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Read the book! This fascinating book by award-winning author Richard Platt tells the story of British smuggling Click here to buy

Engraving of Teignmouth in the nineteenth century
Ladram Bay, between Budleigh Salterton and Sidmouth, was isolated and had convenient caves. Even in 1838 it was said that "smugglers occasionally managed to land a cargo there." Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: South-West England


Beer & Jack Rattenbury

Beer is at SY2289 red map button 1m W of Seaton (Map 192). Bovey House is now a delightful hotel on the road from Beer to Branscombe. Leave Beer on the B3174, and turn L at the junction with the A 3052.

This village of Beer at the extreme east of Devon was the headquarters of a gang of smugglers led by Jack Rattenbury, who was once dubbed 'The Rob Roy of the West'. Like the Carter family of Prussia Cove, Rattenbury probably owes his fame not so much to his actual exploits as to the diary and journal he wrote, which you can read by clicking here. This is essentially an autobiography [114], and starts with his birth in Beer in 1778. As a child he intended to go into fishing, but found this rather a dull activity, and his real adventures began when he turned 15: he set out on a privateer, was taken prisoner by the French, and thrown into gaol in France...

'Instead of returning to our native country laden with riches and adorned with trophies, we were become...unwilling sojourners in a strange land'.

Rattenbury became a trusty inmate, though, and eventually managed to sneak away. Escapes of one sort or another soon became his forte: he describes how a smuggling brig in which he was travelling was captured by a French privateer, and he was left at the helm to steer for a French port while the crew got drunk below...

'I began to conceive a hope not only of escaping, but also of being revenged on the enemy. A fog too came on, which befriended the design I had in view...'

Rattenbury steered for the English coast, and when they came in sight of Portland Bill, he convinced the crew that this was Alderney; similarly, St Albans became Cape La Hogue. When they got closer to the shore, Jack persuaded them to lower a boat and go and get a pilot — he eventually completed his escape by diving overboard and swimming into Swanage harbour. He hurried to the local customs authorities, who sent a cutter to recapture the brig from the French.

Lithograph of smuggler Jack Rattenbury
Jack Rattenbury's portrait from his 1837 biography. Click picture to enlarge

Amazing adventures

Rattenbury followed this with a series of daring escapes — from the navy, the press-gang, from privateers, from customs men. He hid up chimneys, in cellars, on board small boats, and in bushes.
Jack catalogues a series of adventures, some of them doubtless exaggerated, and most of them carefully drawn to show him in a heroic light. A typical story has him stripped to the waist, with a knife in one hand and a reaping-hook (hand-scythe) in the other, facing 9 or 10 soldiers who were determined to arrest him as a deserter. He took up position at the stable door to the cellar, closing the lower half...

'I declared I would kill the first man who came near me, and that I would not be taken from the spot alive. At this, the sergeant was evidently terrified, but he said to his men 'Soldiers, do your duty, advance and seize him;' to which they replied, 'Sergeant, you proposed it: take the lead' one, however, offered to advance.'

The deadlock continued for 4 hours, and eventually a distraction gave Rattenbury the opportunity to dash through the crowd and make good his escape — by removing his shirt, he prevented the soldiers from taking a firm hold of him.
Jack Captured. Illustration by Jack Mathew
Jack Captured.Illustration by Jack Matthew. Click picture to enlarge

Reading through the short book, Jack's increasing wealth is abundantly clear. In the early days he hasn't two pennies to rub together, but by the age of thirty, he had amassed sufficient money to trade in boats much as people today buy and sell second-hand cars: even in the face of adversity he has no trouble in setting up in business once again. He buys a leaky old tub, the Lively, and carries out several hazardous smuggling missions in her. Fearing drowning on further forays, Rattenbury beaches the boat for repairs, and buys the Neptune. With the wreck of the Neptune, the Lively comes back into use, but is in turn seized at Brixham, and Rattenbury forfeits a £160 bond. He comments that, on top of the loss of two boats the loss of the bond..'was a great shock to my circumstances' but continues in the next breath...'Not long after this disaster, I bought part of a 12-oared boat, which was 53 feet keel and 60 feet aloft'. Clearly he wasn't short of cash.

Jack’s modus operandi

Rattenbury's principal smuggling method in the early years seems to have been to buy tubs in the Channel Islands, and sink them off the English coast for later collection. As the 19th century proceeded, Rattenbury began to make trips direct to France — usually to Cherbourg. This in good weather takes a day or less.

He didn't confine himself to smuggling conventional cargoes, and also considered other enterprises, some successful, some not so profitable. He was caught smuggling out French prisoners, but excused himself by saying he thought they came from Jersey. The magistrates ticked him off and sent him home.

Rattenbury's book also reveals much of the ups and downs of smuggling. He tries to give up the trade and run a pub, but this proves far from lucrative and in 1813 he shut up the pub, commenting ' there was scarcely anything to be done in smuggling'. And in early 1814...'in consequence of the fluctuating nature of our public affairs, smuggling was also at a stand'. (At this time there was a temporary lull in the Napoleonic Wars — Napoleon was in exile on Elba).

Profits and overheads

Rattenbury's shipping transactions cast an interesting perspective on the values of the day. Piloting proved very lucrative for him — sometimes paying £100 in a storm...he buys a boat for £200... his bail is set at £200... he pays a fine of £200. His fortunes seemed to vary wildly: at times he must have lived hand-to-mouth, because a 2-month attack of gout is a considerable set-back.

All in all, though, Jack paints a swashbuckling picture of himself, and probably forms the model for many a fictional smuggler to this day.

Rattenbury mentions many places by name in the text, but few that are specifically identifiable today: Beer, Brixham, Seaton Beach, Loden Bay, Axmouth Harbour, Charmouth, Bridport harbour, Swanage Bay, Lyme, Christchurch, Kingswear all feature. In 1820 one of his boats ran aground at Stapen Sands and was dashed to pieces...'the greater part of her goods became the prey of the inhabitants.' One of his escapes was from a pub called The Indian Queen, a few miles from Bodmin. Though the pub has now been demolished, a village still bears its name. And at Beer itself, Rattenbury was reputed to have used a cave in the face of Beer Head.

Bovey House nearby may have been used by Rattenbury as a hiding place for contraband. Certainly smugglers frequented this fine Tudor house, taking advantage of its reputation for hauntings, and of a passage that led down to Beer Cliffs. Even today, you can see there a well with a hiding-place half way down its shaft.
Jack Rattenbury escapes from the Indian Queen. Illustration by Jack Mathew
Jack Rattenbury escapes from the Indian Queen.
Illustration by Jack Matthew. Click picture to enlarge


SY1988 red map button 5m E of Sidmouth (map 192)

This village was frequented by Rattenbury — local stories connect farmers from the neighbourhood with the famous smuggler, and the Three Horseshoes Inn was a local meeting place. Branscombe men made a reputation for their skills in landing smuggled goods, just as other places specialized in different aspects of the trade...

Sidbury financed, Branscombe landed, Sidmouth found wagons, and Salcombe carriers; but the six 'escort-men' with blackened faces and swingle bats were always specialists from Yeovil. [115]

Though this quote suggests that the violence was perpetrated only by Yeovil men, a table tomb in the Branscombe graveyard leads one to believe that local men also had a share in the murderous business...

John Hurley, Custom House Officer...was endeavouring to extinguish some Fire made between Beer and Seaton as a Signal to a Smuggling Boat then off at Sea He Fell by some means or other from the Top of the Cliff to the bottom by which He was unfortunately killed.

The epitaph goes on to describe the officer as active, diligent and inoffensive. Evidently the local smugglers paid more attention to the former two attributes when they hastened his descent over the cliff.

The Branscombe smugglers hid contraband in a novel way that apparently has no parallel elsewhere in Britain. They dug a sloping tunnel leading to the centre of a field, then at its end hollowed out a circular pit, some twelve feet underground. The entrance to the chamber was concealed using earth and turf. These storage places have been repeatedly uncovered during farming, and in 1953 an estate map showed the location of no less than 6 of them, found between 1909 and 1939. [116]

Smuggling continued in the Branscombe area as late as the 1850s, and at that time the Brays of Woodhead Farm were deeply implicated. Samuel Bray was betrayed for his involvement, and served a prison sentence as a result, but young George Bray was taught his smuggling skills by an old farm hand, and escaped capture on at least one occasion with aid from the old man. The two of them were returning from Budleigh Salterton one night in 1758 with a cart-load of tubs, when they heard the exciseman in hot pursuit, near the summit of Trow Hill, just outside Sidmouth. The 18 year-old took the reins, the old man hurled the tubs one by one into the ditch, then curled up under the tarpaulin and feigned sleep. When the preventive arrived, he cried triumphantly 'At last I've caught you red-handed!' but was met by a blank stare from George, who replied 'We be goin' t'Beer Quarry to vetch lime'. A search of the wagon needless to say revealed nothing, and when the coast was clear the two were able to retrace their steps and locate the barrels.

At Woodhead farm the tubs were concealed in a pit alongside the cowshed. This was covered by tree-trunks, and on this firm support was a hay-rick. To reach the pit, there was a tunnel leading under the cowshed.

There is an interesting page about Branscombe smugglers and Jack Rattenbury here.

Offwell and Wilmington

Offwell is 2m SE of Honiton (map 192). Batt's Close is at ST195005 red map button , just off the A35. At Wilmington the School House is at ST220000 red map button on the A35, some 3 m E of Honiton. The School House is next door to the old school — now the village hall.

This area provided many a tub carrier for the smugglers of Branscombe and Beer: a sunken lane at one time led towards the coast at Seaton, and joined up with the main London road close to Batt's Close, a cottage in the village. Though it has now been developed for much of its length, a section of the sunken road remains and is known locally as Featherbed Lane [117]. Sunken lanes are a fairly common feature in the south-west, particularly on routes leading down to coves from the cliff top. Embankments on either side conceal from view anyone passing down to the sea. [118]

Photograph of a bottle bottom in an Offwell house signifying that the owner was a smuggling sympathiser
This bottle bottom in an Offwell house signified that the owner was a smuggling sympathiser.

A descendant of one of the Offwell smugglers described in 1953 how his grandfather had helped land cargoes. Tubs were off-loaded to a particularly inaccessible beach at the foot of a 400 foot cliff close to Branscombe and Salcombe Regis. The tubmen then appeared at the top of the cliff with a long rope, and tied a farm gate to one end. One of their number was then lowered to the beach, where he loaded the gate with tubs, and was hoisted up again. This system was not foolproof — on at least one run, the rope broke, and the smuggler dashed his brains on the rocks below. The recollections were in this case particularly vivid, and only third hand (!), since the father and grandfather of the old man relating the story both lived into their nineties.

Batt's Close in Offwell at first glance appears pretty but unexceptional, built in a style typical of the much of the vernacular architecture of Devon and Cornwall. Look more closely at the eastern gable end, though, and you'll see a couple of glass bulls-eyes just below the eaves. These are bottle bottoms — a traditional symbol that the house-owner was sympathetic to smugglers.

The house was in fact at one time the home of Jack Rattenbury, and is also reputed to have been used at various times by other smugglers. At Wilmington there is a similar bottle in the eastern gable end of the old school house.

Sampford Peverel

ST0314 red map button, 5m E of Tiverton (map 181)

Smugglers hid contraband in an elm in the churchyard here: in 1874 the tree was 'perfectly hollow', and the only entrance was from the top. [119]

Stories of hauntings were rife in the area in the early years of the 19th century, and one explanation is that the incidents may have been staged by the Beer smugglers, who were know to pass through the area, and who would have been anxious to draw attention away from their activities. The Old Haunted House, as it was called, was at the extreme NW end of the village, and at the turn of the century was used as a bakery and grocer. The house was reputed to have double walls, which made it a fine place to store contraband: however, rolling barrels would have caused some considerable amount of noise, which — so the story goes — was concealed by the ghostly howls and thumps...

The chambers of the house were filled, even in day-time, with thunderous noises, and upon any persons stamping several times on the floors of the upstairs rooms, they would find themselves imitated — only much louder — by this mysterious agency...

One owner of the house, in seeking to explain the noises, said that the sound was made by 'a cooper banging tubs with a broomstick'. For 'cooper' read 'smuggler' perhaps — a man equally likely to have a tub handy.

Salcombe Regis

SY1488 red map button 2m NE of Sidmouth (map 192).

Branscombe and Beer smugglers used to land goods all along the coast between Lyme and Exmouth, and this village was widely used as a staging post. The church there made a handy storage place for contraband [120], and an old sexton born in the parish in 1803 noted that...

'The main smuggler was Mutter of Harcombe, who kept a public [house] at Exmouth and when riding officers wanted to know if a run was on, they would go to his house for a pint, and if the old man could not show up it was look out for the next tide. He was more artful than Rattenbury. Two Branscombe farmers smuggled too. Dimond's brother kept Trow turnpike and informed against a wagon that went through with goods. A procession was made through the three parishes with his likeness and then burned. Williams and Bray paid for this. [121]

This account is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. First, it identifies the Branscombe farmers — the Brays — as those who partly paid for the procession and effigy, and confirms their involvement. The convicted smuggler was in fact Sam Bray, who went to prison on the evidence of the gate-keeper. Secondly, the effigy itself, and the burning gives credence to the widely-held belief that West Country smugglers both enjoyed wider support than elsewhere in Britain, and were more humane. In other counties informers would almost certainly have been murdered.

The 'public' mentioned in the account was a cider shop which stood 'on the corner of Hamilton Road, just beyond Waterworks Cottage' [122] in Exmouth.

Another Salcombe man observed

I have carried scores of kegs up the cliff. We used to strike a match and hold it in our hands a moment to call the boats in. The loads were then shouldered into a pit with a lid at Paccombe Bottom, or by the turnpike in the hedge there, and waggoned on afterwards [123]. Once they were in Slade cellar but the [revenue officers] called and [the kegs] were only just in time started down the drain; it made the rats squeak. It was a pity for they were a nice lot of tubs...The goods used to come in a cutter called was her J Rattenbury steered with his foot...She was taken often by the coastguards, but generally had her papers right. She used to bring potatoes from Guernsey, but one day they caught her in a gale without ballast; she had just started [discharging] her cargo and that determined them [identified the crew as smugglers]. They sawed her in half, for they said nothing else would stop her. I knew Rattenbury and have heard he cut the [responsible] officer up for crab bait, but [Jack] always laughed if it was thrown up at him and said it happened down Dawlish way by a Sussex man. The last cargo was Mutter's laid up under High Peak [124]. G Salter watched all day from under a furze bush but about 4pm a stranger (gentleman to look at) came under Cliff and strolled right up to the tubs. The man in charge got as mad as fire but he had to lump it for if he'd spoken they would have taken him.


Mutter's Moor lies just outside the town at SY1087 red map button (map 192). Leave Sidmouth on a minor road heading E towards Otterton. After a steep climb over Peak Hill the road slopes down, and a track leading to Mutter's Moor leaves the road to the R on a sharp LH bend.

Mutter's Moor, on the fringes of Sidmouth, takes its name from the Abraham Mutter, mentioned in both quotes above. Mutter was one of Jack Rattenbury's accomplices, and helped to distribute contraband. Mutter cut wood and turf at Peak Hill and carried the fuel into nearby towns for sale. This innocent activity acted as a convenient cover for the transport and sale of contraband, especially so since the biggest houses would consume large quantities of both fuel and brandy. Frequent visits by Mutter's carts and donkeys therefore aroused no suspicion. A newspaper story relates that...

Rattenbury was at the peak of his career at about this time, and Mutter worked for him for years, so profitably, it appears, that when Rattenbury eventually retired, Sam Mutter, who was a lifelong sailor, stepped into his shoes and continued to provide the supplies for his enterprising brother, and later for John, who has also joined the business [125]

Numerous stories surround the Mutter family: one tells how Sam was sent to prison in 1843 for smuggling, and his release was eagerly anticipated by friends and family. However, the star guest at the welcome home party failed to appear as scheduled. Fully three months passed before he reappeared once more — with a cargo of contraband.

The Mutters' involvement apparently ended when the railway brought cheap coal to the area, killing off the convenient and effective cover.

East Budleigh

SY0684 red map button 2m N of Budleigh Salterton (map 192)

Two of the vicars of this village were reputedly involved in smuggling, over the period 1741 to 1852, using the 15th century rectory (since named Vicar's Mead) to plan the landing of cargoes at the mouth of the Otter [126]. The room used for this purpose was the Parish Room, now a bedroom, and its thick walls conceal 2 secret passages, 18 inches wide, on the north and south sides. There are also rumours that a tunnel led away from the house to the church.

Engraving of Teignmouth in the nineteenth century
Nineteenth century Teignmouth. Click picture to enlarge

Dawlish and Teignmouth

Map 192. The Mount Plasant Inn is at SX978782 red map button in Dawlish Warren, 4m NE of Teignmouth. Smugglers' Lane is on the left at Holcombe SX955748 red map button about half way from Dawlish to Teignmouth on the A379. It winds down to the sea and the railway.

Smugglers sailing in to the Exe had the advantage enjoyed by anyone landing goods at an estuary: once the land-guard was located, the cargo could safely be run on the opposite shore, with the knowledge that the lowest bridging point was a long ride upstream. Bribing the ferry-man or getting him drunk was a useful precaution and on the west side of the Exe, the ferry-men were frequently and lavishly entertained in the Mount Pleasant Inn at Dawlish Warren: smugglers often used the pub, and stowed contraband in nearby caves that the landlord obligingly hollowed for them in the soft soil. The windows of the pub were also used for signalling with a lantern, presumably to indicate which side of the estuary was safe. Goods were brought to the pub from the beach at the Warren itself, which until the arrival of the railway was virtually a no-go area, and a hide-out for villains, brigands and highwaymen of all sorts, quite apart from smugglers. Other landing spots nearby were at Teignmouth, where caves were used for storage [127], and a narrow inlet at Holcombe, on the road to Teignmouth. A storage cave at Holcombe was destroyed when the railway was built, but the track leading down to the secluded inlet is still called Smuggler's Lane.

The free-trade era is also commemorated at Shaldon on the south side of the Teign estuary, facing Teignmouth. The sheltered estuary was a favoured landing spot [128], and a smuggler's tunnel cuts through the cliff, leading to Shaldon beach.

St Marychurch

SX 9166 red map button 1m N of Torquay town centre (map 202).

Next to the Post Office in Park Road here is a small house used by smugglers, where there was once a hiding place under the hearth. Maidencombe Farm to the north, and Rocombe Farm also had places for concealing tubs. [129]

Storing the contraband wasn't the end of the story for local smugglers: distribution was also open to detection. Some Devon smugglers made a habit of carrying illicit spirits in pig-skins: one man at least escaped conviction by puncturing the skins, thus destroying the evidence, when he saw a revenue man approaching. Women with a 'skin-full' of spirits about themselves had a particular advantage, for they could not be legally searched [130], and a woman hawker from St Marychurch used this technique to great effect, hiding the skin under her shawl.

Engraving of Brixham
Brixham was home to several legendary smugglers, and was a regular port-of-call for Jack Rattenbury.This cutter is typical of the craft used by 19th-century smugglers. Click picture to enlarge


SX9455 red map button 5m S of Torquay. Berry Head is to the E of the town (map 202).

Smugglers here had a wily reputation: 'Resurrection' Jackman reputedly used his own funeral as a ruse for moving the goods inland. Revenue men appeared at the door of Jackman's house armed with cast-iron evidence against him, and were met by a house-full of wailing women. Jackman, they were told, was dead, and was to be buried in Totnes: the corpse was to be taken there the following night. However the custom-house officers were made suspicious by the vast size of the coffin, and decided to keep watch on the funeral cortege.

The two officers assigned to the duty had difficulty making out the procession in the pitch black, but to their horror, they were soon met by Jackman himself — pale as death, and riding a spectral horse.

...The nag cocked his tale
like a harpooned whale
and snorted a crimson flame

Screaming with fear, they fled. In reality, of course, the coffin contained brandy, which made its way safely on to Totnes — possibly to the Bay Horse Inn, which was a notorious watering hole for smugglers.

Curiously, this legend crops up again with small changes of detail, nearby. However, in the second version, the 'dead' man is Bob Elliot, who stored contraband in a cave at Berry Head [131]. The cave was said to be connected to the Laywell, a spring close to upper Brixham.

Burgh Island

SX6443 red map button 5m S of Modbury (map 202). The island is accessible on foot at low tide. Tom Crocker's hole is accessible only by sea.

Burgh Island was the smuggling domain of Tom Crocker. He gave his name to a cave on the coast of the island, and spent most of the time when he wasn't at sea in the Pilchard Inn. [132] However, little else seems to be known of the smuggler and his activities.

If you are interested in Tom Crocker and smuggling in South Hams generally, you may wish to look at the blog of university student Matt Grace: click here to go to his web page.

[114] Rattenbury, John, 1837

[115] Morshead, JY Anderson, Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1903, quoted by Coxhead, JRW

[116] Coxhead

[117] Coxhead

[118] Gould, 1899

[119] Harper, 1907

[120] Coxe, 1984

[121] Morshead, JY Anderson, History of Salcombe Regis, quoted by Coxhead.

[122] Delderfield, Eric R, 1948, Exmouth Milestones

[123] Paccombe Hill is at SY1690, 1m or so NE just N of the A3052

[124] 2m SW of Sidmouth

[125] Western Times and Gazette, May 11, 1956.

[126] Coxhead

[127] Coxe, 1984

[128] Coxe, 1984

[129] Devonshire Assoc

[130] Devonshire Assoc

[131] Page, 1895

[132] Coxe, 1984