Cornwall  Smugglers


Coast Guard / Revenue / Salt Officers


The Roll of The Cornish Jury

All these tales which we hear along the coast are the smugglers version of affairs, and we are naturally led to deduct some discount before giving them credit as authentic history ; but the official records of the Custom House are not open to the same criticism, and they bear overwhelming testimony to the daring and the success of the smugglers. One report from the Collector at Penzance to his superior in London, out of many, will give some idea of how things appeared to him. Writing on June 29, 1775, he refers to the great audacity of the smugglers on this coast,and goes on:

"Last Saturday two Irish wherries full of men and guns (one about 130 tons, and the other less) came to anchor within the limits of this port, and within half a mile of the shore, and lay there three days, in open defiance discharging their contraband goods. We are totally destitute of any force to attack them by sea, and, as the whole coast is principally inhabited by a lot of smugglers under the domination of fishermen, it is next to an impossibility for the officers of the revenue to intercept any of these goods after they are landed, unless by chance a trifling matter. The smugglers escort their goods in large parties when on shore. A few nights ago, while the above-mentioned wherries were on the coast, the officers, being on the look-out, saw a boat come off from one of them and come ashore near where the officers had secreted themselves, and the crew began to land the goods. The officers interfered, and attempted to make a seizure of said boat and goods; but a blunderbuss was immediately presented to one of their breasts, and the smugglers, with great imprecations, threatened their lives. The officers, not being in sufficient force, were glad to get off, and the boat reshipped the goods and went off again. We humbly beg leave to remark the smugglers were never on this coast more rife than at present, nor less goods taken in proportion to the quantity supposed to be smuggled."

The Collector might have used even stronger language than audacity, and probably did, on November 29, 1777, when he saw a large Irish wherry, well manned and armed, come into Penzance harbour and carry out the Brilliant,a shallop employed in the service of the revenue, with the captain on board. The Brilliant had just come in with a captured cargo, and the Penzance people had the pleasure of seeing the smugglers take all the goods out of her and turn her adrift.

The value of the trifling matter of goods seized by the Custom House people in the port of Penzance in 1767 was £2,233, and in the three years 1776, 1777, 1778, £2179.

The poor Collector reiterates almost to monotony requests for the assistance of soldiers to suppress the smugglers. These requests appear to have been granted from time to time, but the soldiers were always soon taken away again. At one time, August 1740, he had around the Bay a company of a captain, an ensign, two sergeants, two corporals, fifty-five men, and  one drum, in addition to the twenty-three men in the regular employ of the Custom House. But even when the soldiers were here it was not all plain sailing, for

"Captain Lynn, whose company has lately been here, has no orders from the War Office to assist us in cases of shipwrecks or smuggling."

In 1769 he writes, the soldiers now quartered in this town are most useful. They are a great terror to the smugglers. The Mayor of Penzance has always paid for fire and candles for the guardroom, but the present Mayor refused to do so. At this I do not wonder, as he is at present bound over in a large sum not to be again guilty of smuggling.

No wonder the Collector found it so difficult to get a conviction that he could not prosecute after a free fight, in which the smugglers had recaptured their property, because his men could not positively swear what was in the kegs. It might have been water, though we may be very sure it wasn't.

It is pleasant to notice that these records are very free from tales of bloodshed. Whether credit is due to the gentleness of the fishermen, or, as is more probable, to the tact with which the revenue men abstained from impolitic interference, we cannot tell, but in all the seventy years I have been through I only find three cases recorded of violent deaths. In January 1774, a smuggler was shot by a marine. In April 1775, Henry Higgs, boatman at Marazion, was found one morning on the beach dead, with marks of violence. It was only suspicion that laid his death at the smugglers door. But on March 12, 1769, William Odgers, one of the officers stationed at Porthleven, was killed, while endeavoring to seize some smuggled goods. The Collector says, murdered in a most barbarous manner,and the Coroners jury agreed with him, and found a verdict of wilful murder against Melchisidek Kinsman of Gwennap and others unknown. Melchisidek and his friends kept well out of sight. On April 7, the Collector is  afraid that two of the murderers are in Guernsey and the other two in France, at Morlaix. But on the 25th some think they are still skulking underground in the tin works. Thus they managed to keep safe for nearly a year.

In the next January an agent of the murderers offered Alexander Hampton (the principal witness for the Crown) £500. to go out of England for two years, but he refused, saying he would not take the price of blood. Several times since his refusal the smugglers have threatened his life, and have appeared armed, surrounding his house. The murderers are seen publicly in the neighbourhood, and it is thought sleep at night in their usual habitations.

In January, and again in March, 1770, the Collector made an attempt, with assistance of a party of soldiers, to catch them, but without success. Then three of them seem to have decided that it was safer to trust a Cornish jury than their own humble efforts to get off, and they surrendered for trial at the assizes.

The fourth at first held a different opinion, but the three who had surrendered in order to protect themselves arrested Melchisidek Kinsman. In this attempt a horrible conflict ensued, and one was greatly wounded; and all four appeared at Bodmin and were tried before a jury a Cornish jury, mind and duly acquitted. Our poor Collector  Everyone was amazed and shocked, he reports, at the acquittal of Kinsman. He knows the jury were bribed; that was clearly shown by the facts that three of them disappeared immediately after the case, and one was seen in a public-house drinking with Kinsmans friends.

No wonder Mr. Edward Giddy wrote on March 4, 1778, recording some particularly flagrant daring, I fear a criminal prosecution would be useless at best, for a reason which it shocks me to mention, that a Cornish jury would certainly acquit the smugglers.



    Copyright George Pritchard of Penhalvean 

Last modified: Saturday July 06, 2019 .

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