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Local Smugglers

The Smuggler King


There’s a brave little bark stealing out in the dark,

From her nest in the bristling bay;

The fresh breeze meets her dingy sheets,

And swiftly she darts away;

She never must run in the eyes of the sun,

But along with the owl take wing,

She must keep her flight for the moonlight night,

For she carries the Smuggler King.

A monarch is he, as proud as can be,

Of a strong and mighty band,

The bullet and blast may go whistling past,

But he quails neither heart nor hand.

He lives and dies with his fearful prize

Like a hunted wolf he’ll spring,

With trigger and dirk, to the deadliest work,

And fight like a Smugglers King.

Back from the wave, to his home in the cave,

In the sheen o’ the torches glare,

He reigns the lord of a freebooter’s board,

And never was costlier fare.

Right firm and true were the hearts of the crew,

There’s faith in the shouts that ring,

As they stave the cask, and drain the flask,

And drink to the Smuggler King.


James Dunn Captain James Dunn was a man of contradictions. He was a follower of John Wesley and yet he was also a notorious smuggler. In Truro Cathedral in Cornwall there is a window depicting John Wesley and dedicated to James Dunn and his son Samuel.Born in 1755 in Mevagissey, Dunn was the owner of several Mevagissey vessels including the Clausina and this vessel was well known for its smuggling involvement.Smuggling before 1805 was an open practice. Ships would go to Guernsey where spirits could be legally purchased in large barrels and during the return passage these barrels were then emptied into smaller ones. These were landed and distributed for sale in England.In 1799 income tax was introduced for the first time to support the war with France. This was a threat to a cash rich man such as Dunn and he went into business as a shipbuilder with Thomas Henna. They were in partnership from 1799 to 1806 and built many fine cutters for the smuggling business. These were either owned by Dunn or sold to Guernsey, Rye and elsewhere. When the partnership broke up, Dunn continued as shipbuilder until his death in 1842. 




John ‘Red Shirt’ Corlyons
It seems that everyone except the Preventive men stationed at Coverack knew when the Corlyons’ boat was due to arrive. During the periods when John Corlyons was at home or moving around the village, he always wore a bright red shirt which, when he set off on one of his exploits across the channel, his wife would wash and hang it on the clothes line up on the Battery behind the house when he was due back. The shirt could be clearly seen from a long way out at sea and the arrangement was that, as long as the shirt flew from the clothes line there was no danger in the area. If there were any Preventive men moving around the Coverack boundaries at the time when her husband was due to return, she, having been warned by the locals, would take the shirt off the line. If Corlyons returned at this time and saw no shirt flying he would stay at sea until all was clear.
The information system was well run and any move by the Customs Officers was rapidly relayed to John Corlyons’s wife, despite a law that no-one should give any signal from the coastline to approaching smuggling craft the usual thing was the lighting of a fire on the cliff top. In Corlyons’s case however, although the officers might have been highly suspicious, they could hardly issue a summons for someone NOT showing a signal. The red shirt on the battery was also a sign to the land based members of his smuggling operation to get ready to unload the ship... What explanation was given for hanging out a red shirt to dry when it was raining at the time of the intended landing has not become part of Coverack folklore!
Over several years Corlyons was successful in avoiding all the efforts of the Customs and Excise authorities to prove a case against him, but the time came when he was captured and imprisoned in the dungeons on St. Michael’s Mount in Mounts Bay, near Penzance. Ever resourceful, he managed to escape one night, but in doing so, fell over the rocks and broke an ankle. Although in great pain, he made valiant efforts to reach the mainland. His dread of being handed over to the navy press gangs as punishment and being subjected to the floggings and the bad food of the time, spurred him on to try and swim from the island to the mainland, but the alarm was raised and he was recaptured.
There are no records to show what subsequently happened to John Corlyons and it has even been speculated that he was sentenced to do time in the Navy and actually survived his period and returned home. However, as he was only 32 years old when he was drowned and buried in St. Keverne churchyard in 1800, it is equally possible that he was drowned during his attempted escape from St. Michael’s Mount.


Harry Carter

Harry Carter was born in 1749, in Pengersick, the Parish of Breage, West Cornwall. His father was a miner and he was one of ten children. He started his working life at the age of 9 in the mines and carried on until he was 17. He soon realised that his older brothers were making a better living fishing, but mostly smuggling. He worked a smuggling sloop around Guernsey, Roskoff and St Malo on the French coast. He mainly worked from Prussia Cove.
His most famous vessel was a cutter called The Black Prince; unfortunately, he lost her to a naval vessel called The Three Brothers. He was detained but eventually released as the authorities could not prove he was either a pirate or a smuggler, they kept his boat however. While anchored just outside Newlyn, in the bay, he received information from a St Ives lugger that his boat was reregistered to a privateer in Dunkirk. As luck would have it this privateer was spotted off St Ives not long after that and Harry gave chase and managed to reclaim his boat just outside the estuary opening into Padstow.

Harry was married in April 1786 to Elizabeth Flindel of Helford near Falmouth. In January 1788 Harry Carter very nearly lost his life, indeed by playing dead he probably saved his life. He was smuggling goods into Cawsand, which sadly today no longer exists, due to erosion it has fallen into the sea. He and his crew were outgunned and outmanned by the Revenue men. When they came across his body on the deck they assumed he was dead, but before they could take him below the cutter they captured broke free and during the commotion Harry threw himself overboard and swam ashore where he was rescued by his brother, Charles.
He was taken to Acton Castle, Kenegie to rest and heal from his wounds. As he was now being hunted he said goodbye to his wife and daughter and sailed via Barcelona to New York carrying brandy. He worked among the slaves as a labourer on Long Island. After two years he returned illicitly to Cove Bay but he was scared that he would be handed over to the authorities.

In December 1792 the war between England and France was imminent so Harry made his way to Coverack where he embarked onboard Captain R. Johns’ boat for Roskoff.
He had a house in Roskoff, where he stayed while he sent most of his possessions to Guernsey for safekeeping and sold the rest. War was finally declared at the end of March1793 and Harry was put under house arrest in Morlaix along with a few other Englishmen. It was during this period of time that Harry lost a great deal of his French friends to “Madame la Guillotine” So as soon as he could he arranged a boat to take not only the English but as many of his French friends as possible out of France and back to Cornwall. After hiding in Le Gullet, the channel outside of Brest, for 9 days waiting for the winds to drop they finally got away and arrived in Falmouth on the 22nd August 1795. He met up with his daughter Betsy, who was being raised by her Aunt and was now 8 years old. Harry settled in Breage at his older brother’s house and raised Betsy until his death in 1809.


The Quick Witted Tailor

 One cold mid-wint6er day, Lewis Grenfell and a cpompanion were removing a cask of Brandy from one of the mine tunnels, which formed a favourite hiding place for smuggled goods in this district. They had only just brought out the cask when as luck had it an exciseman was seen approaching.  The tailor's companion took to his heel;s and hid in a furze bush near to hand, leaving Grenfell to face the situation as best he could. He answered the Exciseman's questions and admitted his guilt, indeed with the cask right next to him he had no choice, but pleaded in extenuation his extreme poverty and the needs of a large family and a sick wife. Finding that pathos produced no effect on the exiceseman he begged that he may be allowed a quick sip of the brandy to warm his chilled bones as he was visibly shaking as he stood.  To this the officer agreed and handed him a gimlet with which to make a hole in the cask. The tailor's hands were numb however and because he was taking so long the exciseman, who also was vquite ready for a drink, jumped down off his horse, and handing the reins to Grenfell, began opening the cask himself. Hardly had he begun when the tailor saw his chance and leapt onto the horse and galloped off.

The exciseman gave chase and as soon as the two were out of sight the tailor's comapnion came out of his nearby hiding space and secured the cask...which needless to say the exciseman never saw again!


George Michell

One day George drove up to the door of the Angel Hotel in Helston in a spring cart, the back of which was closely covered with a sheet of tarpaulin.

"What do 'e 'ave in there?" asked the landlady.  "Silk m'dear do 'ee want to buy any?"

"Hush" replied the landlady, "I thought as much and what's more others around here know it also. There is a party of sarchers in the bar waiting for 'e right now. They'll be out any minute what are 'e goin' to do?"

Without a word the man jumped down from his cart and threw the reins to his son and told him to drive the cart into the back yard of the Inn. Proceeding himself towards the bar, he greeted the exciseman with a friendly nod.

" Cold day gentlemen" he remarked" What about a drink all round?" The excisemen having their man in their sights willingly agreed.

" I expect you found the wind pretty cold crossing Goonhilly Downs this morning" said the officer with a knowing glance, " You come from St.Keverne I believe, do you know if there has been much smuggling out there recently?"

"Aw ais pretty fair I believe" replied the other, "and there'd be plenty more if you damn fellows weren't so smart. No good for the poor smugglers to try and fool you, you can see through their tricks everytime. It beats me 'ow 'e do knaw so much".

Between drinking and chatting Michell managed to spin out a considerable amount of time. Suddenly there was a sound of a cart and horses hooves in the back yard of the Inn, the Exciseman flew to the window only to see an old horse drawn hearse leaving the yard.

"Only a pauper's funeral" he remarked, as he rejoined the others by the fire. They finished their drinks nad then rose with an official air the exciseman placed his hat on his head and said, " George Michell, for I believe that to be your name,I have a warrant here to search you and your cart in which you drove up just now. I must ask you to accompany me into the yard".

They marched him to his cart and lifted the tarpaulin, only to disclose to the sarcher's gaze the usual market produce, several baskets of eggs, a few chickens and some butter.

"Well if that is all friends?" said Michell replacing the tarpaulin, " I have business to get back to and I expect you have yours!"


The First and Last Smugglers


The inn  at Sennen described as being "the resort of all the idle blackguards in the county" was one of the centres of the trade and in 1805 was the scene of a violence. A very valuable cargo had just been landed consisting of one thousand gallons of Brandy, one thousand gallons of Rum, one thousand gallons of Geneva and 500 pounds of tobacco. The excise men had appeared and seixed the cargo. Quickly a crowd of several hundred gathered and a battle with the excise men took place.  At the subsequent trial one Joseph Pollard a well known smuggler and part owner of the goods, was charged with inciting the crowds.  The chief witness for the Crown was Anne George, a notorious informer, whose husband had at one time been the landlord of the Sennen Inn. The pair had acted as agents in the smuggling business for these profitable ventures. They had then tried to blackmail Pollard by charging him rent for storage as well as their fee.  He had retalliated by throwing them out of the Inn, which led to them informing against him , which in turn led to him be sent down and serving a long term of imprisonment.  Several other people suffered the same fate as a result of their evidence.  However Anne George was so malicious that little credence could be given to her statements and in the present case Pollard was aquitted.

A.K. Hamilton Jenkin Cornwall and Its People 1970.


Ghosts and Ghouls


The secretive nature of smuggling makes it a rich source of scary tales. Often of course, stories of ghosts and ghouls were simply invented by the smugglers to frighten off the over-inquisitive from houses and pubs where contraband was stored, but something invented initially for effect soon took on a life of its own as it was told and re-told down the generations. 

Smugglers were always superstitious, and believed that the phantoms of their drowned or hanged comrades would always haunt the river, the beach and the cliffs. It was held to be unlucky for one smuggler to see the ghost of another and even more unlucky to have one speak to you.  Sailors disliked walking at night near the rocks or beach that had been the scene of a shipwreck, as they are supposed to be visited by the ghosts of the men who manned the doomed vessels.

Certainly no 18th century Cornish smuggler earned greater notoriety than Cruel Coppinger, the Dane and a number of authors including the Rev R S Hawker (Former Men in Far Cornwall) and William Bottrell (Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall) have recounted the following tale; The most noted and daring Cornish smuggler was a Dane called Coppinger, who lived on the North coast near Hartland Bay. Coppinger was said to have swum ashore in Hartland Bay in the prime of life and in the middle of a frightful storm from a foreign-rigged vessel which disappeared.
Tradition says that he wrapped himself in a cloak torn off the shoulders of a woman and was taken by a farmer's daughter, who had come to see the wreck, to her father's house where Coppinger was fed and clothed.
He was a fine, handsome looking man and made out he was well-connected at home. He won the young girl's affections and they were married after her father died a short time later. The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould writes that,” Coppinger was one of the most terrible men on the North Cornish coast and where he lived with his wife, an heiress. The bed is still shown with its posts to which he tied his wife and thrashed her until she made over her little fortune to his exclusive use. Needless to say their marriage turned out not to be happy and they had but one child who inherited his father's cruel disposition and who delighted in torturing all living things. It is said the boy cunningly killed one of his playmates.”

Coppinger organized a band of smugglers and made himself their captain. He quickly became known as 'Cruel Coppinger.'
One legend says that he and his men led a Revenue cutter into a dangerous cove, of which he alone knew the soundings, and that he and his crew came out safely but all on board the other vessel perished.  Coppinger's ship was called 'The Black Prince' and that any man who crossed Coppinger's path on land was carried on board and compelled to enrol in her crew.
A testament from a ninety-seven year old man corroborates this tale, saying he was so abducted as a youth and was finally ransomed for a large sum paid by his friends after two years service, all because the young man saw Coppinger kill another and thought the youth might talk to the authorities.
Coppinger is said to have had a wonderfully fleet horse that only he could master and he escaped by a hair's breadth on this horse on more than one occasion. There is a marvellous account of Coppinger's end in which he disappears as he came, in a vessel which he boards during a storm of thunder, lightning, and hail. As soon as he was in her, the ship was out of sight like a spectre or a ghost:

Will you hear of the cruel Coppinger?
He came from a foreign kind;
He was brought to us from the salt water,
He was carried away by the wind.

One thing certain about the man is that he amassed wealth enough by smuggling to buy a small freehold estate near the sea, the title-deeds signed by him still exist, but he is said to have been reduced to poverty in his old age and subsisted on charity.
Coppinger had a small estate at Roscoff, in Brittany, which was his smuggling headquarters during the European war. The British government paid him to carry dispatches to and from the French coast, but he took advantage of his credentials as a Government agent to deal in as much contraband himself as possible.


Telling the tale of Coppinger would not be to the advantage of any smuggler, but tales of ghosts and ghouls were often invented in order to scare the excisemen off.  The smugglers often let it be known, for example, that a lonely house on the cliff or the marshes was haunted; or they said that a man in a certain cottage was ill with the smallpox, or that a certain Inn was bewitched, and naturally everyone would avoid it, giving the smugglers plenty of chance to stow their cargo without interruption.  Houses and pubs with hidden rooms, cellars and secret passages were bound to generate spooky stories.

Builders unearth 200-year-old smuggling network in Cornish pub

“Where there's tax there's smuggling” And this was as much a fact two centuries ago as it is today. However, whereas today's smugglers have a whole network of computerised material to assist them, the 19th-century smugglers were slightly more basic, as a network of tunnels discovered recently in Penzance attests. The labyrinthine structure - thought to have been used by smugglers 200 years ago - was found when builders who were renovating a waterfront warehouse in Penzance discovered a series of escape hatches leading under the floor.















Pirates of Penzance: One of the tunnels at the Abbey warehouse leading to the Admiral Benbow in Penzance which was used by smugglers to evade tax on the grog they were transporting

A pair of 2ft sq holes was found with access to two tunnels snaking under the roads - to a pub 300 yards away. The historic escape routes were found by workmen who are renovating the Abbey Warehouse in the harbour area. The narrow uphill tunnels are thought to lead to the nearby Admiral Benbow pub in Chapel Street, which was a location popular with smugglers such as the Benbow Brandy Men in the 19th Century. These men were known to have used tunnels to sneak brandy, gin and tobacco from the harbour under the noses of excise men. There is even a spy hole in the tunnel so the smugglers could be warned if tax men had come into the pub looking for them.

But the tunnels are no use to current pub-goers. The Admiral Benbow’s landlord Alan Marsh added: "Smugglers today wouldn't get far in the tunnel. It has been bricked up for years and I'm told parts may have collapsed when work was done on the street." Mr. Marsh said it was a lovely piece of Cornish legend: "People do love the old stories of the smugglers and we get a lot of interest from visitors”.

Though Cornish history abounds with romantic tales of smugglers, local historian Ann Stone said that,

“It was an activity borne out of financial necessity for many. In the 18th century, a lot of men who got involved in smuggling were farm labourers or working in the fishing industry. Times were very hard and most of them did it to alleviate the poverty of day-to-day life and to supplement their income.  Over the years, smuggling has become so romanticised but people do not realise how hard the times were and that many people did it just to make ends meet."


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