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Photograph of Cawsand
The picturesque port of Cawsand was once a hotbed of smuggling. Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: South-West England


Engraving of Plymouth
The huge naval presence at Plymouth did little to deter local smugglers, who simply unloaded their contraband at nearby Cawsand. Click picture to enlarge

Cawsand and Kingsand

SX4350 red map button on the W shore of Plymouth Sound (map 201). Approach the villages via the B3247 then minor roads. Restricted street parking in the village centre during the summer season; use the car parks or park outside and walk in.

The vast natural harbour of Plymouth had a naval presence throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, which made smuggling activity more difficult, but apparently did not preclude it completely. The city itself formed the largest market for contraband in Cornwall, so it's not surprising to find some notorious villages nearby. The twin villages of Cawsand and Kingsand owe their pre-eminence in the trade to their position: goods brought in there could be easily ferried across the harbour to Plymouth.

In the last years of the 18th century a visitor to Cawsand described it in vivid terms:

'We descended a very steep hill, amidst the most fetid and disagreeable odour of stinking pilchards and train oil, into the town...In going down the hill...we met several females, whose appearance was so grotesque and extraordinary, that I could not imagine in what manner they had contrived to alter their natural shapes so completely; till, upon enquiry, we found that they were smugglers of spiritous liquors; which they were at that time conveying from cutters at Plymouth, by means of bladders fastened under their petticoats; and, indeed, they were so heavily laden, that it was with great apparent difficulty that they waddled along.'

The main hazard to this trade, it appears, was not the customs authorities, but drunken sailors who delighted in puncturing the bladders.

Cawsand and Kingsand merge so seamlessly that it is difficult to imagine the bitter rivalry that once existed between the two communities. Both towns were hotbeds of smuggling — in 1804 the revenue services estimated that 17,000 kegs of spirits had been landed here in just one year.

Harry Carter, a famous Cornwall smuggler, frequently used Cawsand for his illicit activities, and on one of these trips his boat was boarded by sailors from a man-of-war anchored nearby. In the hand-to-hand fighting that ensued, he sustained a cutlass wound that almost killed him.

Cawsand carried on legitimate business as a boat-building centre, but even this activity was not entirely innocent: the village was the source of many smuggling luggers. This design of boat drew very little water — very handy for trips up shallow estuaries with muffled oars.


SX2553 red map button 7m S of Liskeard (map 201)

The open beaches of Whitsand Bay made a fine landing when the coast was sufficiently clear for covert runs, but smugglers seeking a more discreet approach headed for Looe, and brought the goods ashore on Looe Island. There are various stories about the inhabitants of the island, and their involvement in the trade. One story names them Hamram, and his daughter 'Tilda; another account makes them brother and sister: Fyn and Black Joan, who moved to the island from the Mewstone at the mouth of Plymouth Sound after their outlaw father died. They were said to have eaten every rat and rabbit on the island!

Whatever their origins, the pair stored contraband in a cave which was hidden even from the smugglers, who paid a fee for each tub concealed. The cave's custodians liaised with a farmer on the mainland. When he was able to divert the customs authorities, or when he knew they posed no threat to a landing, he would ride his white horse along the coast. This acted as a signal to the islanders who would then use a lamp to tell the smugglers waiting off-shore that the coast was clear. If there was danger, the farmer would walk the horse home.

Some of these stories perhaps seem a little far fetched, but locals repeating them back up the yarns by recounting how a picnic party on the island once rushed into a barn to shelter from a storm, and fell through the floor into a hidden cache of spirits. [133]

In West Looe Ye Olde Jolly Sailor was a smuggler's haunt, and here too the story is told of how the quick-thinking landlady once concealed an illicit keg beneath her petticoats during an unexpected search. While the preventives searched, she calmly knitted.

Photograph of Robert Mark's tombstone in Talland church
Robert Mark's tombstone in Talland church Click picture to enlarge


SX2251 red map button 2m E of Looe on a minor road off the A387 to Polperro (map 202). Restricted parking near the beach (fee).

The village of Talland was at one time a thriving community, and the bay was a favourite landfall for smuggling boats from the continent. All that now remains of the village is the church high on the steep hill above Talland Bay.

Near the door of the church in the south west corner there is an interesting tombstone commemorating Robert Mark. Like others in the graveyard, this elegantly-carved stone carries a rhyming epitaph:

Erected to the memory of Robert Mark, late of Polperro, who was unfortunately shot at sea, the 24th of January in the year of our Lord God 1802, in the 40th year of his age.
In prime of life, most suddenly, Sad tidings to relate,
Here view my utter destiny,
And pity my sad state.
I by a shot which rapid flew,
Was instantly struck dead.
Lord pardon the offender who
My precious blood did shed.
Grant him to rest, and forgive me
All I have done amiss:
And that I may be rewarded
With everlasting Bliss.

Local legends differ about Mark's identity. One story has it that while on a smuggling trip he died from wounds inflicted by a revenue man's pistol ball. This is borne out both by the details on the tombstone, and by the fact that a smuggler of the same name was sentenced in May 1799 for resisting arrest when the smuggling vessel Lottery (see below) was captured. However, another account makes him not a free-trader but a revenue man who was shot in a cellar on dry land; Jonah Puckey, the ringleader of a smuggling gang, reputedly fired the shot that killed him.

In the 18th century, the vicar of Talland, the Rev Richard Dodge, had a reputation for his ability to raise and lay ghosts at will. Parishioners were said to be afraid of meeting him at night for fear of his devilish accomplices. It seems likely, however, that he fostered these stories to keep people out of the way while the smuggling went on.

Old postcard of Polperro
In this early 20th-century postcard, Polperro is little changed from the time when it was the notorious haunt of smugglers. Click picture to enlarge


SX2051 red map button 5 miles E of Looe on the A387 (map 201). If possible, visit in the early morning to miss the crowds. Park on the cliff-tops on either side of the village, and approach the harbour using the south west coast path. The Polperro smuggling museum houses a small collection of pictures and other items associated with the free-trade.

Polperro is a village of enormous contrasts: approach from the cliffs, and it's easy to see what this charming port was like when it was a favourite landfall for smugglers of lace, brandy and tea; the popular tourist approach on the other hand requires the visitor to run the gauntlet of chip- and souvenir shops, and gives no hint of the treat awaiting at the foot of the hill. The harbour area survives almost intact, surrounded by white and pastel-painted houses looking out across the water.

A particularly colourful Polperro legend involves 'Battling Billy', who ran the Halfway House Inn. Faced with the perennial problem of transporting kegs of brandy inland without being detected by the preventive services, he hit on the idea of using a hearse. The ruse worked well for a while, but Billy ran into trouble when one cargo had to be unloaded by daylight. Just as the last keg was being pushed into the hearse, the revenue men arrived, and Billy whipped the horses into a ferocious gallop, shouting back 'If they shoot me dead, my body'll drive the load to Polperro' .

According to the story, this is precisely what happened: a bullet went clean through Billy's neck, so that his head hung limp and lifeless, but his whip-hand continued to urge the horses on. When they reached Polperro, the dead man drove straight down the main street, off the quayside and into the harbour. Battling Billy's ghost still haunts the narrow cobbled streets.

Rooted more in fact is the tragic story of the Lottery, a Polperro smuggling vessel much wanted by the customs authorities. The most well-known version of the story has its origins in a 19th century history of the village [134], and is sympathetic towards the Polperro smugglers' cause: here are the bones of the story...

When the Cawsand customs men saw the ship becalmed half a mile from Penlee Point, they thought their luck was in, and in due course they put to sea several rowing boats. The crew of the Lottery, seeing that capture was imminent, set to work preparing for battle, and the preventive forces responded by opening fire when they were still some distance away. As the gap closed, a figure on the deck of the Lottery took aim and fired, and almost immediately one of the crew in the King's boat dropped at the oars, dying of his wounds. Seeing this, the boats headed back to port, and the incensed authorities put out orders to seize the crew of the Lottery.

The seamen became outlaws in their home town. Some lay concealed in cramped hiding places in their homes; others fled. But eventually one of the Lottery crew, Roger Toms, came forward and pointed the finger at Tom Potter as the man who pulled the trigger.

Potter was still free, and Toms became a marked man. As a key witness, he was taken on board a government cutter, and became — effectively — a prisoner himself. However, the Polperro men managed to lure him ashore by arranging a rendezvous with his wife, and Toms was seized at Lantick and spirited away to Guernsey, en route for America.

In Polperro, all eyes were on the patrolling dragoons, and the authorities initially had little success in tracing Potter. However, by raiding the town from the west, they managed to surprise the smuggler in his home, and he was taken to London for trial.

Meanwhile, Toms the informer had been tracked down in the Channel Islands, and was therefore able to give evidence at the trial. He never saw the shot fired, but claimed that Potter had come down from the deck and, swearing, said he had 'done for one of them'. On this evidence alone, Potter was executed.

In Polperro there was fury at the injustice of the conviction. According to one report, the slaughtered oarsman had been killed by a member of his own crew, and the musket ball had entered his body from the side facing away from the Lottery. Toms would surely have been murdered had he returned home, and since he was the considered a valuable witness in the trial of the other members of the crew (who remained at large) he was kept at Newgate. He was employed there in some menial capacity until his death.

There is, of course, another side to the story. Government records [135] and evidence at Potter's trial assert that the smugglers fired first, and the men in the custom house boat opened fire only when one of their crew members had been shot. The crew-man who died was shot in the front of his head, and though some suggest that this is proof that he was shot from the Lottery, it's hardly conclusive. Certainly if he was looking at the smugglers' ship when he fell, the ball would have passed through his forehead. But pulling on oars, he would have faced away from the Lottery.

However, the most convincing evidence that the shot came from the Lottery is to be found in the records of the trial. The defence never argued that the boatman had been felled by a government bullet, which they would surely have done if there was thus any chance of avoiding the noose.
Engraving of a ship approaching Fowey harbour
Approaching Fowey harbour. Click picture to enlarge


SX1251 red map button 6m E of St Austell. The town can be approached from either side of the Fowey Estuary: there's an all-year-round vehicle ferry service across the river, and a frequent passenger ferry nearby. Parking is difficult at busy times. (Map 200).

The story of an abortive 1835 landing close to Fowey and its court sequel is especially interesting in that it illustrates how difficult it was for the customs authorities to secure convictions from a local jury, even when all the evidence pointed to guilt.

Illustration showing the method of concealing contraband tubs on a ship's false keel
Vigilant customs officers who seized the Fowey sloop Lucy in December 1828 discovered that her sleek hull hid an alcoholic secret. A hundred half-ankers of spirits were concealed below the waterline, on either side of a false keel. Illustration by E. Keble Chatterton

Two coastguards from Fowey went to Lantick Hill, and hid in bushes near Pencannon [136] Point. After a wait, at least 100 men arrived on the beach — 20 of them batsmen. One of the coastguards went to get help, and meanwhile, the activity on the beach continued out of sight of his mate. When reinforcements arrived the party of six plucky preventives challenged the smugglers, and there was a fierce battle; one of the coastguards was knocked unconscious, but five smugglers were eventually arrested. A party from the revenue cutter Fox eventually met up with the six coastguards, and captured 484 gallons of Brandy.

When the case came to court, the men were charged with 'assisting others in landing and carrying away prohibited goods, some being armed with offensive weapons.' The defense argued that the clubs were just walking sticks — this despite the fact that the group had been caught red-handed. The local vicar was called as a character witness for one of the accused, and local farmers vouched for the good name of the others. The judge pointed out when summing up that if the coastguard had been killed, instead of just being knocked out, the five prisoners would have been on a murder charge. Despite this, the jury acquitted, adding that they did not consider the clubs to be offensive weapons. [137]

Contraband from this abortive landing may have been headed for the Crown and Anchor Inn on the quayside at Fowey, since the smuggler Richard Kingcup was at one time the landlord there. [138]


SX0144 red map button 5 miles S of St Austell on the B3273. Parking very restricted (map 204)

Like Cawsand, Mevagissey was a town renowned for its boat builders. The large vessels built here in the 18th century when smuggling still took place relatively openly were capable of tremendous speeds, and could make the crossing from Roscoff in a day or less. Boat builders here also constructed vessels for the preventive forces, and the trade still continues at the port.

The Roseland Peninsula

SW8530 directly across the Carrick Roads from Falmouth (map 204). Topographical evidence would suggest that the boat mentioned below was carried from Towan Beach (SW872328) red map button to the inlet at Froe, across what is now the minor road leading to St Anthony's Head.

Smuggling stories here centre around the St Anthony's Head, and the peninsula of land leading to it. At one point only a narrow strip of lowland separates the sea from the creek that flows into the Percuil River, and though the stories are related so as to make either the smuggler or the revenue service look foolish, all centre around one side outwitting the other by carrying a light boat overland while the other side watches from the headland. One story tells of a St Mawes customs officer who realized that the Porthscatho smugglers operating in Gerrans Bay kept watch on hills overlooking St Mawes harbour, so that they had time to disperse if a revenue boat approached around the headland. By carrying a small boat across the isthmus, he mounted a surprise attack. [139]

St Mawes was the base for Robert Long, a seventeenth century smuggler who met an untimely end — he was executed, and his body was hung in chains on the road from the town to Ruan Lanihorne. [140]

The Fal and Tresillian Rivers

(Map 204) King Harry vehicle ferry now takes the B3289 from Truro to St Mawes across King Harry's Passage near Trelissick House at SW8439. The ferry avoids a 30-mile detour through Truro, but service is restricted outside the tourist season. Check on the operator's website by clicking here for detail. Malpas is a small pleasant settlement about 2 miles S of Truro along a minor road. From the waterside, you can look out across to Sunset Creek (SW8442) red map button The tombstone mentioned is in the churchyard at Mylor Churchtown (SW820352) red map button at the intersection of two paths a little way from one of the waterside gates.

The tree-like branches of the creeks and tidal inlets of these rivers make communications difficult for the modern-day traveller, but the situation was completely the reverse for the waterborne smuggler, and there are many local reminders of the smuggling era. Close to Truro, Sunset Creek, opposite Malpas, was the site of Penpol Farm, which featured a sunken road, and hiding places in caves and woodland [141]. Tresillian creek to the east and Mylor creek to the south were also popular landing places: at Mylor can still be seen a memorial dated 1814 to a fishermen who had the misfortune to be shot in error by revenue men. The epitaph reads...

Photograph  of  the tombstone of the fisherman of Mylor who was shot by customs men in 1814
Tombstone of the fisherman of Mylor who was shot by customs men in 1814. Click picture to enlarge

We have not a moment we can call our own.
Official 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.

Just to the south of Mylor, at Penrhyn, local legend tells of a tunnel linking the shore to St Gluvias' Vicarage, and farther down the creek on the south side, there are two caves used for storage. A tunnel on the same site has now been blocked [142].

Near to one of these creeks in 1801 a mounted smuggler carrying two ankers of spirits was surprised by a customs man. The incident occurred on the steep road leading down to King Harry's Passage. The two haired down the hill, the revenue man gaining all the time. The smuggler eventually plunged into the water to escape, but the exhausted horse was in danger of drowning, so the smuggler dismounted, and cut free the barrels. Despite being relieved of his burden and aided by the fact that his rider swam alongside supporting his head, the nag sank and drowned. The smuggler escaped, but with the help of the ferry-man the preventive rescued the barrels. [143]

Falmouth area

Falmouth is at SW83 red map button (map 204). Helford lies some 4m SW at SW7627 red map button

The smugglers of this busy port operated on an extraordinary scale, and used a whole range of techniques, from subterfuge through to bribery and outright thuggery. An incident in 1762 illustrates just one spectacular aspect of the local trade.

The crews of the East Indiamen returning to Britain habitually sold goods to visiting locals, but at Falmouth the practice was taken to extremes. Three ships from China anchored in the bay, and for a fortnight held a regular on-board bazaar, selling silk, muslin, dimityes, china, tea, arrack, handkerchiefs and other goods. The town was filled with people of every rank from a 20 mile radius, and the ships drained the area of cash: a writer estimated that the through the private adventures of the East Indiaman's crew £20,000 worth of business, was concluded and complained that 'a week after ye ships sailed I could not get a bill of exchange from any merchant in town'. He added

'The captains and officers are allowed large priveleges (sic), and there are ways and means of dealing with Custom-house officers...'

Clearly such ways and means were not universally effective, for when a similar incident happened 3 years later, an excise vessel came down from London, and carried out several seizures. This in itself demonstrates how openly the trade was carried on. Remember that a message had to reach London from Falmouth, and the excise vessel then had to return to make the seizure. [144]

Mail-order smugglers

The Falmouth postal packet ships were also heavily implicated in smuggling. The packet crews were not just entrepreneurs — they were so badly paid that they had little choice but to smuggle, just to live.

They ran what amounted to a mail order service. For example, the steward of the Manor-office ordered 24 hams from Portugal, and to reduce the risk of all being seized, he instructed that they should be sent in two consignments

...'for as they are lyable to the Seizure of ye Custom house officers, a greater number by one ship would be in danger....the best way to have them safe, I believe, will be to Send a trustey Servant for them, who will consult with the captain on ye safest means of escaping ye officers'. [145]

War led to larger crews on the packet boats, and this in itself was good for trade in Falmouth. In 1739 one commentator could scarcely conceal his glee at the prospect of imminent war with Spain...

'There is something to be hoped, past experience teaching us that the Town will flourish in a French war'

Spoiling the game

1743, though, brought an unexpected crack-down which strangled Falmouth trade. The same writer outlined the import/export service which the postal packet carriers had provided:

...our shopkeepers...send over great quantities of woolen stockings, hatts, pewter and other goods to ye value of some thousand pounds by ye saylors for sale, upon getting a certain price upon ye goods to be paid for when sold (what the saylors make beyond the price set being their own), and if not to be returned. The Saylors on receiving ye money for ye goods at Lisbon lay it out in wines, Sugars, fruit and divers other things which they sell at an advantage when they come home, and so pay the shopkeepers either in money or in such Portugall comodityes as he deals in.

The writer then goes on to explain how the licensed wine dealers and British traders in Portugal (who were, of course, being undercut) were spoiling it for everyone by complaining to the customs authorities, and as a result...'a pacquet on arriving would be rummaged and stripped of whatever goods were found in her...' This in itself was not usually a disaster, because under the former system, the customs men were gentlemen of honour, and the shopkeepers could get back the seized goods by...

gratifying ye officers who seized them, but this is now refused and severall bales of these goods bro't ashore from ye pacquets of late, are ordered to be condemned...The commissioners of the Customs are making sad work among our shopkeepers and pacquet people, and seem determined to break ye neck of the trade carryed on in these things, which I apprehend will be an ugly thing for the Falmouth people, this trade being ye best support of our shopkeepers.

The smugglers of Falmouth matched with cunning the vigilance of the collectors of customs. Newspaper reports for 24 May 1839 provide an interesting insight into the battle. A schooner loaded with coals docked in the harbour, and immediately attracted attention, since the excisemen suspected the ship of being used for illicit activity, but had never been able to gather enough evidence. The coals were gradually unloaded, but the crew were so blasé about the operation that the customs authorities began to think they were barking up the wrong tree. However, when a customs officer set to work boring holes in the hull with a gimlet, the crew mysteriously melted away — obviously anticipating what was to happen next. Withdrawing the gimlet, the customs officer received a face-full of brandy, from a tub stowed in a cavity between the false interior of the hull and the outside. Altogether there 276 barrels of brandy and gin in the space, but the loss to the smugglers cannot have been too disastrous, since the ship had been operating for 3 years without detection [146].

The creeks south of Falmouth, notably at Gweek and Helford, also proved useful to smugglers seeking privacy for their activities, as did the beaches and small fishing ports at Porthallow, Porthoustock, Godrevy Cove, Coverack, Black Head and Kennack Sands. Smugglers from this area were apparently remarkably daring, and continued their activities even in the face of stiff opposition. In September 1840 a 30-strong gang of smugglers using several carts broke open the custom-house at Helford, and removed 126 half ankers of Brandy, which had been confiscated a few days before at Coverack. They worked from 1 to 1.30, but generously left 3 barrels for the excisemen. The customs-man on station heard the doors being forced, but was powerless to do anything — the nearest dwelling was 3/4 of a mile away.

The tubs had been seized from the Teignmouth — they were lashed to the outside of the boat (although this technique was common in Kent, it was less convenient for the long crossing to Cornwall). When the vessel reached the beach at Gweek, the crew hailed two men on the beach for help — they proved to be customs officers, who drew their pistols and arrested crew, ship and cargo. [147]

[133] Baring Gould

[134] Couch, 1871

[135] Quoted by Noal, 1971

[136] Possibly Pencarrow Head, which overlooks Lantic Bay, 1m E of Fowey

[137] Vivian

[138] Coxe, 1984

[139] John Vivian,

[140] Coxe, 1984

[141] Noall

[142] Coxe, 1984

[143] Cornwall Gazette, April 29 1801

[144] Gay

[145] Gay

[146] Jenkin

[147] Jenkin