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Gang Warfare


During the Napoleonic Wars, the latter half of the 18th Century was very much the Golden Age of smuggling. In 1778 Mr Edward Giddy of Tredrea Farm, in Cornwall wrote to the chief custom officer.

“In the western part of this county, smuggling, since the troops have been drawn off, has been carried on almost without control.  Irish wherries, carrying fourteen, sixteen or more guns and well manned frequently land large quantities of goods in defiance of the officers of the customs and excise and their crews armed with swords and pistols, escort the smugglers a considerable distance from the sea.  In this way goods are carried from one part of the country to another almost every night.  About a fortnight ago a large Irish wherry landed, according to the best information I can obtain, from fifteen hundred to two thousand ankers of spirit (containing 9-10 gallons on an average), about twenty tons of tea, and other kinds of smuggled goods on a sandy beach in Mounts Bay between Penzance and Marazion.  This beach lies near a public road, which whilst the goods were discharging was filled with armed men, in order to stop every traveller in whom they could not confide, till the goods were safely lodged in the country.

A few days after, two officers got information that a considerable amount of smuggled goods was concealed in the house of a very well known smuggler.  They obtained from me a search warrant, but were forcibly hindered from executing it by four men; one armed with a pistol and large whip the others with large sticks and bludgeons. They were told if they persisted they would have their brains blown out.  As the law now stands I fear that a criminal prosecution would be useless, for the reason, which it shocks me to mention, a Cornish jury would certainly acquit the smugglers."

As smuggling developed it became more organised, ruthless and bloodthirsty. Powerful gangs grew up and they were often better armed and more numerous than the local bands of customs officers.

By the 1840's, the glory days of Cornish smuggling was over. Nevertheless, the trade continued on a fairly extensive scale, while the smugglers themselves had lost none of their former daring.  On 18th September 1840, the customs house at Helford within the port of Gweek, was attacked by a body of men, consisting of over 30 people, who broke the locks and secured doors and robbed the premises of one hundred and twenty-six kegs of contraband Brandy, roughly 5 gallons per keg, which had been seized some days before at Coverack. It took less than half an hour to load up all the kegs but three, these they left for the benefit of the officers at Helford!

The customs house was a remote dwelling; the nearest house was well over three-quarters of a mile away.  There was a husband and wife who lived in the dwelling above the store, they heard the noises but were too terrified to raise the alarm.  From the tracks of the wheels, which were seen next day, it was supposed that at least three wagons had been employed, which explained the rapidity that the whole business had been effected.

Although landing contraband was becoming more and more difficult there were still gangs that felt so invulnerable that they openly taunted the customs officers to their faces.

At this time a certain farm in Gwithian parish was a noted haunt of the smugglers. Passing by here at night the traveller would sometimes come across the whole place lit up, and numbers of horses and ponies tethered up outside.  It would seem an odd time to have a party, although in the house meat and spirit were going in plenty for all who had a mind to it.

Only when the feasting was over and news had come that the coast was clear, did a significant nod from the farmer warn the guests that the time had come for action.  Mounting his horse, each man would take himself to a particular spot on the cliffs, where the kegs would be found ready laid. Two of these were strung across the back of each horse, and everyone rode his way.


Tricks of the Trade


To be successful, the smuggler had above all things to be ingenious, this make take the form of extraordinary hiding places or remarkably well thought out double bluffs, deceptions and dummy runs.  Sometimes the smugglers tried straightforward bribery, and if that didn't work quick thinking could make all the difference between success and failure, a fact revealed by a tale from Cornwall's Prussia Cove.

On a certain occasion, two Prussia Cove men were returning from Roskoff in a small sailing boat well laden with contraband. The wind having dropped, they were forced to row the latter part of their crossing, so thinking to save themselves the last few miles they put into Mullion Harbour.  However on arriving they found two excise men on the beach.  The two smugglers were exhausted and offered the excisemen £5 to allow them to land on the beach, but to no avail, so with heavy hearts they returned to the task of rowing themselves on to Prussia Cove. Meanwhile the excise men mounted their horses and kept pace with them riding along the cliffs.

Just short of the cove a headland allowed the smugglers to pass out of sight of the excisemen, and here much to their delight they found a local man out in his boat hauling crab pots.  Taking advantage of their opportunity they quickly exchanged the contents of their boat with that of the crab fisherman and continued to row on their way.  They had hardly drawn into the cove before the officers arrived and immediately set about a search...but in vain.  It was not until some hours later, when the coast was clearer that an innocent looking fisherman came into the cove, bringing with him a haul not often found in crab pots.


A Convenient Confinement


A tale recalled by a Cornishman Stanley Ord. 

“On one occasion, a quantity of wines and spirits were landed on the coast near Padstow and 'warehoused' at a farm some three or four miles inland. The excise men got wind of this and as a consequence a raid was organised and expected.  It so happened at this time that the farmer's wife was anticipating a 'happy event', and accordingly the smugglers were seized with the idea of storing the goods in the bedroom of the house.  Immediately after they had finished the woman was confined to her bed and the local doctor sent for, and immediately refused the excise officers access to the bedroom refusing them entrance.  The remainder of the house and yard and out buildings were searched and the revenue men satisfied soon left.  Exactly how much of the goods the doctor was paid for his part was unknown!"


Smugglers were very generous in their gratitude for this type of act, in fact it was because of these acts of generosity near and far which led them to be able to rely so heavily on local support, as an elderly citizen of St Just recalls in the early 1900's.

“The night my youngest sister was born, I can remember we were all sitting up late in the kitchen, and about 1am a knock came to the door. Father got up to answer it and there were several men standing on the door step,”What’s up here?" they asked pointing to the lit up windows.

Father explained that a baby was expected, "Well" said the smugglers,” will 'e 'ave a drop o' spirits to cheer yourselves up? If so bring out a bottle and we'll fill 'em up for 'ee"

Well Father came in and started looking for a bottle, but not one could be found, only a great glass carboids (demi-john bottle) "Will this do?" asked father taking it to the door.  "Ais alright m'dear" replied the men although they must have been surprised at the size, they filled it up and then father gave them permission to store a few kegs in his barn, which was what they wanted from the start!


A Gatepost full of Brandy


Adjoining a certain farm in the \Padstow district there is a narrow lane which takes its winding course down to the shores of the neighbouring bay. On one occasion a local farmer was carrying a keg of Brandy through this lane when he was spotted some distance off by an exciseman.  The latter, who was on horseback galloped towards the farmer shooting his pistol as he went, in order to attract attention.  Hurrying along the lane the farmer dropped his load at a certain spot, removed the gatepost from its socket, deposited the keg and replaced the post, in time to greet the officer as he rode up with a cheery “Good day”.  In answer to the exciseman’s question, the farmer denied all knowledge of the keg and although the officer had seen him carrying it, a search revealed nothing!


The shoemaker’s sideline


Mr J C Hoare o0f Madron related another tale to Mr Hamilton Jenkin.

“My father, at the age of fourteen, was bound apprentice for the term of seven years to a certain well known shoemaker in the village in which he lived.  The fee required for such an apprenticeship was ten pounds, a great sum of money for poor people in those days, but in return the shoemaker was required to teach the apprentice his trade, to feed clothe and lodge him and pay him six pence a week, rising to two shillings at the end of his time.

My father had good food whilst he was thus apprenticed, but the hours were long, from 7am till 8pm, ordinarily but on some occasions much longer. The only recognised holidays were Christmas Day, Boxing Day, Feast Monday and Good Friday, with sometimes a half day at Truro Whitsun Fair and Summercourt Fair.  To vary the monotony of the work, however, they often turned out for a nights poaching, also going to Gorran or Portloe, ten miles away to fetch home smuggled goods...chiefly Brandy...carried in small kegs, slung by a rope over the shoulders.

On one occasion, when returning, they espied at some distance a party of excisemen and were forced to take to hiding in a field of standing corn, where they remained all the next day beneath the hot sun, with nothing to eat or drink. On arriving home, the liquor they had carried was poured into a wash tray and coloured the right shade with burnt sugar, after which it was returned to the kegs and sold to trusty customers.”


The Parson’s Dilemma


Not only did the smugglers take shelter and deposit their goods where they knew they would be safe, but they sometimes left their goods where a certain amount of risk had to be run.  It was not, however, an unusual thing for farmers to leave certain gates unlocked, or to put the key of a barn, or even a stable, if an extra horse should be wanted, where the smugglers knew where to find it, being well assured that, barring accidents, the horse would be returned, and there would be a tangible acknowledgement, in the shape of a keg left behind, of the farmer’s good intentions.

Some years ago an incumbent of a certain village had made his chaise-house a depository of garden tools and odds and ends. Going one morning into the \chaise-house for something he wanted, he was surprised to find he could not open the folding doors in the stable which led into the chaise-house. Being aged and somewhat infirm and his gardener being away at this time, he was puzzled to know what to do; but after a while he managed to climb up by the hay rack and manger into the hay-loft over the stable.

Looking down into the chaise-house, he saw to his surprise, the cause of the obstruction, the space was almost filled with casks of smuggled spirits, which had been deposited there the previous night, by a party of smugglers.  Returning to his house the Reverend gentleman was sorely puzzled to know what course to pursue. Loyalty to his King and country prompted him to go and inform the correct authorities; consideration for his parishioners and neighbours prompted him to say nothing.  The smugglers, however, kept an eye upon the movements of the Reverend gentleman during the day, intending if they saw him heading off towards the proper authorities, quietly to prevent his progress.  He, however, came to the conclusion that he would sleep upon it, and take action on the morrow.  Lucky for the smugglers that he did so, as it gave them an opportunity to remove the goods during the night.

Going to the chaise-house the next morning, he found that the casks were gone, with the exception of one, on which was tacked a piece of paper, with the following written on it: “For our parson, wi9th thanks for his kindness.”


Crime and Punishment


When smugglers were caught in the act of running contraband goods, they were subject to two kinds of punishment. If they were sea-faring folk they were sent on board a Royal Navy man-o-war and made to serve for three years, five or seven years. Given the state of the Royal Navy in those days a more brutal sentence would be hard to imagine.  If they were ordinary mortals they were sent to prison and heavily fined.  The gaols in most parts of the country were scarcely ever free from smugglers, and we read in periodicals of the 18th century, that the bodies of hung smugglers were infrequently displayed at crossroads, hung in chains...a brutal business that was meant to serve as a warning to others.  But it seems that no sooner than a smuggler was captured and sentenced another would step in and take his place.

“We must not forget that the smuggler of the last century was generally a lawless fellow, and did not scruple to add highway robbery, house-breaking and even murder to his lawless pursuit of smuggling; and woe betide the poor wretch who should dare to give any information of his doings.”  John Banks 1871


The success of the smuggling trade entirely depended of course, on the loyalty of all parties concerned, and true to the Cornish motto of, “One and All”; it was rarely that this loyalty was ever betrayed.  However, such betrayal did occur of course from time to time. For instance in the village of Shuffley, near Redruth...formerly one of the greatest resorts of the smugglers in the tin-mining particular family was remembered well into this century as having produced an informer about three generations earlier.  In many ways it is true to say that the informer who was caught suffered a harsher sentence than the convicted smuggler.


Some cases of Mistaken Identity


The crimes were not all on the side of the smugglers.  Occasionally, and perhaps inevitably, the excisemen over stepped the mark.  In 1799 a couple of preventative men travelling from Bodmin to Truro, fell in with two persons, whom for some reason or other, they suspected them of carrying smuggled goods.

“This however” as a correspondent states in the Gentleman’s Magazine 27th June 1799 “not being the case, the suspects put up an obdurate resistance, until at length being overpowered by their desperate antagonists they were left dead on the spot. The excisemen then absconded”

This however, was not the only occasion on which the justice of the law miscarried with tragic results, as is revealed by the inscription on a tombstone, dated 1814, standing in the little churchyard of Mylor, near Falmouth:


We have not a moment we can call our own.

Officious zeal in luckless hour laid wait

And wilful sent the murderous ball of Fate!

James to his home, which late in health he left,

Wounded returns-of life is soon bereft.


The memorial leaves little doubt of the strength of popular feeling which was aroused on this occasion, for in this case the victim of the excisemen’s aggression was no stranger but a young man of the village: returning in his boat one evening after having been out fishing he was fired upon by the officers and fatally wounded.  The smugglers themselves, however, sometimes made mistakes, and since attacks upon the detested excisemen were generally made under cover of darkness, a hard fate occasionally awaited the individual who happened to walk, ride or looks like an exciseman.


Though they hated the excisemen for their interference in what was locally regarded as an honest trade, the Cornish people could be generous even to their enemies when in distress.  During one bitterly cold pitch-black night in December, 1805, two excisemen, travelling from Luxillian to Lostwithiel, lost their way, and after proceeding for several miles across country, at length they found themselves in the desolate regions of the Goss Moors.  There they wandered for several hours, and at last became so exhausted, that they sank down on the ground unable to proceed any farther.  Fortunately for them, soon afterwards two smugglers on their way to their night’s labours chanced to hear their groans, and immediately went to their relief, thereby in all probability saving them from death by exposure.


On Good Terms

In Newquay, the smugglers and excisemen were stated to be on excellent terms.  It was not uncommon for a hundred horses to be awaiting the arrival of cargo every day of the week

A.K.Hamilton Jenkin. Cornish Seafarers, 1932.


In smuggling...and indeed piracy and other more adventurous games of life. The strands of humour and tragedy, generosity and meanness, were closely interwoven.


The Press-Gang Takes His Man


On a rough piece of moorland forming the western slope of Trencrom Hill, in Cornwall, there were two old granite-built cottages which locally went by the name of ‘Newcastle’.  One of these was run as a beer shop, a noted haunt of the smugglers who had excavated a cave nearby where supplies of contraband goods were regularly stored.  At this particular time, the end of the 18th century, the beer shop happened to be owned by two brothers, one of whom had joined the army.  Finding, however, that life in the army was less interesting and less rewarding than smuggling, he deserted and returned home.

It so happened that about the same time the press-gang came into the district, and getting wind of the deserters whereabouts, a party of soldiery suddenly descended one day on the cottage.  The door was opened by the other brother, who on learning the cause of the party’s arrival, immediately put up a fight.  The press-gang, however, proved too strong for him and in the course of the struggle he was killed.  Meanwhile the deserter brother, unaware of the nature of the fight proceeding below, had made a hole in the roof and successfully escaped.  On entering the house and finding the bird had flown the press-gang took their departure, and the deserter, though he long continued to live in the neighbourhood, was never troubled with their attentions again.  The reason popularly given for this was that having killed one brother, they were debarred from laying hands on the other, since the law did not allow the taking of two men for one.


Cork Jacket

An old seaman used to tell a story that an old Gypsy woman told him that one day he would be drowned.  He used to tell everyone this story to explain why he always wore a cork jacket, which he was fond of exhibiting.  When the customs officers came aboard, he would insist on going through the whole story and the performance of showing off his cork jacket.

They knew the yarn by heart and were glad to escape from him, but the wily old sea dog has retired on a comfortable little property, and small amounts of tobacco secreted in that celebrated cork jacket...and successfully landed...have combined to make up a nice bank balance.  The life-saving appliance was also money saving one.  The old seaman winks one eye when pressed on the gypsy’s prophecy, “wonderful people, them gypsys...saved my life and more”

Athol Forbes The Romance of Smuggling. 1909


Enough To Convert Any Man


“Yes sir, he was very much respected; and you’ll not be surprised after what I told you before.  He stuck to his trade as long as he was able to go afloat, and when he got too old for that he took to lighter jobs...some o’ ‘em take to drink, but old Dad, being an educated man cottoned on to his Bible, which was very right and proper at his time of life. Yes sir, every Sunday afternoon as soon as dinner was stowed and he’d had his pipe, mother’d bring out the old family Bible and before you could say knife the old chap had settled his head onto it and was snoring away like a steam hooter in fog.

Maybe you’ll have heard how the old man did a bit of free trading in his day...smuggling they calls it now! Well before he coiled his ropes up for a full due, he used to go on a deal about that there free trade, saying as it was a wrong thing to do.  Cos why?  Cos they never were no certainty about it, you never knew where you were, come today... gone tomorrow.  Well sure enough ‘twas a faltering kind of business.   Don’t wonder the old man see’d the wickedness of it after losing that last crop of goods down by Hemmick Cove, yonder, Aye, ‘twas enough to convert any man!”

H.N. Shore, Old Foye Days, 1909


The Smuggler Captain’s Song

“Fire on, fire on”, says Captain Ward

“I value you not a pin;

If you are brass on the outside,

I am steel within”.


“Go home, go home”, says Captain Ward

“And tell your King from me,

If he reigns King upon dry land

I will reign at sea.”

Old song quoted in Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, by William Bottrell, 1870


Confined To Bed


Smuggling in Mousehole had arrived at such a pitch towards the end of the 18th Century that the goods were commonly carried at midday, the local exciseman excusing himself on one of these occasions by stating that he confined to bed through having been pelted with stones a few days earlier.

A.K. Hamilton Jenkin Cornish Seafarers, 1932



Enter A Bond

A proclamation issued in 1805 said any smuggler who’d escaped abroad could return provided he entered int6o a bond to smuggle no more.

A.K. Hamilton Jenkin Cornish Seafarers, 1932


The Government, at the commencement of the 19th century, realised that they had to reach an accommodation with fearsome smugglers; it was almost as if, not being able to beat them, the authorities tried to get them on their side by connivance. 

“If a smuggler was caught by a man-o-war and would give information on the state of the French harbours, ships, etc... He would be allowed to depart, and, moreover, the Captain would give him a written certificate of his having rendered important service to the country, so that , if caught again, he was let go scot free.”

John Bank, the great Historian on Smuggling.

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