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The most famous of all smuggling pubs, Jamaica Inn still defies the icy winds of Bodmin Moor. Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: South-West England


The counties of the South West, and Cornwall in particular, are so famous for smuggling that many people today believe this to be the only area of Britain where the activity took place. The traditional stereotype of the Cornishman — taciturn, suspicious of strangers and rather sly — owes a lot to the area's reputation in the free-trade. In reality, the men of Cornwall and Devon probably smuggled much less than their contemporaries in the south-east of England. The crossing to the continent was very much farther; the market for smuggled goods was strictly local; and there are fewer suitable landing places on the south-west coast.

However, smuggling in Cornwall and Devon was stimulated by a number of local factors, notably the lack of prevention, and extreme poverty. The alluvial tin-miners or streamers in the West Penwith area were especially active, because of the seasonal nature of their work, which caused them to be laid off in the summer when there was a shortage of water: '...A trip to Roscoff or Guernsey formed a pleasant change after a spell on tribute underground or working stamps' [106] By contrast with this poverty-stricken existence, smuggling brought fantastic wealth into the area. One writer observes (doubtless with customary exaggeration) that...

'When smuggling was in full swing, money became so plentiful that neighbours lent guineas to each other by the handful, not stopping to count, or being so particular as to reckon by ones and twos'.

In some parts of the south-west, smuggling was indeed the principal means of employment — the Scilly Isles, for example, were brought almost to bankruptcy when the preventive net finally tightened.

As in other parts of the country, the early smugglers from Devon and Cornwall were not importing, but exporting. Here, though, the outgoing contraband was likely to be Cornish tin, rather than bales of wool. Tin was one of the earliest strategic metals, and lined the holds of many vessels apparently loaded with other more innocent cargoes.

Sources of contraband

When increased duty made imports more important than the exported ore, continental supplies for the south-west came mainly from Brittany and the Channel Islands. The trade from Guernsey was at least partly stopped when a preventive boat was stationed there in 1767, but this did not deter the French traders who were getting rich by shipping goods through the island. The French responded two years later by making Roscoff a free-port: and within months the sleepy port was transformed into a hive of industry, supplying the tubs and bales needed for transport across to Devon and Cornwall. The historic link is still maintained, with a ferry from Plymouth plying the same route. The Channel Islands were soon back in business, though — by 1775 it appears that the government's resolve had weakened, and reputedly many people from the island made fortunes in the latter part of the 18th century 'simply by manufacturing casks' [107].

Financing arrangements in the south-west don't seem to have been quite so centralized as elsewhere in Britain. Instead of a 'Mr Big' bankrolling the whole operation, everyone took a share: '..the farmers, the merchants, and, it is rumoured, the local magistrates, used to find the money with which the business was carried on, investing small sums in each voyage.' [108]. At Falmouth, where smuggling by postal packet carriers was rife, local traders organised an extraordinary 'sale-or-return' agreement with ships travelling to Portugal.

Compared to their companions-in-trade from Kent and Sussex, smugglers from the South West have a benign, rather jolly image. The accuracy of this is open to dispute, and it's possible to call up examples to support both sides of the argument. The pacifists maintain that West Country smugglers were not organised in gangs to anything like the same extent as free-traders in the east, and that this had some bearing on their reluctance to use force against their adversaries. Furthermore, some sources suggest that, whereas the boats used in the east of the country were generally large, purpose-built, and heavily armed, smugglers in the west tended to use fishing vessels and other small craft. However, the size of ships used, and their complement of arms probably varied according to the degree of vigilance of the preventives and their strength. In the boom years of the free-trade, Cornish and Devon boats were probably every bit as big as those in the south-east and east of Britain: according to one authority [109] the vessels used here ranged from 50-250 tons, 'were often heavily armed' and had up to 1000 sq feet of canvas in the mainsail. As prevention developed, though, such a ship would have become too conspicuous to be of any practical use, and the smugglers began to favour smaller boats, masquerading as fishing vessels or coasters. Since these boats are more recent, they obviously figure more frequently in the oral history of the free-trade.

“Everyone smuggled”

A further factor which much have influenced the necessary degree of violence is the proximity of the sea: only a small part of Cornwall is more than a day's walk from the coast. 18th century pundits were fond of rash generalizations that suggested that everyone smuggled, but in Cornwall the statements could quite well have been true.

'The coasts here swarm with smugglers from the Land's End to the Lizard' one man wrote [110] in 1753 and with the active support of the local population, these swarms would need to use violence only against the revenue forces — and the King's men didn't count anyway, in the eyes of most otherwise law-abiding citizens.

When it came to dealing with the preventive forces, there is no evidence to suggest that smugglers from south-west Britain were any less violent than their fellows. If anything, accounts point in the opposite direction...

'A rough, reckless and drunken lot were these tinners, and if riots and bloodshed were more scarce in West Cornwall than in some parts, it must have been due to the judicious absence of the Custom House officials, and not to any qualities in the smugglers.' [111]

The vicar of Morwenstow, who wrote much about local smuggling legends, describes a conversation he had with one of his congregation concerning the hanging of a man who was wrongly convicted of murder. The local wishes to know why it is that grass will not grow on the man's grave, and turf withers on the mound. When the vicar asked what crime the unfortunate man was alleged to have committed, he was told that the deceased '...only killed a custom house officer'.

The account of the chase of the smuggling ship Lottery also gives a vivid picture of brutality, and stories of other pitched battles reinforce this view. In 1735 a gang of armed smugglers attacked excisemen near Fowey, when they tried to repossess some rum. The band had apparently acquired a local reputation for violence. A report on the clash observed that the revenue officers 'go in danger of their lives' if they try to seize the goods...the smugglers having entered into a combination to rescue any person who shall be arrested'. [112]

Juries that would not convict

Even if they were caught, violent Cornish smugglers often got off scot-free. In 1768 smugglers brutally murdered an excise officer at Porthleven, William Odgers. A Gwennap man, Melchisideck Kinsman, was accused of the murder, together with other unknown people. His accomplices were initially thought to have fled the country to Guernsey or Morlaix, but were later reported to be hiding in the tin mines. The principal witness was offered a bribe of £500 to go abroad, and when this didn't work, he was threatened with physical violence, and could not work for fear of his life. He was later paid a state pension of seven shillings a week.

Three of the accomplices eventually surrendered, and agreed to track down Kinsman (presumably in return for leniency). They caught him, and all stood trial at the assizes, but to the astonishment of the judge, none was found guilty. The local collector of customs observed that three of the jury had disappeared after the trial, and suggested that they had been either bribed or 'nobbled'. Little wonder, then, that in the 1750s '...nobody can venture to come near (the smugglers) with safety while they are at their work.' [113] The preventive forces sometimes offered violence to match that of their opponents: in 1799 two preventives accused fellow travellers between Bodmin and Truro of being smugglers. In the battle that ensued, the innocent travellers were killed, and the preventives absconded.

Though the south-western smugglers treated revenue men as harshly as their colleagues elsewhere in the country, it could be argued that informers received less brutal treatment. Compared to the torture and murder of Chater and Galley, the measures used in the south-west seem positively benevolent. Social ostracism of the informer and his family were the rule, and in at least one instance the informer was simply burned in effigy.

Engraving of a shipwreck
Do Cornishmen deserve their notoriety as wreckers? Probably not. Click picture to enlarge


The coasts of Devon and Cornwall are notorious for wrecks, and the local people did not hesitate to ransack a ship unfortunate enough to be smashed on the rocks. Wrecks were the scene of much dispute and argument, not least because dutiable goods washed up should theoretically have been declared at the local customs house. The customs house officers were therefore among the first on the scene, representing the interests of the Crown. Their chance of securing anything would often have been slight though, because they were usually greatly outnumbered by the hundreds of villagers plundering the broken ribs of the beached ship. The searchers and gaugers nevertheless saw wrecking as a form of smuggling, and viewed it as their duty to levy the rightful customs charges.

There were also other interests at odds with the wreckers. The crew of the ship itself — if they had survived — usually looked on helplessly while every item of value was dragged from the hold, or prised free of its mountings. But the biggest disputes were often between the wreckers and the owner of the stretch of coastline where the ship had foundered. These people had 'Royalty of Wrecks' on their land, and were generally entitled to half the value of the goods washed up. The other half went to the rescuer, but both sides were keen to take more than their share.

Often the rights to Royalty of Wrecks were disputed: an example of this occurred in 1743 at Porthleven. Edward Coode, son of the Lord of nearby Methleigh heard of the wreck and went to the beach wearing only a greatcoat and gloves. He was met by a neighbour, Squire Penrose, with a gang of armed men who defied him to touch the cargo. The squire grabbed a musket and cried 'Damn him, shoot him, or by God, I'll shoot him'. Ironically, all they were fighting over was a case of salted pork.

Wrecking has entered the folklore of Cornwall, usually in a negative way. At best, wreckers are stereotyped as predatory, as a well-known story from Portlemouth illustrates. According to this legend, the vicar of the parish church there was drawing to the end of a particularly dry sermon, and many of the congregation had dropped to sleep. The sound of a man opening the church door woke a few of them — a gale was blowing outside — and they welcomed the diversion as he walked up to the pulpit and whispered in the vicar's ear. The remainder of the congregation were immediately roused from their musings by the vicar bellowing 'There's a ship ashore between Prawle and Pear Tree Point!'. He started to tear off his vestments, continuing as he tugged at the encumbering garments '...but let us all start fair'. As one, the congregation rose and charged headlong to the beach, with the vicar in the lead.

cover of book Cornish WreckingThe legend goes on to relate that the parishioners ignored the cries for help from the drowning crew as they tried to salvage the cargo of the galleon. However, it is difficult to credit this account, just as it's hard to believe tales of ships being deliberately lured onto the rocks, and crew-men cynically drowned, for fear they'd testify about the plundering that took place. Most of the local inhabitants were sea-farers themselves, and knew of the inevitable loss of life that followed a wreck. The villagers also had to bury the bodies of drowned crew, and this was a highly distasteful task.

Maritime historian Cathryn Pearce has produced by far the best – in fact the only – authoritative study of wrecking in Cornwall. Her book, Cornish Wrecking 1700-1860, Reality and Popular Myth (The Boydell Press 2010, ISBN 9781843835554) traces the development of wreck law, and also considers the myths surrounding wrecking. She shows how these developed over time, and how moral attitudes towards wrecking changed. Cathryn comprehensively unpicks the myth of evil wreckers deliberately luring ships onto the rocks and replaces it with a detailed picture of a coastal populace - poor and gentry alike - who were involved in a multi-faceted, sophisticated coastal practice and who had their own complex popular beliefs about the harvest and salvage of goods washing ashore from shipwreck.

[106] John Cornish, in his introduction to Carter's autobiography

[107] Coxhead, JRW

[108] Cornish

[109] Jenkin, AKH

[110] George Borlase in 1753, reported in the Lanisley Letters, Journal of the Royal Inst of Corn. XXIII 374-9.

[111] Cornish

[112] Oppenheim

[113] Borlase