Travel article for the website TimeTravel-Britain

The 'Free Traders': Cornwall's Smugglers

Daphne du Maurier used her beloved Cornwall as a backdrop for several of her novels, and the sea, and particularly smuggling, was at the heart of two of them. While they may have been fiction, they were rooted in fact, and set in real places.

Frenchman's Creek is one of the inlets on the Helford river, in the eastern side of the Lizard peninsula. The whole of the Helford is peaceful and attractive, with picturesque villages of ancient lineage on its banks: Manaccan, Gweek, and Helford itself.

Jamaica Inn is still standing, and still functioning with accommodation, bar and restaurant, at Bolventor on the main A30 road as it crosses Bodmin Moor. It was built in the mid-eighteenth century as a coaching inn, providing a haven for travellers crossing what can still seem a forbidding stretch of country. Daphne du Maurier herself stayed there in 1930, which was what prompted the novel. Today there is also a collection of smuggling artefacts at the Inn.

Each book title highlights one of the key aspects of successful smuggling. Secluded locations, where Revenue officers patrol only sporadically, if at all, are ideal for putting cargoes ashore. And temporary storage, again out of choice in isolated places, is required to hide the contraband from prying eyes until it can be divided up and distributed. Typical of these, apart from Jamaica Inn itself, is a farm close to a creek on the Fal river, which was known as "a good depot, where landed kegs were carried up a sunken road, and hidden in caves or in the woods."

The smuggling of illegal goods - drugs, immigrants, endangered species - is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the past, it was usually the excise duties demanded by a greedy government, even on everyday commodities like salt (as well as luxury items such as silk clothing) which made it worthwhile for smuggler and purchaser alike to run the risks of evading them. So it was in the main period of Cornwall's smuggling, which was between approximately 1700 and 1850. Its peak was in the second half of the 18th century.

In 1783, for instance, a Government committee reported that there were "considerable" vessels (meaning of some three hundred tons) able to make "seven or eight voyages a year…the largest of them can bring, in one freight, the enormous quantity of three thousand half-ankers of spirits, and ten or twelve tons of tea". (The half-anker was a container holding four and a half gallons.) Tobacco was another favourite commodity - as the traditional poem has it: "brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk". It was said in 1784 that for every ounce of tobacco sold legally, one pound was smuggled.

Nor were those officials commenting on anything out of the ordinary. Some eighteen years earlier, a legitimate tradesman had noted that his employees encountered "sixty horses having each three bags of tea on them of fifty-six or fifty-eight pounds weight…landed on a beach two miles to the west of Padstow." (Padstow, on the north coast of Cornwall, is a bustling small port now best known for its fashionable and much-frequented fish restaurants.)

The mention of beaches highlights the virtually insuperable problem that faced those trying to enforce the law. Small tree-lined creeks, like those along the rivers of the south coast of Cornwall, were difficult enough to police - and they were certainly used extensively for smuggling. Places such as Mylor Creek, for example, which feeds into Falmouth's great natural harbour of Carrick Roads. Mylor is still reached only by boat or by a succession of descending narrow lanes off the A39, but is worth the detour. The graveyard of its ancient church contains the grave of one Thomas James, a smuggler shot by Customs officers, as well as the largest Celtic cross found in Cornwall. (Don't be misled by the mere ten feet that are visible - there are another seven in the ground.)

But the nub of the problem for the authorities was the long, sparsely-inhabited Cornish coastline and its many coves. While they had a justifiably fearsome reputation at high tide in a gale, since there were innumerable rocks that even now will rip steel hulls to shreds, at calm low water many of them have broad, gently shelving stretches of sand that were ideal for bringing small boats ashore to meet the waiting strings of ponies. Some beaches, indeed, were employed that way for above-board commerce. Trebarwith Strand, on the north coast between Tintagel and Port Isaac, for example, was used in the 19th century to load slate from the nearby quarries.

Visitors can go to all of these places simply for their breathtaking beauty, and on the north coast to surf as well. But many of them, such as the dramatic pair Kynance and Mullion on the Lizard peninsula, were associated with smuggling, and one or two achieved particular notoriety. Prussia Cove, situated where the Lizard in the north-west turns into the broad sweep of Mount's Bay, was one. This description of it could suit a hundred others: "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".

From 1770 to 1807, the extraordinary Carter brothers - of whom one, John, adopted the title of King of Prussia, although he often demurred to his sibling Captain Harry - operated primarily from Prussia Cove. Although their combining a real trade of fishing with smuggling clearly put them well outside the law, they were devout Methodists who allowed no swearing among their crew. When one of their cargoes was seized, they 'released' it again by raiding the Penzance Customs House. But they took only their own cargo, leaving undisturbed the contraband that 'belonged' to others.

So daring did many smugglers become that they sometimes ignored that requirement for an isolated place in which to land their cargoes. Most of the coastal harbours that, again, tourists visit now because of their attractiveness had active smugglers among their inhabitants: Polperro, St Mawes, Fowey and Mevagissey on the south coast, Boscastle, Newquay and Hayle on the north. Port Isaac, also on the north coast, and a port long before the pier was built in the 16th century, has an association with another smuggler - but one more legend than fact, delighting in the name of Cruel Copinger.

Nor were smugglers always as careful as they might have been when it came to storing their contraband, often simply choosing the public houses in which they did their regular drinking. The 'Bush' in Morwenstowe, the 'Dolphin' in Penzance, the 'Ship' in Porth Leven and 'The Jolly Sailor' in Looe are among those where a present-day visitor might stop for a drink and not necessarily realise the strong associations with smugglers. In the last of these, indeed, the landlady is supposed to have sat upon a keg of contraband brandy while Revenue officers searched in vain.

This can make smuggling sound like a game - especially when you read of other stories, such as an incident in 1831. A Revenue cutter followed a 'hot lead' and arrested a boat which they brought into Bude (on the north Cornish coast), only to find it was full of nothing but salt herring. But there were times when it became deadly serious. In 1827, for example, a fairly brazen run of contraband into the area of Falmouth harbour was intercepted and the cargo seized. The 'free traders', reportedly some thirty strong, retaliated and took back their 'possessions', with shots exchanged and one Customs officer beaten unconscious and left for dead.

Yet despite the mutual antagonism, humanity could still take precedence over ancient feuds. On a freezing December night in 1805, two Excise officers were travelling on the south-western edge of that same Bodmin Moor where Jamaica Inn is situated. They got hopelessly lost, and eventually stopped exhausted. They would have died of exposure if two local tin miners had not happened across them, and brought them to safety.

Then, as now, Cornish hospitality won out.



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