pence which would cost eight or nine shillings a pound in England. Salt, again, which was five pence a pound, would only cost about three halfpence in France. That was how we used to manage things.�

My old smuggler friend further informed me that sometimes there were as many as twenty or thirty Englishmen over at Roscoff, �and a jolly lot of fellows they were, too, and up to any lark - not mischief -  mind you. Oh, no! we never did any harm to anyone, but we used to have some rare games. There was Madame S , I remember her well; she kept a great hotel - like the one up at Fowey, where we always put up - I wonder if she is living still? She would be about the same age as I am. She was a fine woman, I can tell you; and, what�s more, she had some fine daughters - nice, decent young women, they were, too - I suppose they�ll all be married now? The time I�m speaking of was about 1832."

�One time I was over there,� continued the old man, �the cholera was raging terrible bad, and over one hundred people died in a week. There was nothing but the pattering of wooden clogs along the street, after the dead, all day long. None of the English caught it, though fifteen of us were over there at the time."

It must not be supposed, however, from the energy with which the smuggling trade was carried on, that the Revenue cruisers were inactive.

The following extract from an old Order Book gives some idea of what went on :- �In consequence of several well-known smuggling boats being absent from Cawsand, and supposed to be taking in cargoes at Roscoff, the Revenue cutter Harpy, of the Plymouth station, was sent across to look them up, and, on reconnoitering outside Roscoff, discovered there the Little Henry, of Portsmouth; the Bee, Jane, and Friend�s Endeavour, of Cawsand; and the Hope, of Polperro.� There is a note appended to the effect that �these boats being outside of their limits are liable to seizure on attempting to return to the English coast.�  

The sequel may be gathered from a later entry :- �In consequence of the large number of Cawsand and other English boats that have been recently taken, lost, or made to throw overboard their cargoes, the Coastguards are warned of the probability of the smugglers employing French boats to bring over their cargoes. "

The expedient of employing French vessels enabled smuggling to be carried on with varying success for some time longer. But every year the preventive chain was being tightened, while large reductions in the import duties at length reduced the profits of the business to the vanishing point, and with the extinction of smuggling the link which had bound Roscoff to Great Britain for so long a period was snapped asunder and the town of Rosco / Roscoff went into a steep decline with its people having to return to the land

After an interval of nearly fifty years, commercial intercourse between Roscoff and the British Islands started to be revived, and a tide of prosperity started to flow once again. The Bretons knew that if taken at the flood, it may lead to fortune. This changed aspect of affairs had been brought about by the enterprise of the ubiquitous, blue-bloused onion-seller, who may be regarded as the outward and visible sign of the new era which had dawned on the Breton port.  

The revival of trade was thus explained by a visitor :- �Roscoff itself is extremely fertile - the dead aspect of the little town does not extend to the surrounding plains. The climate is much influenced by the Gulf Stream, and the winters are temperate. Flowers and vegetables grow here all the year round that in less favoured districts are found only in the summer. Like Provence, in the far south, Roscoff is famous for its �primeurs,� or early vegetables.�  

We learn from a Consular report that:- "from Roscoff, in a single year twenty-six different companies, composed of over four hundred members, visited the following ports in the United Kingdom for the purpose of selling their garden produce :�Jersey, Guernsey, Portsmouth, Weymouth, Exeter, Plymouth, Falmouth, Swansea, Newport, Portmadoc, Bangor, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, and Greenock. From these ports they extend their operations in all directions; for instance, taking Newport as a centre, one party will go inland by rail for a distance of  one hundred miles, returning to headquarters every Saturday night; while others, in parties of four, go about the country with a handcart, returning to Newport every night.  

Nor were the French authorities neglectful of this new found source of wealth. The Secretary to the Society of Agriculture for the Department of Finisterre, for example,  made an earnest appeal to other districts to follow the good example set by the people of Roscoff, and go forth and offer from door to door, both in France and in England, their butter, cheese, and other produce.

Up until the First World War these enterprising pedlars could be met with in all parts of the United Kingdom. One writer tells how he had seen and conversed with them in English, Welsh, and Irish towns, and even in Keswick. And from an intelligent young man who spoke good English the following facts were elicited :- �There are too many people living in Roscoff to be able to earn a living, and so we are obliged to travel about in search of work. At least a thousand Roscoff men come over to England every year to sell vegetables, so that, in fact, scarcely anyone is left at home except the old people.� This young man, though but 24 years of age, had visited most parts of the world. The vessel he had crossed in remained at Cardiff; but the depot was at Bridgend, where he slept every night. Four brothers-in-law had come over with him, and they would remain in England for about four months, until the stock was sold out. On returning to Roscoff they would have to go to sea for the winter.

Apropos, an interesting letter from the French Rear Admiral Reveillere appeared in the �Journal des Economistes� (Nov. 15, 1902), in which, after explaining that for three years past he had commanded the Ecole de Pilotage on the north coast of France, this distinguished officer stated that recently a number of onion shippers who had just returned from England said to him, �You see sir, there is a regular river of gold flowing over to us every day from England, and not a particle of our soil passes over there.� And the Admiral went on to state that �during my three year�s stay on this coast I have come to the profound conviction that England is, for the toilers of our coast, an inexhaustible gold mine; and I hold that the people who egg on others to a hatred of that excellent clientelle are engaged in a vile trade.� And the Admiral proceeded to describe the reception accorded to the onion sellers across the Channel, notwithstanding the wholesale calumny practised against English people in France at the time of the South-African war. �We were not very proud at the beginning of the war,� said a shipper to the Admiral, �but matters soon came right. Working men, above all, always made us welcome; and in Scotland we rarely conclude a bargain but we are invited to take a seat at the family table and made completely at home.�

Strange, indeed, is the persistency with which trade adheres to old�established lines of communication. The newly-developed onion industry, for example, had kept to the route opened up in the first instance by the spirit smugglers. And many another once noted smuggling entrepot has become the centre of a new sort of commerce, which bids fair to rival, and, probably, far exceed the old one,, both in volume and importance.  

When, therefore, the reader next books a voyage over to Roscoff view it with more interest than heretofore, as forming a link with an eventful past and as the embodiment of an intercourse which has been maintained with scarcely a break for nearly four centuries.


1. The Cruel Coppinger of Mr. Hawkers Footprints of former men in Far Cornwall, and of Mr. Baring Goulds in the Roar of the Sea, is said to have been an Irish squire who bought property at Roscoff, which was lost, however, in the Revolution of 1792.

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2. The three boats marked (*) have been very successful, especially the last, on board which are the two Dunstans. They sailed on the 27th, landed their cargoes, and were back at Roscoff on the 31st.

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3.  The autobiography of a Cornish smuggler (Captain Harry Carter, of Prussia Cove) 1749-1809

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4. Capt. Harry Carter, the smuggler (See 3 above) , frequently mentions a family of this name from whom he received much kindness at the time of the Revolution. The family afterwards migrated to Guernsey, where some of the descendants are still living.

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    Copyright George Pritchard of Penhalvean 

Last modified: Saturday July 06, 2019 .

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