Cornwall  Smugglers


Coast Guard / Revenue / Salt Officers



The Smugglers of Penrose

Written By William Bottrell in 1873

Penrose Manor today

In winters tedious nights, sit by the fire

With good old folks; and let them tell thee tales

Of woeful ages long ago betide.

King Richard II

WHAT remains of the old mansion of Penrose, in Sennen, (Cornwall) stands on a low and lonely site at the head of a narrow valley; through which a mill-brook winds, with many abrupt turns, for about three miles, thence to Penberth Cove. So late as forty years ago, it was one of those antique, mysterious looking buildings, which most regard with a degree of interest that no modern structure inspires; the upper story onlywith its mullioned windows, pointed gables, and massive chimney-stackswas just seen over the ivey-covered walls of courts and gardens that surrounded it.

There was, however, a certain gloomy air about the ruinous walls and neglected gardens embowered in aged trees, which might have conduced to such unaccountable stories of apparitions and other unnatural occurrences, as were said to have taken place there.

Some three or four centuries ago, it was the property and residence of an ancient family of the same name; little more is known of these old Penroses than what can be gathered from wild traditions related by the winters hearth. The following among many others were often recounted by old folks of the West.

About three hundred years ago, the owner of Penrose was a younger son who had been brought up to a Seafaring life, which he continued to follow till his elder brothers died unmarried and left him heir to the family estate; then, preferring a life on the wave, he kept a well-armed, fast-sailing, craft for fair-trailing, or what is now called smuggling; she was manned with us brave a crew as could be picked out of the West Country; most of them are said to have been the Squires poor relations. A favourite cousin, called William Penrosewho had been his shipmate for yearswas captain of the merry men all.

The Squire often took trips to France and other places, whence his goods were bought, and it is said that in his days Penrose crew were never concerned in any piratical jobs; though we know that about that time smuggler, privateer, and pirate, meant very much the same thing, whilst the two latter were then convertible terms with most of our rovers on the deep.

Penrose and his seamen passed little time on shore except in the depth of winter; yet the board in his hall was always furnished with good substantial fare and the beet of liquors, free for all comers.

Over a few years, when the good man was left a widower, with an only childa boy about seven or eighthe seemed to dislike the very sight of land, for then, even i winter, with his little son, his cousin William, and two or three old sailors, he would stay out at sea for weeks together; leaving, as usual, the care of his farms and household to the care of a younger brother and an old reve or bailif.

In returning from one of these trips, in a dark winters night, their boat struck on Cowloe and became a wreck. The Squire swam into Sennen Cove with his boy, and in endeavouring to save his crow got drowned himself.

The only remaining brother, known as Jan of Penrose, constituted himself sole guardian of the heir, and master of the place and property

Now this Jan hated all whom his late brother favoured; and in consequence of his ill-will William Penrose left the West Countryfor the sea it was supposed but whither he wandered was unknown, as no tidings of him were received in the West.

The new master, however, soon got a large smuggling craft and manned her with crew who cared but little what they did for gold or an exciting life; being well-armed they feared nothing that sailed the ocean.

Jan of Penrose never went to sea; but gave the command to a wretchknown to have been a piratewho was cast on Gwenvor sands from his ship wrecked in Whitsand Bay, on the night that the good Squire Penrose wae drowned.

This pirate-smuggler and his desperate crew boarded many a rich merchant-man going up Channel, from which they appropriated whatsoever they pleased, and sent all who opposed them to the other world by water.

There wee no Preventive Service then, to be any check on our free trade. If Revenue Cutters came near our western land, their crews dreaded to fall in with Cornish fair-traders more than our smugglers feared the Kings men. As for riding officers they would ride anywhere else rather than on the cliff, when beacon fires blazed from the cairns of dark nights to guide fair-traders boats into the coves.

When the rich goods and plunder were landed, and any over-curious person remarked that they were not such as seemed likely to have been purchased from our neighbours across the Channel, the jolly crew would give themselves credit for being valiant privateers, and as such be much renowned by simple folks, and their plunder passed as lawful prize.

People came from all over the country to purchase the goods, stowed in vaults and other hiding places about Penrose; and in winter the crew spent much of their time there in drunken rioting with all the wreckers of the neighbourhood.

After the good Squire was drowned his brother appeared to show every kindness, to the orphan heir; yet it was remarked that the child seemed instinctively to avoid his uncle and the cajptain, who consorted much together when the smugglers were ashore.

Whenever the boy could elude the old stewards vigilance he would go away alone to the rocks in Sennen Cove where his father was drowned, or shut himself up for hours in his father. bed-room, or wander about other parts of the gloomy north wing, which was almost in ruins and seldom entered by other inmates.

One winters day, the ground being covered with snow, Penrose, people and many others of the neighbourhood joined for a wolf-hunt. Traditions say that in those times terrible havoc was often made on flocks by these fierce beasts, and that children were sometimes carried off by them when hard pressed with hunger.

Neither John Penrose nor the captain went to the chase; when at night the game-laden hunters returned and blew their bugle-horns, they remarked with surprise that the young heir who was a general favouritedid not, as was his wont, come into the court to meet them. The boy was sought for in every place whither it was thought he might have strayed. His uncle seemed to be much distressed, and continued the fruitless, search until it was surmised that the child must have missed his way in returning from Sennen Cove, wandered out under Escols Cliff; there got drowned by the flowing tide, and carried out to sea on the ebb.

After this, Jan of Penrose, having all his own, became more riotously debauched than ever; and his gang having taken a somewhat strange aversion to their captain, he left and was no more seen in the West.

The tapestry chamber and all the northern wing was shut up, or unoccupied, as it had the reputation of being haunted. None of the servants nor even the devil-may-care smugglers would venture into it after night-fall, when unearthly shrieks would be heard there, and strange light, seen flashing through the casements till near morning. Lights were also often seen in an orchard just below the town-place when no one was there.

Thus unnatural occurrences, however, put no check to the excesses of Penrose band and the lawless castaways who joined thern. By way of variety to their fun, they frequently disguised themselves and made nocturnal excursions to some village within a few miles, whore they would alarm the quiet folks in the dead of night, by discharging their firearms in a volley; and make a bonfire of a furze-rick, out-house, or thatched dwelling.

The poor villagers in their fright, would mistake these wretches for outlandish people, come again to burn and pillage as in days of yore.

They were all the more ready to think so because about this time the Spaniards had great fondness for roving round the western coasts, and often did much damage in defence less places; it was in Jan Penroses time, too, that a few Dons, high by day, put off from a galley in Whitsand Bay, landed on Gwenvor Sands, and destroyed Velan-dreath Mill. To return to Penrose crew, at the height of the fright and confusion they would carry off such young women as they had before agreed on; the gallants would take their fair-ones before them on horseback to Escols Cliff or the hills, where they would be left alone by daybreak, to find their way back afoot. having carried on this sport a long time with impunity, they become so bold at last as to make an attack on Buryan Church-town; fortunately, however, Buryan men were apprised of their intentions in time to be armed and ready to give them a warm reception; in short they lay in wait for the smugglers, drove them all into a vacant place near the cross in Church-town, and there surrounded them; when thus hemmed in the band fought desperately, and till nearly every man of them warn killed or disabled they continued shouting to each other, cheer up comrades, die one, die all, and die we merrily; and so many of them met their end in this encounter that Penrose band was soon after broken up.

One night of the following Christmas, whilst a large company was assembled at Penrose, keeping high festival after a days hunt, loud knocking was heard at the green-court door, and soon after a servant conducted into the hall an elderly wayfaring man who requested a nights shelter from the snowstorm

John Penrose received the wanderer with hospitable courtesy; his steward, the old reve, to provide him with good cheer; The guests continued their glee and paid but little attention to him, for begging homeless pilgrims were all too plenty here at that time.

The company was also entertained by professional droll-tellers and ballad-singers; persons of that class were thenand long after continued to be received, as substitutes for minstrels, in gentlemens houses of the humbler sort.

The stranger, however, regarded the company with attention, and noticed that the master of Penrose looked wretched and haggard amidst all the merriment. His scrutiny was interrupted by the steward who conducted him to another room where a well furnished board, beside a blazing fire, awaited him.

The stranger having refreshed himself, told the old steward how he had just returned from a long pilgrimage in foreign lands, and had seen many places spoken of in miracle-plays, which were acted in the Plan-an-Gware at St. Just, and how he had that morning arrived at Market-jew on board an eastern ship that traded there for tin.

He also said that he once had friends in the West Country; whether they were alive or dead he knew not, but hoped to obtain some tidings of them on the morrow.

The wanderers voice seemed familiar to the old steward, and recalled former time but, ere they had time for more discourse, they were invited to return to the ball and see a guise-dance, which was about to commence.

The stranger seemed interested in the quaint performance of St. George and the Turkish Knight. A droll-teller in his character of bard, took the part of chorus; explained the intent of coming scenes; instructed and prompted the actors as well.

The play being concluded and the guisards well rewarded by the wayfarer, he withdrew and told the steward that he felt weary after his long walk though the snow and would be glad to lie down; if all the beds were occupied, he could repose, be said, in a settle by the fireside, for a few hours only, as he intended to leave early in the morning.

The old man replied that he feared any other accommodation in his power to offer was not such as he might desire,although the house was large, with ample bed-rooms for more guests than it now containedbecause a great part of the northern end was shut up for a reason that the inmates did not like to talk about. Yet as he believed the pilgrim to be a prudent man, who was, no doubt, learned in ghostly matters, he was glad to unburden his own mind and have his visitors councel, with his prayers for the of the unquiet spirits that disturbed the place he told how many of the upper rooms, though well furnished, were unused and fulling to ruin on account of the unnatural sounds and sights before mentioned. To which the stranger answered that he had a mind at ease he had no reason to dread any ghostly visitants; if the steward would conduct him to a room in the haunted wing he did not fear for his rest.

The old steward, taking a lamp, lad the way to the tapestry chamberbeing the best room in that part of the mansion. A faggot of  dry ash-woodalready laid in the large open fire-placewas soon in a blaze, and the room well aired and somewhat comfortable.

The old man brought in bread, meat, and wine, that the guest might take more refreshment during the night, and supply his wallet in the morning if he started before breakfast. After returning with more wood and bog-turf to keep in the fire, he bade the guest good-night, sweet rest, and pleasant dreams

After the old steward had retired from the dreaded room, its occupant was in no haste to rest himself on the large stately looking bed; but seemed never weary of examining the old portraits and quaint liguree in the arms (which might have been intended for portraits too), the massive oak furniture with bold, grotesque, carvings, ancient armour, coats of mail, and other interesting objects, which were suspended from the walls, or in hanging presses with all of which he appeared familiar; so that it was near midnight when he sat down in the long window-seat.

The storm had ceased and a full moon, shining on newly fallen snow, made it almost as light as day. He opened the casement and looked into the court, where he saw a company of young men and women passing out singly and in silence.

The visitor, being well acquainted with West Country customs knew as this was twelfth night that the object of this silent procession was to work some of the many spells, usually practised at this time, for the purpose of gaining a knowledge of their future destiny with respect to what they regarded as the most important of all events - marriage and death.

So great was the desire of many young People to obtain an insight of what the future had in store for them, that they often practised singular rites,-still well-known in the West,-which are probably vestiges of ancient magian ceremonials connected with divination.

This night, however, the young peoples intention was simply to gather ivy leaves and pull rushes; by the aid of which, with fire and water, they hoped to discover who would be wedded, and with whom, or buried before the new year was ended. There are many instances of predictions, with regard to the latter event, conducing to accomplish their own fulfilment, from their effects on people of melancholy temperament.

The pilgrim had not sat long, looking out of the open casement, when he saw the company of young men and maidens come running back, apparently in great fright. The doors were all immediately slummed to, the noisy mirth and music suddenly ceased in the hail. The house, in a few moments, was shrouded in thick fog; all was still as death about the place for some minutes, then a noise was heard like the distant roaring and moaning of the sea in a storm.

These ocean sounds seemed to approach nearer and nearer every instant, until the waves were heard as if breaking and surging around the house. In the wailing wind was heard a noise of oars rattling in their rowlocks for another instant; then as of the casting of oars hastily into a boat.

This was followed by the hollow voices of the smugglers, drowned with the old Squire, hailing their own names, as drowned mens ghosts are said to do when they want the assistance of the living to procure them rest. All this time the green-court appeared as if filled with the sea, and one could hear the breakers roaring as when standing on a cliff in a storm. All the buildings and trees surrounding the mansion disappeared as if sunk into the ground. At length the surging of waves and other sounds gradually died away until they were only heard like the calling of cleaves before a tempest.

The steward had told the stranger of these noises and appearances, which had become frequent of late, to the great terror of the household; but he gave little heed to the old mans tales, thinking that such visions were merely the creations of weak brains diseased by strong potions

Tis said that when the young folks reached the outer gate of the avenue, near which they would find the plants required for their spells, all keeping silence and taking care not to look behind themas this or speaking would spoil the charma female, who was a short distance ahead of the others, saw what appeared to be the sea coming over the moors before a driving fog. She ran shrieking to join her companions, who also beheld the waves fast approachingrolling, curling, and breaking on the heath. They all ran into the house with their utmost speed; and some who had the courage to look behind them, when near the court door, saw the curling breakers within a few yards of them; and a boat, manned with a ghostly crew, came out of the driving mist as they rushed into the house; and, not daring to look out, they saw nothing more.

The weary wayfaring man, having a clear conscience, feared nothing evil in what appeared to him an unaccountable mystery, even in that time of marvels; and, having told his beads, he committed himself to good spirits care.

The brave man was rather soothed than alarmed by a plaintive melody, until there was a change in the harmonious strains, which grew more distinct; and mingled with them were the tones of loved and once familiar voices, calling, William Penrose, arise and avenge the murder of thy cousins son!

Casting a glance towards the windowwhence the sound proceededhe saw just within it the apparition of a beautiful boy in white raiment. A light which surrounded it showed the countenance of the lost heir of Penrose. At the same time the room was filled with an odour like that of sweet spring flowers.

The pilgrim, William Penrose, spoke to the spirit and conjured it, according to the form prescribed by Holy Church, to speak and say what he should do to give it rest. The apparition, coming nearer, told how ho had been murdered by the pirate-captain of the smugglers, on the grand hunting day; and how his uncle had given the pirate a great quantity of gold to do the bloody deedthat he had been buried in the orchard under an apple-tree, that would be known, even in winter, by its blasted appearance,that the murderer was then in Plymouth, keeping a public-house, the situation of which was so plainly described by the spirit that William Penrose would have no difficulty in finding it, and bringing the murderer to justice by means of such proofs of his crime as would be found beneath the blasted tree. Moreover he told William that the spirits knew he was gone on a pilgrimage for their repose; and that they all, through him, sought his aid to enable them to rest in peace.

William Penrose having promised to perform all according to the wishes of the departed, music was again heard and the spirit gradually disappeared in a cloud of light.

Then the weary man sunk into sound repose from which ho only awoke at break of day.

His cousin, the good Squire, had also appeared to him in a dream, and told him that concealed in the wainscot, beneath a certain piece of tapestry, he would find a secret cabinet, in which was preserved good store of gold and jewels for the infant heir; and that the key of this hidden treasury was behind a leaf of carved foliage which ornamented the bed head. He was told to take what money lie required for his journey and to keep the key.

He found everything as indicated in his dream. Jan of Penrose had often sought for this private recess where heir-looms and other valuables were concealed, and only made known to the heir when of age, or to a trusty guardian, if a minorbut he was deterred from further search by such an apparition as made him avoid the chamber, and of which he would never speak after his fearful fright was past.

The pilgrim arose and requested the old steward to accompany him a short distance on his Journey. Before they parted the stranger discovered himself, to the old mans great delight, to be the long-lamented William and told him that he was about to undertake a long journey for the repose of the dead; that he would return when he had accomplished his mission; and bade the steward adieu, without speaking of the apparition or the cause of disturbances in the mansion.

William Penrose, having arrived in the ancient town of Plymouth, and entered the mean public-house to which he had been directed by the apparition, saw the person he sought lying stretched by the fireside in a squalid apartment that served for kitchen, guestchamber, and sleeping room.

The former pirate-captain looked like a deserter from the churchyard (as we say); the face of this child-murderer was the colour of one long in the tomb; with but little signs of life except in the lurid glare of his sunken eyes.

William Penrose with much difficulty induced the wisht looking object to converse; and, after a while, led him to talk of the West Country, then of Sennen. From that the pilgrim spoke of Penrose, and asked him if he knew, in Penrose orchard, a certain apple-tree, which he pointly described. He had no sooner mentioned it than the inn-keeper exclaimed, I am a dead man. 

The miserable wretch begged the pilgrim to have mercy on him and listen to his confession, in which he declared he was driven to commit the murder by his evil spirit that made him dislike the child, because he had long hated his parents, more than from any love of gold given him by Jan of Penrose, to remove the only obstacle to his possession of the estate.

William Penrosewho was still unknown to the inn-keeper wondered what cause of ill-will he could ever have had against the good old Squire or his wife, until the former Pirate told how he was the prodigal sonlong supposed deadof an ancient, respectable, but poor family, whose ancestral seat was within a few miles of Penrosehow, almost from his childhood, he had long and truly loved, and as ho trusted, had his love returned by the lady who became the wife of Squire Penrose,how that he had left his home in St. Just on a desperate privateering expedition in hopes of soon gaining sufficient riches to make the ladys parents regard him with favour,how, whilst he was returning with gold enough to buy the parish, Penrose had wooed and won the ladyhis first and only love, for whom he had toiled and suffered every hardship during many years 

He also related how when he came home so altered, by the burning suns of the Spanish Main, that his nearest relatives knew him not, and found out the ill return his lady-love had made him, that his only solace was the hope of revenge.

Some of the gold that he had sweat blood to gain, for the sake of the faithless fair, was laid out in a fast sailing craft, which might pass for a merchantman, privateer, or pirate, as she was all in turn during a few years that he roamed the British seas. The vessel was manned with a desperate crew, most of them his old comrades, who would do anything to please him. The design he had formed, more through hate than love, was to carry the lady off to some foreign land.

A year or so after his return he lauded one night in Whitsand Bay, accompanied by a great part of his well-armed crew, who took their way towards Penrose, where he learned ere their arrival, that his design of carrying off the lady was frustrated by her having been laid in the grave a few days before. After this he wandered over sea and land by turns, caring nothing what became of him, until cast on Gwenvor Sands poor and naked, as his ship foundered in deep water, when all but himself were drowned; and, as bad luck would have it, he reached the shore on some loose part of the wreck.

The worst portion of his story from this time is already told; but no one can tell, as ho related, how the desire of goldto enable him to recommence his roving life, far away from the hated sight of the land and everything else that recalled a remembrance of his blighted youthful hopesmaddening drink, and a wicked heart, farther irritated by Jan Penrose, made him murder the child that he would have given a hundred lives to restore before he received the uncles bloody gold. Since then he had never a moment been free from remorse. He wished for death, but feared to die. If he drank himself mad, that only increased the horror of his thoughts 

He had scarcely finished his sad tale when William Penrose discovered himself to be the well-remembered playmate of the wretched mans innocent youth; and he had only time to beg Penrose to bestow in alms his ill-got store, for the scarcely hoped for mitigation of future punishment, when he breathed his last

When William Penrose returned to Penrose and made himself known, to the great joy of old servants and others, he found that what was thought to be merely the gloomy and morose temper of its master frequently made him shun all society, an to wander about the hills or cliffs and other solitary places, for days and nights together.

No one either loved, feared, or cared enough about the surly man to pay him any regard. He was absent then in one of his melancholy moods, and William with the steward, aided by other old trusty servants, removed the childe remains from beneath the blasted tree to Sennen churchyard; and out of respect to the honourable old family, little was said or known about the sad occurrence.

Jan of Penrose was no more seen alive in the old mansion, for the same night that his nephews remains were buried in consecrated ground, he hanged himself in the malt-house; and he haunted it long after.

Following the spirits injunction William Penrose had still to find and remove the bodies of the old Squire and his crew. Now it was supposed that they were sanded that is sunk in the moist sand and covered by it during a flowing tidenear Gwenvor Cove, because corpse-lights had frequently been seen, and the drowned sailors had been heard there hailing there own names, as they are still accustomed to do when requiring aid of the living

Next day Penrose and others found the bodies of the old sailor-squire and his crew near the place where fishermen had heard the calling of this dead, and their remains were laid to repose, with all holy rites, in an ancient burying-ground. near Chapel Idn, whore the wind and. waves sing their everlasting requiem in music they loved well when alive

Pie Join, Domine,

Dons cia requiem.



Notes By W. Bottrall  c.1873 

1. William Penrose, now heir-at-law of the bartons of Penrose, Brew, and other farms in the West Country,disliking to live in the place connected with such melancholy eventsgave up his rights of heirship to another branch of the family; resumed his pilgrims staff; and was supposed to have died in the Holy Land.

2. The Penroses still in the West are said to be descended from a younger branch of the ancient family of Sennen; with whom the Pendreas or Pendars were intermarried.

3, The family of Jones purchased the Penroses West Country property, and it remained in their possession until the beginning of the last century i.e. 18th century

    Copyright George Pritchard of Penhalvean 

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