Cornwall  Smugglers


Coast Guard / Revenue / Salt Officers



Prussia Cove the home of the Carter family.

The Smugglers of Mounts Bay

For at least one hundred years every port, creek and cove from �Proustock to the Land�s End knew the trade, and, with one glorious exception, every one figures more or less often in the records of the Penzance Custom House, which, by the courtesy of the officials, I have been permitted to inspect. That one exception is Prussia Cove, the most famous of them all.

Between Penzance and Porthleven, dividing Mount�s Pay into two halves, is Cuddan Point, and immediately to the eastward of Cuddan are three small coves, now called Piskys Cove, Bessie�s Cove, and Prussia Cove. Pisky�s, too exposed and rocky for a harbour, was useful, and is famous, for its caves. Bessie�s called after Bessie Bussow, who kept the � Kiddlerwink� on the cliff which was the great resort of the smugglers, bears on its face to-day the traces of its history. A spot so sheltered and secluded that it is impossible to see what boats are in the little harbour until one literally leans over the edge of the cliff above a harbour cut out of the solid rock, and a roadway with wheel-tracks partly cut and partly worn crossing the rocks below highwater mark and climbing up the face of the cliff on either side of the cove, caves and remains of caves everywhere, some with their mouths built up, which are reputed to be connected with the house above by secret passages�these are the trademarks of Bessie�s Cove, and the world has not yet known the degree of innocence which could believe that these were made for the convenience of a few crabbers.

The eastern and the most open is Prussia Cove. Here still stands to-day the house in which John Carter, �the King of Prussia,� lived and reigned from 1770 to 1807. He was succeeded by his son-in-law, Captain Will Richards, under whom Prussia Cove maintained the reputation which the earlier generations had won, and Captain Will Richards�s son, Captain Harry, still lives in the house which his father built, on the site of Bessie Bussow�s �Kiddleywink.� Long may he yet flourish, to light and delight this decadent age with the tales of his grandfather�s glory and his father�s fame

      This Prussia Cove, first among our smuggling centres, and these heroes, John Carter, Harry his famous brother, Will Richards, � Tummells and Old Bird,� whose names and deeds of derring-do have been familiar to me from the days before I went to school, have no place in the books and reports of the Penzance Custom House. Time after time the Collector records his utter inability to cope with the coast to the east of the Mount, echoing, with plaintive appeals for soldiers and ships of war, an official version of the sailor�s litany

�From Praa sands and Breage hands,

Good Lord, deliver us!

Prussia Cove was too far from the places where his few men were stationed, and occupied by men too greatly daring and too reckless for his small force to cope with, and Prussia Cove boasts that the officers never seized but one keg there, and that was a leaky one in a pool at Fishy�s, which they smelt as they were passing by.

The history of Prussia Cove is bound up with John Carter. The very name is his. The story goes that when he was a boy, playing at soldiers with other boys, he would always claim to be the King of Prussia, and in later years for his sake the Cove lost the older name of Porthleah, and became �The King of Prussia�s Cove.�

Little doubt Porthleah was not idle. Smuggling was no novelty in 1770, when the Carters began to grow famous. As early as April 21, 1739, the Penzance Collector records the capture of eight bags of tobacco, just put out of a small boat that was observed to come from a sloop then at anchor some distance from the shore, but the boat was put off before the goods were found, and no person in possession �- quite as if it were a matter of every�day occurrence. But all the earlier history of the Cove is hidden behind the great figures of the King and his brother. This brother, Captain Harry Carter, has left his own record in the little autobiography which was so well received by the reading public when it was published four years ago. And such a man as he would give a lustre to many a worse calling. Harry spent his time at sea; John lived at the Cove, and more often managed the actual landing and disposal of the cargoes  which Harry brought. Once, when the boats were expected, a supply of provisions, beef, bread, and so on, was stored in John Carter�s shed, waiting for them, and safely under lock and key. The Custom House officers happened to pay a visit to the Cove, and, finding the shed locked, demanded to be allowed to inspect the contents. The King refused, stating that the contents were provisions for his brother�s vessel. This was more than any officer could be expected to believe: a locked outhouse at Prussia Cove was much too sure a thing, and they proceeded to break open the door, in spite of the repeated warning that they would be called upon to make good any damage and any loss which might occur through leaving valuable provisions in an unprotected shed, where any passer-by might steal them. They, however, persisted, and were bitterly disappointed to find that they had been told the merest truth. That night John Carter slept peacefully in his bed, but next morning the shed was empty, and he made those unfortunate officers pay for his lost provisions. He had no difficulty in finding them when his brother�s vessel did arrive a few days later.

Probably the most famous episode is the firing on the revenue cutter from the little battery on the point between Bessie�s and the Kings Cove. As I have heard the tale, it came about in this way. A smuggler chased by a revenue cutter, being somewhat pressed, ran through a narrow channel amongst the rocks between the Enys and the shore. The cutter, not daring to venture amongst the shoals, sent her boat in. And the King, with his merry men, opened fire on the boat. They loaded up the little guns so that every time they fired the guns kicked over completely backwards, and had to be replaced. The boat was driven back, and the cutter held off for the night. Next morning the fight was renewed, the cutter opening fire from the sea, while a company of �riders� fired from the hedge at the top of the hill on the rear of the men in the battery. This turned the tables on the smugglers, who sought shelter in Bessie Bussow�s house. The boys, of whom Will Richards was one (he died about 1855, aged eighty-five), were out behind the house; and as the cutter�s shot struck in the soft cliff, they ran with a �tubbal� and dug them out. All this time Uncle Will Leggo was ploughing in the little garden just above the house, and his old sister Nan was leading the horses. Someone went to him and suggested that it was dangerous, and he had better �leave out.� �Now theer,� said Uncle Will, �I�ve bin thinkan of Nan and the �osses this bra while,� which shows a fine contempt either for the serious intentions or for the marks�manship of H.M. seamen and the riders. The firing produced little effect, or was apparently not followed up in any way, for there the story somewhat abruptly ends.

In the days of the King the smuggling was carried on in large cutters and luggers armed with eighteen or twenty guns apiece; but at a later period it was found more convenient to use twenty-seven foot gigs and small open sailing boats. Two of the Covers, rowing home from Roscoff, went into Mullion; here they found two officers. They offered �5 to be allowed to land, but bribery was of no avail, and they had to row off for the Cove. The officers, on horseback, rode round by the cliffs to meet them. When the smugglers got near home they found a Cover in a boat hauling crab-pots. Their pursuers happened just then to be out of sight behind a headland, and the smugglers used the opportunity to change boats with their neighbour, who, with his crab-pots, got into theirs. They rowed to Prussia Cove, where the officers, who arrived shortly after, searched their boat in vain. When the coast was clear, the innocent crabber came ashore, and they helped him to land a catch which is not often taken in crab-pots.

These open-boat expeditions were an the days of Captain Will Richards. There lived with him at Bessie�s Cove an old man-of-war�s man called Hosking, and Hosking had an apprentice. He was nominally a ship�s carpenter, but that apprentice probably learnt much that wasn�t ship�s-carpenter work and little that was. One evening, while these two were rowing home from France, some one came into the house, and asked Will Richards what time he expected the boat. �With this south-east wind, they ought to be here about nine to-night,� thought Captain Will. And the newcomer then warned him that the Custom House boat had been off Cuddan all the afternoon, on the look-out for some�thing. At this time the penalty for showing a light or signal of any kind on the coast at night was �100 with the pleasant alternative of twelve months� hard labour, and yet Hosking had to be warned of his danger. Without a word, Cappen Will threw a large armful of �after-windings� (threshed straw and chaff) on his kitchen fire. The blast which roared up the chimney no doubt nearly burnt his house about his ears, but the blaze was visible many miles at sea, and Hosking saw it in good time. The cargo was safely landed, and temporarily stored in the old shaft just behind Cappen Will�s house. Next day the horses from the country were at Trenowl�s farm, on the top of the hill,  and everything ready to carry the kegs, when four Custom house men arrived at the Cove. That was an unusually idle afternoon at Bessie�s Cove. Chatting with the enemy, Cappen Will learnt that they had been sent off in such a hurry that they had neither food nor drink, and it was coming in a cold and stormy night, too. As evening closed,

Mrs. Richards made some broth for the poor fellows out there in the cold, and her good man invited them in, but thought�fully added that it wouldn�t do for all four to come in at once, in case one of their officers came along. � Oh,� said they, � no officer won�t come along to�night.� �Good,� thought Cappen Will. But all the same he pressed his advice, and two went in. After a good dish of broth and a warm grog, they relieved their companions, who were treated with the same hospitality, and even more.

These two stayed so long, the night turning still wetter and colder, that the two outside grew impatient, and went to the house to fetch their erring comrades ; but time was passing more quickly inside than out, and supper hadn�t been half finished. This happened a second time, and then Cappen Will brought out a something warm, which was good and welcome to men wait�ing out there in the rain and the dark. A third time they went to the door, and this time they too found that songs and grog before a good fire were stronger attractions than watching nobody on such a night, and they yielded to the hospitable persuasions of that merry company. Long before those four men left that kitchen the kegs were up from the old shaft, and the horses loaded and gone.

John B Cornish

Cornwall 1899.




    Copyright George Pritchard of Penhalvean 

Last modified: Saturday July 06, 2019 .

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