Cornwall  Smugglers


Coast Guard / Revenue / Salt Officers


By A. A. Clinnick

The people of the Duchy of Cornwall always resented any interference with their right to have unrestricted "free trade " with the sister Duchy of Brittany 'Which was bound to them by ties of blood and long association, consequently they refused for many centuries to submit to the exactions of the English Customs duties. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that not long ago all classes of the community in Cornwall actively supported the smugglers.

All over the Duchy are to be found stories and traditions of the smuggling days and every now and again forgotten cellars, caves and cupboards of inns are found to be in existence, which, although forgotten by the present generation, were well-concealed stores for contraband goods.

Cornwall, too, had its Smuggling Kings, such as the Carters, of Prussia Cove, and Coppinger and Rattenbury of North Cornwall, with many stories of their daring exploits. Many a bold deed, too, was spoken of as taking place in those days on the Fal, the Camel, at Polperro and Fowey, and in Whitsand and Gerrans Bays.

In a short article it would be impossible to do justice to the full tale of Cornish smuggling. Some idea, however, can he had of the extent of the smuggling in Cornwall up to the middle of the last century from the following extracts from a diary of an old Cornish Coastguard officer :‑

 "August 10th, 1836.Found tubs of spirits at sea, which had been cut away in the night, the owners being unable to effect a landing.
 January 1st, 1837.Seized 46 tubs of spirit.
 December 6th, 1838.Crept up 71 tubs of spirit near Gerrans.
 March 9th, 1839.-53 tubs, etc. ; in all 892 tubs seized
July 25th, 1836. The `Fox' swept up 65 tubs off Gorran, sunk by boats, alarmed and unable to land them
 May 29th, 1838.Lieut. Graham, from my injunction, seized a boat called the `Why do you Ask 3 men and 78 tubs. An informer had stated that she would land her cargo west of Falmouth
 July 1st, 1843.Seized 84 tubs, after much creeping, and preventing landing.
 May- 2nd, 1845  seized 143 tubs--two men convicted, one the importer."

It was not long ago that an old Mevagissey fisherman of 90 years of age declared that he had seen Treviskey running with blood in his day, when the Preventive men encountered the Free-traders.

At Mevagissey there lived not long ago a coastguard who was in sympathy with the smugglers. On one occasion an officer of the coastguard had grounds for suspecting a Mevagissey fisherman of being actively engaged in "running goods" unseen by the Preventive men, and he decided to search the man's cottage. At the appointed time he appeared at the fisherman's abode accompanied by the friendly coast‑ guard. Now, as luck would have it, the coastguard was sent to search the bedroom upstairs whilst his superior officer closely examined the cupboards and corners of the downstairs rooms. The inspector hunted thoroughly, but found nothing at all suspicious, and was quite satisfied when the "blue-jacket" came downstairs and reported to him that he, too, had " found nothing." Thereupon the two men left the cottage and gave up the search.

An evening or two after this event the coastguard strolled up to to the cottage and called on his fisherman friend and in course of conversation informed him that although he had found nothing officially when he made his search he very well knew where there was a keg of  moonshine to be found in the cottage bedroom. The fisherman acknowledged that he too knew of the existence of the spirits. Such actions as these were not uncommon in the Duchy, but the coastguards man was risking much because had he been discovered he would probably have lost his pension.

The story of smuggling in Cornwall goes back to very early days, and right down to the nineteenth century it was actively carried on. During the Commonwealth there was a famous smuggler at Veryan, Robert Long by name, who mainly confined his operations, it is said, to the English Channel and St. Mawes harbour. In addition to exercising his abilities in the Free trade he also was something of a pirate as well, and it is asserted he would bring in his prizes and anchor them up the Percuil river, beyond St. Mawes. His operations did not bring him within the clutches of the law during the dictatorship of Cromwell, but shortly after the Restoration (i.e. in 1660) Robin Long seems to have been found out by the Naval Authorities to be engaged in a particularly daring enterprise in Veryan Bays, and he was brought before them and convicted. Tradition says that, as a warning to the pirates who frequented Lamorran Creek (up the river Fal), the fate of Robin was to be hanged in chains at the cross roads between St. Mawes and Ruan Lanihorne, and that after he had been hanging there for some time he was taken down and buried beneath the gallows.

Smuggling in Cornwall was a rough trade, and the Free-traders did not always play fair, as the following story proves. In 183o, a Truro maltster, John Nicholas Tom (who afterwards became most notorious at Canterbury) made a bargain at Plymouth with a Free-trader to purchase a cargo of contraband spirits, the arrangement being that the smuggler should convey the spirits half-way from the bay where his ship was anchored to Truro, and at that point Tom should meet it with his own waggon and take over the spirits and convey the same to Truro. The place for the exchange to take place was to be Cornelly, near Tregony, and the time of meeting to be midnight, when Tom should pay over the money and the kegs should change hands. At the agreed time the maltster was at Cornelly, and the money was paid. Then the kegs were placed in the Truro merchant's waggon and carefully covered over with sacks of corn, after which Tom drove off to Truro.

Daylight was just breaking when the maltster left Cornelly, but he had not driven many miles when he was overtaken by two men on horseback who very politely wished him a good morning. One of the men remarked that he presumed Mr. Tom was on his way to Truro market to sell his wheat, and the maltster replied that the assumption was quite correct. The second horseman then said he hoped Mr. Tom would be able to get a good price for his wheat. Tom during all this time felt very uneasy as he did not at all like the appearance of his companions; they looked far too inquisitive, and rode on either side of his waggon, and it was with great satisfaction that at last he saw them ride on ahead and disappear out of sight.

Tom had no further adventures on the road, and when at length he reached the village of Tresillian he thought it was far too early to drive into Truro, where he would be likely to attract too much attention, so he decided to breakfast at the Wheel Inn. He pulled up his horses and entered the inn, but had scarcely seated himself at the table when, to his great alarm, in walked his two travelling companions. The strangers informed Tom that they had taken possession of the waggon and its contents in the King's name, as they were Excisemen, and they advised hint to be more careful in future in dealing with strangers.

At this heavy blow Tom was dumbfounded, and when the men left the room on the plea that they would see the spirit properly housed and return again to the Inn and talk to him, the maltster promptly disappeared through the inn window and made tracks for Truro as fast as his legs would carry him. When he reached his house in Pydar Street, Truro, he had more time for reflection, and rightly came to the conclusion that he had been bamboozled out of his money, waggon, and team, and had lost the kegs of spirit as well (from which he intended to make a handsome profit), all through the wiles of he smugglers and so it proved. This was a trick of unscrupulous smugglers, often practised on strangers. It was not long, however, before Tom formed a better opinion of the Free-traders and through shielding them he at last became landed in prison himself.

At Polperro the old folks say even now that their village is haunted by a headless driver driving a hearse. In the 18th century Talland smugglers found it difficult to get their casks away from the coast. Laden horses were stopped. Waggons were noisy. Then came a small-pox epidemic and people were buried by night; and "Battling Billy," the landlord of the Halfway House Inn, hit on the idea of conveying his kegs in a hearse. No revenue officer would stop a hearse. But one night everything went wrong. He had landed a big cargo of brandy and had to get it away by daylight, and the hearse would not hold it all. His men were ready to run away, when Billy turned up with a second hearse, and under the lash of his tongue the men got the second cargo aboard. No one dared to ask Billy where he got his second hearse but they all thought of some coffin possibly lying on the roadside. As the last keg was being loaded the Preventive men came riding into Talland. "If they shoot me dead, my body I'll drive the load to Polperro," swore Billy, leaping to the box; and lashing his horses he drove like a madman, shots flying a round him. Fishermen in Polperro that night heard the hearse crashing over the cobbled street and when they went to their doors they were horrified to see that "Battling Billy" had been shot through the neck and his head hung over one shoulder, but his arm still lashed the maddened horses on, until hearse, horses and corpse dashed over the quay into the water of the harbour. To-day the fishermen say they know when the ghost of " Battling Billy" is coming, and until he is passed they keep their doors shut at Polperro and their backs to the window lest they should see him and court the death that he brings in his wake.

Falmouth Harbour and the river Fal and its creeks enjoyed for a long period a reputation for pre-eminence in smuggling and many interesting stories are yet remembered along the river, but far too many are forgotten. A fine depot for the Free-traders existed at Penpol farm in Sunset Creek, opposite Malpas, where kegs were landed from the boats and carried up the sunken road to the farmhouse and placed either in caves or else carried into the plantation and lowered into the caches: there many merry parties assembled at the farm in the early days of the last century, and so that they should not be forgotten scratched their autographs with their diamond rings on the glass of the parlour-window. Every provision was made for escape when inquisitive officials came poking their noses where they were not wanted, as the existing doorways on each side of the house will prove. Alas! however, an enterprising exciseman caught the farmer red handed at the farm, and the days of Free-trading in Sunset Creek were at last over.

They were more cautious at Devoran, and never seem to have been caught, although their dealings in cognac were not on so large a scale. Boats rowed off regularly with vegetables and goods for the skippers in the river, and returned well laden after dark, when servant girls would be sent with "clome pitchers," full of water, from house to boats, but only the initiated ever knew the pitchers had false bottoms, and that instead of water they carried back cognac.

At Tolverne ferry a sanguinary encounter took place between smugglers and excisemen when a Free-trader (a powerful young farmer) closed with one of the officers and forcing his cutlass from his grasp, cut him down, flung the weapon into the middle of the river, gained his boat with the kegs he was carrying and got clear away, but only for a time; for he was afterwards prosecuted, to escape heavy penalties in consequence of the prosecution trying to prove that "six pieces" of the exciseman's skull were chopped away in the fight!
At some of the farmhouses near the Fal may still be seen the mooring-stones or " killicks " that were used to sink the string of ankers or kegs of spirit in the river, when the smugglers were too hard pressed by the excisemen. An old story connected with Falmouth harbour tells, too, of a defiant smuggler who had a fortified stronghold, and (whisper it softly) it is said that during the war smuggling was revived, but on a smaller scale. Anyway, the "trade" has now declined if only for a season.



    Copyright George Pritchard of Penhalvean 

Last modified: Saturday July 06, 2019 .

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