Cornwall  Smugglers


Coast Guard / Revenue / Salt Officers


The Law and Cornish Smuggling

By George Pritchard 

Cornwall has been in the export and import business for thousands of years with both wool and tin being commodities that were traded with the Romans and before them the Greeks and Phoenicians. The avoidance of tax has also been around for a long time and with the invasion by the Normans came the introduction of the Tin Tax. 

The tax was introduced by King Richard I of England who appointed William de Wrotham as the first Lord Warden of the Stannaries of Cornwall and Devon on 20th November 1197. Over the next twelve months de Wrotham convened a series of meetings at Launceston at which miners were invited to put on record the laws and practices affecting mining and miners. Following these meetings the "coinage tax" was introduced The Writ appointing William de Wrotham as Lord Warden and introducing the Coinage Tax confirmed the "just and ancient customs and liberties" of miners, smelters and merchants of tin. It was from those sessions of jurymen sitting under a Royal official that the Parliaments or Convocations of Tinners of Cornwall (and Devon) came. However, a difference was made between Cornwall and Devon (whose Stannaries where to be administered and kept separate) in that the Cornish who spoke, what was to the Normans /Saxons, a foreign  language were to be treated as Aliens and were therefore to be taxed as such, paying double what the Devonians paid. Most of the Cornish agreed to this on the grounds that it gave them other rights.

Once this statute was introduced all tin, whether smelted (white) or unsmelted (black)  was to be brought to one of the coinage markets which had been set up  in order to be weighed. The markets were held at Lostwithiel, Truro, Helston, Bodmin and Liskeard.  However in the reign of King John a nation-wide customs system was introduced which can be traced back to the Winchester Assize of 1203-4 when it was directed that the 'customary dues at the ports', should be accounted directly to the State Exchequer, and payable to King John (1199-1216). Further legislation concerning the customs can be traced to King Edward the First (1272-1307), and in 1298 'custodes custumae' were appointed in certain ports to take direct charge of the collection of customs for the crown. Both  King's John and Edward like their predecessors accepted that the tin miners of Cornwall lived and worked in areas which were isolated and remote from the centres of population and as a result had from times of great antiquity enjoyed rights and privileges and  rudimentary institutions which were the forerunners of the Stannary Parliaments or Convocation of Tinners, and the Stannary Law Courts. Because of this, they also recognised that it was of great importance to all those persons who were engaged in tin mining in Cornwall that nothing be done to diminish these. 

 When King Edward III created the Duchy of Cornwall by Royal Charter on March 7, 1337, he based it  on the ancient British Royal Territory of Cornwall and part of Devon. The new Duchy was granted to his eldest son and heir, Edward the Black Prince. As the first Duke of Cornwall. The King followed the tradition by appointing The Lord Warden of the Stannaries to chair the Duchy Council which consisted of high officials. 

Henry IV commanded that all future male heirs to the English Crown including today's Prince Charles should automatically become Duke of Cornwall at the moment of birth. In the event that there is no son of the reigning sovereign, the Duchy and its income temporarily reverts to the crown. 

In 1508 a major change was to take place with the introduction of the Charter of Pardon. This charter only affected the tinners who paid the sum of 1,000.00, then a huge sum of money, to King Henry VII, and that sum was raised by a general levy on all tinners. In return for the payment the King included in the Charter provisions for the self-government of the Stannaries and a right for the tinners to veto statues and ordnances which affected them and the Stannaries.

Under the new Charter the coinage tax was paid to the Duchy but when there was not a son and heir it went directly to the sovereign as shown in this report from the state papers of the Reign of Elizabeth 1st of England. Vol.CCLIII.  


July. 45. Note of the ordinary days of coining tin in Devonshire and Cornwall, for the Midsummer coinage, from 11 June to 9 July or later. The Devonshire tin is usually coined in small pieces of from 1 cwt. to 2 cwt., but the Cornish tin coined is from 2 cwt. to 400 lbs.

July. 46. Answers [by Thios. Myddletois] to instructions concerning the coinage of tin in Devonshire and Cornwall, Midsummer 1593. I have attended the coinage, and, kept a book of the weights, but found no abuse. Midsummer coinage began at Chagford, 12 June, and ended at Helstone, 9 July; but there is an after coinage, at which the officers have 12d. for each piece of tin. Michaelmas coinage begins 15 September and lasts to 9 October, after which the accounts are delivered to Wm. Nele, the Queens auditor. There is a part coinage about Christmas, the Queen receiving 4 per cent, for licence, which is 001. a year, and the officers 12d. each piece of tin. Statement of tin the last seven years, varying from 1,148,891 lbs. of the quantity

The tinners cannot tell how much is exported, as merchants and pewterers sometimes deal for each other. It used to be all sent to France till the Rouen trade was stopped, and this price came down; then the Londoners bought for the Straits and the Low Countries; now it is sold in Turkey, France, Flanders, and Germany" 

The Lord of the Stannaries or a deputy would visit a coinage town to oversee the weighing.  Once the weight had been established the tax was paid and the tin was either stamped (white or smelted) or sealed (black or unsmelted) and then sold. 

Change came with the end of the civil war. Cornwall was now part of a republic governed by Oliver Cromwell. Although technically in exile, Prince Charles the Duke of Cornwall lost all his estates when an Act was passed by Parliament for the sale of "the Honours, Manors, Lands heretofore belonging to the late King, Queen and Prince". 

By the reign of Charles the second, the tax was still being collected in Cornwall at double that in England and there were those who objected to the level of tax being applied especially when an act was introduced which applied it to wool as well. This was a step taken to benefit the English cloth trade, this time at the expense of the continental trade, was the prohibition of export of raw wool. This prohibition lasted continuously from 1660 to 1825, and during this time the smuggling of Wool out of the country went merrily on, though there were officers especially appointed by the Government to try to check it. For the whole of England, 299 "riding officers" were appointed, 36 being in Kent, 16 in Dorset, 12 in Devon, and 14 in Cornwall. The duty of these men was to patrol the coast to prevent the export of wool ; those in Cornwall were in charge of a man named Will Syms. The quantity of wool seized by them in one year was 12 packs valued at 68. Of these, six were condemned, paying a penalty of 140, and four were rescued from the officers, the value being 24; for the remaining two packs there was no prosecution, probably owing to a lack of money. The officers' expenses in maintaining themselves and horses for one year were 540. Some time ago an interesting old case book (kept by Mr. Thomas Pascoe, a Penzance magistrate, about 1790) passed through the hands of Mr. Bridger, of Penzance, to whom the writer is indebted for the fact, there recorded, that a farmer from the village of St. Buryan was found near the coast with pack-horses, laden with bales of wool which he intended to export. For this night's outing he lost his horses and was fined 200.

Wool was a major product of Cornwall and  the producers who were mainly small farmers and crofters found that this double taxation made their commodity expensive to sell. Some of these producers farmed on the coast where they also supplemented their income by fishing. Each autumn after the harvest was in  they would make a trip to Brittany. As well as taking wool they took tin from the local tin streamers to  trade in exchange for goods and this became known as fair trading. On the return journey their cargo was usually spirits, tobacco and other luxury goods such as oranges and figs, to these were later added tea and coffee. The reason for this was that many laws had also been passed to increase taxes on goods being imported into Britain. The reasons given for these new ways of raising revenue was that it was to provide funds for the protection of the coast against the raids by Algerine and Barbury pirates. These pirates would raid the villages around the coast and take hostages who would then be held for ransom.

It is hard to think of Cornish men and women being taken into slavery, but church records show a number of collections taking place to either help the families of slaves or to help buy their freedom. Some coastal places also held collections for some further afield and in Falmouth the following collections are listed in the parish register:

 October 12 1677 Collected towards ye redemtion of John Woodnett, a slave in Gally.

 February 21 1677 Collected for the redemtion of widow James, her sonne being a slave in Turkey.

 September 28 1679 Collected for the redemtion of John Greene & Joseph Chubb, Slaves in Argeire.

November 1679 Collected through the Towne of Falmouth, Redemtion of William Rawling in Algire and also William Lampier of St Keaveren, a slave in Algier. Besides collected at ye Quaker meeting, and ye presbiterian Meeting more for William Rawling.

 Copy of petition of Anne James of Falmouth, widow to Thomas Lord Bishop of Exeter, to be allowed to ask charity within the Diocese towards the 60 cost of redemption of her son George James, boatswain of the Hopewell of Falmouth, captured by Algerian pirates on or about 1 Jan. 1677/8, "in most miserable Bondage in the hands of those barbarous Enemies of Jesus Christ", n.d. Copy of P88/1/1B registers - ref.  P88/1/2  - date: Made 1801 Cornwall Record Office (CRO).

This Cornish slavery was to continue unchecked into the 19th century, and  while Britain possessed a fleet which was capable of blowing the fortifications of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli to smithereens, it was not done until 1816 when Edward Pellew (Lord Exmouth) a sailor of Cornish descent put an end to the Algerine raids by demolishing Algiers in a mighty bombardment in which a total of 516 slaves were freed. But the victory did not come cheap. The British navy suffered 28 killed and 690 wounded, whilst their allies, the Dutch, who fought with skill and courage lost upon their smaller squadron fifteen killed and fifty two wounded. 

In 1689 William and Mary came to the throne and the hundred year war with France was about to begin. In 1691 the exportation of goods to France was made illegal and the Channel traders started using the Channel Island of Guernsey as a base from which goods could legally be imported. The Cornish, however continued to use Brittany because even though Parliament tried to suppress the "trade" or smuggling as they called it, the fisherman / farmers and tin industry had built up an alliance which would last for a further hundred and fifty years. 

By 1692 the trade was spreading and Edward Clarke, M.P. for Taunton, in his Parliamentary papers and pamphlets, gives examples of wool going out of the country in French vessels as reported from Dover, Romney, Margate, Hull, Deal, etc., [i.e.smuggling during the war with France].[MS.] - ref.  DD\SF/1678/31  - date: 1692. 

Edward Clarke's papers are kept at the Somerset Record office. Many are endorsed by or addressed to him, and date from the late 17th century to the early 18th. Most are undated except for the years noted on them by Clarke. In one document he introduces a bill with the words:

"Reasons most humbly offer'd to the Right Honourable the Commons in Parliament Assembled, against the Vote of this House of the 17th of December last, whereby it is ordered, That Leave be given to bring in a Bill for the quieting the Subject against all Pretences of Concealment whatsoever" [i.e. smuggling] - ref.  DD\SF/1678/108  - date: 1698

Over the next 150 years Parliament was to pass over 2000 acts with some six large folio volumes being filled with laws dealing with Custom law by 1797. The total number of acts passed prior to 1760 had been 800 but a further 1,300 acts of parliament were added between 1760 and 1813. The law became such a mass of chaotic legislation that in 1876 the custom laws had to be consolidated. It would be impossible to deal with all this legislation in this piece, so I have picked out what I feel was of most relevance to Cornwall.  

By 1701 the trade in contraband spirits was steadily increasing and Parliament made it illegal to import spirits in vessels which were less than 15 tons. This was later raised to 30 tons and in 1721 to 40. 

Parliament also made it illegal in 1701 to import spirits  in casks that held less than 20 gallons. If caught the goods were liable to be forfeited. The smugglers tried to get around the law by loading the cargoes into coasters off shore, but once again the law was changed so that any vessels of less than 50 tons found "hovering" just off the coast would be held until a bond was put up that would be forfeited if the captain or vessel were found to be involved in smuggling. In order to escape this act a ship must stay more than two leagues from the coast. 

In 1705 Parliament set up a special force to try and combat the smugglers. However they soon found they were fighting a losing battle and by 1719 new laws had to be brought in to the effect that any smugglers who assembled in a group of more than eight and beat or wounded officers of the customs would be transported to the Plantations in America. Two years later it was found necessary to reduce the numbers constituting an un-lawful assembly to five. 

The fierce nature of the law again failed to bring an end to smuggling and in 1736 George the Second was on the throne and even more draconian laws came into force following the presentation of a petition to parliament by the tea dealers representing the serious loss they sustained by smuggling. They asserted that nearly half the tea consumed in England paid no duty. The duty at this time was 4s per lb, on all teas alike.

In the course of the debate in the House of Commons on the Smuggling Bill, it was stated by one of the speakers that:-

"In France, where the punishment of every sort of smuggling is death on the gallows, where they keep a particular sort of army called Les Maltotiers for that very purpose, yet smuggling is in that kingdom almost as frequent as in England, and their smugglers much more desperate than ours; for they march in little armies, are well armed and disciplined and often engage in battle with the Custom House Officers and their guard of Maltotiers"

A statement in the House of Lords on the same Bill in 1736 included the following:-

"If you intend that any of the officers should do their duty, within some of the counties of England: and this necessity proceeds from the great height smuggling has lately come to, and the vast numbers of men now engaged some way or other in that pernicious trade; insomuch that in some parts of our maritime counties, the whole people of the county are so generally engaged in it, that it is impossible to find a jury that will upon a trial do justice to an officer of the revenue; therefore, unless you agree to this clause, an officer, in any such county, who faithfully performs the duty of his office, must expect to be assaulted, beaten, and bruised, every day of his life; because the people of the county know that he can never recover a verdict against them."

The government decided to reward smugglers with a pardon if they gave evidence leading to the capture and conviction of their fellow smugglers. however in order to get the pardon they had also to confess to crimes which they had committed. If later on they were caught re-offending then they were also prosecuted for the earlier offences and if they had escaped transportation by confessing the previous offenses they would now be hung without the services of the clergy if found guilty.

The law on illegal assembly was again changed, with the reduction in the number from five to three or more persons carrying firearms. Again this was punishable with Transportation. 

Within months this was again changed.  Two or more armed persons carrying goods inland, or found within five miles of the coast with 6 pounds tea, or 5 gallons of spirits not covered by permit, would be deemed 'runners.' Persons 'lurking' within five miles of the coast were liable to be whipped and put to hard labour, Persons maimed in arresting smugglers were entitled to a reward of 50. Informers discovering two or more accomplices were entitled to 50 for each person convicted, and held free of their own offences. The law against 'hoverers' was strengthened, and the 'illegal limit' for transhipment of foreign goods increased to four leagues from the coast.

Tea had taken over from spirits as the favourite cargo of the smugglers and an  illustration of the vast proportions of the smuggling trade in tea was given in a pamphlet which was put out by the East India Company in 1742.

Since an excise duty of 4s per lb. Was laid on tea, it has brought an average of 130,000 a year into the exchequer, which is but for 650,000 pounds weight of tea. But that the real consumption is vastly greater a single fact will prove. Some years ago the treasurer of our East India company received a letter from Holland intimating that one person in the province of Zealand smuggled yearly for England no less than half a million pounds. Though this seemed incredible the directors upon inquiry, were convinced of the fact that such a person there was who, some few years before had been but an English sailor, was now married  to a woman who kept a china shop, and had so well managed affairs that he had four sloops of his own constantly employed in smuggling; that the quantity of tea which he was supposed to export had not at all been magnified, and that he had more guineas and English specie in his house than any banker in England.  The remedy proposed by the author was a tax of from 5s. to 20s. on all families that drank tea, which will bring a smile to the face of modern political economists. The consumption of tea in the whole of great Britain was computed at 1,500,000 lbs a year, the price of which in bond was from 5s.9d to 6s.10d per lb.

By 1746 Parliament and the king were getting to the point where they felt that the lack of convictions may be due to the leading lights of the establishment and the magistrates being in league with the smugglers. They again increased the penalties and made it an offence to assemble in order to run contraband goods the penalty if found guilty was to be by death as a felon.' In order to get the magistrates to act they also made each County liable for offences committed within their limits. If goods were captured and afterwards rescued the fine on the county was 200. If an officer was beaten in the execution of his duty the fine was 40, if killed 100, but the county was held exempt if the offenders were convicted within six months.

In a court case at the Old Bailey in London in 1747 it was stated that:

The goods that are generally run for the ease of carriage and stowage are tea, brandy or wine in small casks. The law states, that brandy can't be imported under a sixty gallon cask; tea cannot be imported into any place in England but London and is imported in large chests lined with lead; The Smugglers tea, when it comes from Flushing, Boulogne, or any of the opposite coasts, is put on board the cutter all in oil-skin bags; and these bags are tied together, so that when they come to shore, then they have nothing to do but throw them across the horses; sometimes they ride upon them, and sometimes they have drove horses.

"No fair merchant ever imports tea in oil-skin bags; 'tis well known by all the people in the country, when they see oil-skin bags, whose they are. Neither can any brandy or wine be imported in any cask less than 60 gallons, but they always import it in casks they call half-anchors, and they fling them the same way."

The last Stannary Parliament convened by a Lord Warden of the Stannaries sat in 1753 yet the Charter of Royal Pardon of 1508 is still in force and effective and made this guarantee just five years after the more generally known, Bill of Rights 1688:

"Provided always that nothing in this Act shall alter determine or make void the Charters granted to the Tinners of Devon and Cornwall by any of the Kings and Queens of this realme or any of the liberties, privileges or franchises of the said tinners or to alter determine or make void the laws, customs or constitutions of the Stannaries of Devon or Cornwall or any of them".

Ref:  Butterworths reissue of Halsbury's Statutes, Vol.10, Constitutional Law, 1995, Royal Mines Act 1693, 5 Will & Mar, c.6, [HMSO Ed. 1978, ISBN011801661X].

1760 On accession of George III, it is decided that most of the costs of civil government should be met by parliament in return for the surrender of the hereditary revenues (the crown estate revenues and various tax revenues) but the Duchy of Cornwall estates were not included in this deal. The power of the Duchy politically can be seen in the fact that Cornwall returned 44 MP's to parliament until 1832 - the same number as the whole of Scotland. Today Cornwall is represented by only 5 MP's in a much larger House of Commons.

The smuggling of wool was still abundant in Cornwall and it would be another twenty years before Parliament really got to grips with it. 

1768 On the 15th Sept. The Penzance Customs house sent the following  letter to Bristol:

"In consequence of ye honours orders of 17th June... we had caused to be arrested three of the people concerned in running wool to France... Richard Tresidder, Rich. Tresidder the younger and Thos. Tresidder, and sent to be secured in the Sheriffs ward for want of proper security. (John Tresidder and Richard Richards not yet taken."

Still the law failed to end the smuggling or to protect the Customs officers. Mr. Edward Giddy recording on March 4, 1778,  after 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. 

In I779 a biting statute was issued, in consequence of smuggling by 'gangs of daring and dissolute persons armed with offensive weapons.' It made ships forfeitable for having on board brandy in illegal packages, or ,when, not being over 200 tons, they carried any goods which became forfeitable. The Act against boats with more than four rowlocks, which applied to the south- eastern counties only, was made to include all boats with more than six oars in the other counties, tow-boats of Bristol excepted. Excise officers were granted still wider powers of seizing goods afloat, and justices were enabled to fine jailers for allowing smugglers to escape. Smugglers were made liable to be pressed for the army as well as, the navy.

In I781 out came an Act levelled against fraudulent traders rather than hoverers and runners. It provided that a ship's captain caught smuggling should be liable to forfeit his wages to the shipowner, and pay the shipowner treble value of the goods seized, besides paying the Crown penalties. If mates or seamen were caught, the shipowner might sue them for 10s. a pound for all tea smuggled, and 10s. a gallon for spirits, besides keeping back all their wages, and if the offence were committed during time of war he' Might then send them aboard a king's ship for three years.

In 1784 it was enacted that a ship should be forfeitable for hovering within four leagues (12 miles) off the coast for the purpose of running goods. Boats built for running and found hovering were made forfeitable, even with no cargo on board. Vessels found 'within the limits,' carrying weapons beyond two carriage-guns of 4 pounds calibre, and two muskets to every ten men, were made forfeitable, Government Vessels and ships from 'distant places' excepted. Any person shooting at a revenue vessel or officer, or wounding an officer, was made liable to 'death as a felon, without benefit of clergy.' Revenue cruisers might fire upon vessels that refused to bring to.

The next Act of the Session provided:

"that any cutter, etc., belonging to the king's subjects, and found within four leagues of the coast, having a bowsprit of a length more than two-thirds that of the vessel, should be forfeited."

The regulations as to the breaking-up of vessels condemned for smuggling were amplified. Read in their new form, they convey a sensation of ferocious solemnity. The ballast, masts, pumps, and bulk-heads were to be taken out, the decks ripped fore and aft, the beams sawn asunder, the bottom planks ripped off, the keels cut into four pieces, and the stern-posts into three. Boats condemned were to be cut through the thwarts, the hulls sawn into four parts athwartships, and the stems and sterns into two.

A scheme was brought in to stop smugglers breaking into Custom warehouses and stealing back their confiscated goods. All seized spirits were to be transferred into larger barrels. this caused the London Times to write the following on the Friday the 14th of October 1785: - 

"The Brandy Merchants Scheme has by no means put a stop to smuggling; for it is a truth that at this time there are more goods run on the coast of Cornwall and the North of Devon than ever; and the first great scheme of storing all seizures of small casks into large ones of 63 gallons each has been one great cause of this measure in smuggling, as housekeepers and small victualers used to furnish themselves at the custom house sales; but now these large casks are beyond their purses."

On the 7th of December the same paper reported that:

"By accounts from Penzance in Cornwall we are informed that smuggling in its various branches is persued on that coast with uncommon ardour. The vigilance and activity of the Revenue officers are thus eluded by the formidable crews engaged in illicit traffic; and so very much so, that it cannot be counteracted but with great danger."

Again the Times reported that in 1785 it was calculated that some 500,000 gallons of spirits or 100,000 ankers or small barrels had been landed by smugglers in Cornwall.

Wool had always been exported to Brittany by the Cornish as part of the "Trade". On Friday the 17th of June 1786 the House of Commons had a debate on the smuggling of Wool to France and Brittany. Mr Phillips moved in Committee several resolutions to prevent smuggling of wool. The Resolution then passed its first reading. In the main debate which took place on Wednesday the 29th of November 1786, one M.P. a Mr Kemp, said that: - 

 "he had attended the Committee of the House and that several instances of smuggling wool to France were stated. It had been said that the French could not work up their wool without a mixture of ours, and that the proportions are one English to Four French packs or bales; and that wool which sold in England for 7 per bale produced 18 in France and Brittany."

On the 8th of October 1787, the Times of London carried the following:

"There is a circumstance attending the smuggling of wool, which is not generally known, and which enables the French to give that enormous price for the article which must even be an inducement to illicit trade, Abberville, is a royal manufacturer. To support which, wool must be obtained from England at any price : But the loss falls not on the manufacturer; he pays but the middle current price of England; and the King, or in other words the revenue of the kingdom pays the remainder. This is a species of bounty which accounts for the avidity with which wool is smuggled from almost all the country parts of the kingdom, and the prodigous price that is afforded for it."

Six months later the matter was still being discussed with the following leader article headlined "Wool and Woolen Goods" appearing in the Times on the 17th of April 1788.

  "Although the late decrease in our exportations of woolen goods to Spain, has not been occasioned by greater quantities of our long wool being illicitly conveyed to France."


The trade did not decrease with the coming of the Napoleonic War. The French needed Cornish wool in order to produce uniforms for its troops. On  March 14th 1801, The Cornish Gazette carried the following: 


Notice of Authority

Whereas by an act of Parliament made and passed the thirty eighth year of the reign of His present Majesty, chapt. 79 intituled, An Act more effectually to prevent during the War Persons, being his Majestys Subjects, from voluntarily repairing to or remaining in France, or any Country or Place united to France, or occupied by the Armies of France, and to prevent Correspondence with such Persons and with His Majestys Enemies, it is by Sections 1 and 2, enacted as follows:

For preventing all traitorous correspondence with His Majestys enemies, be it enacted by the Kings most excellent Majesty, by and with the advise and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons in this present Parliament assembled, and by the Authority of the same, that if any person, being a subject of his Majesty, His Heirs or Successors, shall at any time during the continuance of the war, voluntarily go or repair, directly or indirectly, or embark in any vessel with intent to go or repair, directly or indirectly to France, or any country or place united to France, at the time of such Act shall be done, every such person being lawfully convicted thereof, shall be deemed and adjudged to be guilty of Felony, and shall suffer Death as in cases of Felony, without benefit of Clergy.

And That if any person, being a subject of His Majesty, His Heirs, or Successors, shall at any time during the continuance of the war, knowingly and willfully hire, let, engage, agree for, procure or furnish, or cause, or procure to be hired, let, engaged, agreed for procured or furnished, or to be concerned in the hiring, letting, engaging, agreeing for, procuring or furnishing any vessel, with intent that such person or other subject of His Majesty, His Heirs, or Successors, should therein go or repair, or embark, therein with intent to go or repair, directly or indirectly to France, or any such country  or place as aforesaid, every such person being thereof lawfully convicted, shall be transported, for any time not exceeding seven years, to such place or places as His Majesty, with the advice of His Privy Council shall direct."

                                    Customs House, London 5th February 1801.  


Even the introduction of this law seems to have little effect on the trade. The following advert appeared in the Cornwall Gazette on the 11th of April 1801.

Port of Falmouth

Sale Of Goods

By Order of the Honourable  Commissioners of His Majesty's Custom's 

On Monday the 27th day of April 1801, by 10 o'clock in the forenoon, will be exposed to public sale, at the Custom's House in the port. The following goods, Viz.

Brandy 6,324 Gall's    Geneva 2,476 Gall's

Rum 706 Gall's

For the use of Private Families only:

Wine 24 Gall's                  Salt 220lbs

Tobacco 19,801 lbs           Chocolate 6lbs

Coffee 46lbs                       Sugar 62lbs

Following the above sale.

1 Lugger cut into 3 pieces with her sails and materials.

The above goods will be set up in small lots and may be viewed and tasted the Friday and Saturday proceeding the sale.



In 1802 the limit within which ' hovering ' entailed forfeiture of vessel was made eight leagues from the coast, except between Beachy Head and the North Foreland. If at trial of case the distance were not clearly established, a verdict might still be given for the Crown if it could he proved that the ship had prohibited goods on board., Persons found signaling from the shore to smugglers were made liable to a fine of 100. Rewards on a most consoling scale were promised to informers. 'This Act (Cap. 82, 42 Geo. Ill.) applied to Great Britain only

Cap. 121, 45 Geo. 111. opened thus : 

'Whereas in defiance of the several laws of Customs and Excise great quantities of goods are illegally imported into and landed in the United Kingdom, as well by clandestine means as by open force,' 

and proceeded to extend the provisions rendering forfeitable any vessel that had on board spirits, tobacco, or tea in illegal packages. The extension applied to vessels not square-rigged, and a startling extension it was, for any such vessel owned or part owned by the king's subjects, or having on board a crew more than half of whom were the king's subjects, was made forfeitable if found within 100 leagues of the British or Irish coasts. No vessel of less than 100 tons might bring spirits or tobacco as cargo. The preventive powers previously vested in customs and excise were granted also to all commissioned officers in the army, navy, or marines. Convicted smugglers might escape the ordinary penalties by volunteering to serve five years in the army, navy, or marines.

Cap. 66, 47 Geo. III., provided that any lugger exceeding 50 tons, built in the United Kingdom, should be forfeitable. All vessels not exceeding 50 tons were to carry licences. Boats of the United Kingdom rowed with more than six oars were made forfeitable if found without licence within 100 leagues of the coast (whale-boats, ship's boats, lifeboats, revenue boats, excepted). Vessels of the United Kingdom found with contrivances for sinking, slinging, or smuggling goods within 100 leagues of the coast, were made forfeitable, and foreign vessels were made similarly liable if within the smaller limit (8 leagues, or 4 leagues between Beachy Head and the North Foreland). No vessel of the United Kingdom was to load spirits, tobacco, or snuff, in a foreign port, without licence from the Privy Council, Admiralty, or Secretary of State. It was also provided that the Board of Customs might grant special rewards to officers who detained persons found on forfeitable vessels, and secured their impressment for the army or navy. The power of granting licences to ships, boats, etc., which by an Act Of 1784 had been vested in the Admiralty, was transferred to the Customs.

In 18I7 the penalties and restrictions as to boats with more than the legal number of rowlocks, and vessels fitted for swift sailing and for smuggling, were made still more comprehensive and severe (Cap. 87, 57 Geo. III.).

In 1821 a Committee of Enquiry examined every aspect of the Customs service. It recognised the Preventive Water Guard as a major force against smuggling and recommended that it be again controlled by the Board of Customs along with the Riding officers and Revenue cruisers. On 15 January 1822 the Treasury accepted the proposal noting that the new force would be called the Coast Guard. The words Coastguard were linked in the twentieth century.

By1826, Cap. 108 dealt with the prevention of smuggling. The following offences entailed forfeiture of ship and cargo: (i) The bringing of prohibited goods by-sea within four leagues of the coast between the North Foreland and Beachy Head, and within eight leagues of any other part of the coasts of the United Kingdom. (2) The navigating of square-rigged vessels within 100 leagues of the coast with illegal-sized packages of tobacco or spirits on board. (3) The throwing overboard of goods during chase. (4) The presence within the limits of a port of a vessel found to be 'unaccountably light,' said vessel having had previously cargo or part cargo on board. Gangs of smugglers, numbering three or more, carrying firearms, were made liable to the punishment for felony, persons who assaulted revenue officers to transportation for three years. The making of collusive seizures was rendered punishable by a fine of 500.

When, in 1831, it was decided that the Board of Customs Coast Guard should replace the Coast Blockade on the whole coast the Admiralty made its own proposal. It won the right to appoint Coast Guard officers and to select boatmen from paid off naval crews, so setting the scene for the Coast Guard as a naval reserve and recruiting agency.

Yet another new preventive Act (Cap. 53) appeared in 1833, with the usual comprehensive restrictions and appalling penalties as regarded running, signalling, assembling, aiding smugglers, obstructing and assaulting officers, etc., and the usual alluring hints to intending informers. The ancient and damnable proviso (see vol. i., p. 215) reappeared - a proviso that had instigated thousands of oppressive and illegal detentions - that when vessels or goods were seized, and on trial released, and the offices were able to induce the judge who tried the case to put certificate on the record that there had been ' probable cause of seizure,' the person aggrieved should not be able, in any subsequent action taken by him for damages, to recover more than twopence, nor might the seizer be fined more than one shilling.

During 1834, by Cap. 13 of 4 and 5 Wm. IV., the practice of sending convicted smugglers to serve for five years in the navy was abolished. The pecuniary penalties prescribed for certain smuggling offences were also abolished, and justices were granted power to imprison offenders instead

Within a decade Coast Guard vigilance was praised for greatly reducing smuggling, though lower taxes helped end illegal trade. The Admiralty was already re-styling the Coast Guard with naval style uniform and drill, and training on large guns for coast defence. The Coast Guard continued to take charge at wrecks and to save lives. The Board of Trade issued life saving apparatus to Coast Guard stations, thus fulfilling its responsibility for safety at sea imposed by the 1854 Merchant Shipping Act.




    Copyright George Pritchard of Penhalvean 

Last modified: Saturday July 06, 2019 .

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