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Photograph of cart tracks at Prussia Cove

Carts loaded with contraband have cut tram-lines into the rock surface of Prussia Cove Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: South-West England


Beyond the Lizard from Falmouth is the golden curve of Mounts Bay, with St Michael's Mount set like a jewel on the western side. It is the most westerly point in the country protected from the Atlantic storms, and the natural shelter made the area especially suitable as a fishing base, and, of course, for smuggling. The geographical situation lent itself to the free-trade in other ways, too. Mount's bay was well-placed for trips to France, to the Channel Islands, and the Scillies.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the whole region was extremely isolated, and this helped the cause of the free-trade. Overland communication was very difficult, because the roads were little more than cart tracks. Prevention therefore centred on the sea, and Penzance, which looks out over the west side of the bay, was furnished with a revenue cutter at an early stage in the game.


SW4630 red map button(map 203)

The effectiveness of the Penzance force seems a little dubious, to say the least, and there are numerous accounts of how the laws on trade were flouted, often in front of the very eyes of the preventive forces: in 1767 nine smugglers' vessels, including armed sloops, sailed from Penzance harbour in broad daylight; a man-of-war looked on, powerless to stop them. Five years later a customs boat from Penzance was plundered and sunk by smugglers, and later the same year, another smugglers' boat captured the revenue cutter Brilliant, which was lying in Penzance harbour with seized goods on board.

The collector of customs at Penzance describes how, in 1775, the smugglers worked in full view of the customs authorities:

'Two Irish wherries full of men and guns (one about 130 tons, and the other less) came to anchor within the limits of this port, and within half a mile of the shore, and lay there three days, in open defiance discharging their contraband goods. We are totally destitute of any force to attack them by sea, and as the whole coast is principally inhabited by a lot of smugglers under the denomination of fishermen, it is next to an impossibility for the officers of the revenue to intercept any of these goods after they are landed...the officers, being on the look-out, saw a boat come off from one of [the wherries] and come ashore near where the officers had secreted themselves, and the crew began to land the goods. The officers interfered, and attempted to make a seizure of said boat and goods; but a blunderbuss was immediately presented to one of their breasts, and the smugglers, with great imprecations, threatened their lives.

On another occasion, a large wherry landed 1500-2000 ankers of spirits, 20 tons of tea and other goods on the beach here, and a local officer of the customs wrote the following plaintive letter to his superiors:

In the western part of this county, smuggling, since the soldiers have been drawn off, has been carried on almost without control. Irish wherries, carrying 14, 16 or more guns, and well manned, frequently land large quantities of goods in defiance of the officers of customs and excise, and their crew, armed with swords and pistols, escort the SS a considerable distance from the sea. In this way, goods are carried from one part of the country to another almost every night...The 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 very considerable quantity of goods was concealed in the house and premises of a 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 a large whip, the others with sticks and bludgeons. They were told that if they persisted they would have their brains blown out. As the law now stands, I fear a criminal prosecution would have been useless for the reason, which it shocks me to mention, that a Cornish jury would certainly acquit the smugglers....These, my lord, are the facts. It would be mere pedantry to describe to your lordship the shocking effects, the moral and political consequences of smuggling carried to such a daring height, but I cannot help saying that perjury, drunkenness, idleness, poverty, and contempt of the law, and a universal corruption of manners are, in this neighbourhood, too plainly seen to accompany it.' [148]

The principal reason for this unhindered activity was the weakness of the excisemen, the strength of the smugglers and the degree of their local support. The involvement in the trade permeated to the very cream of society, even up to the lord Mayor's office: in 1770 the Mayor of Penzance was bound over with a large financial surety, to cease smuggling.

Given the way the laws against smuggling were flouted in the town itself, it would be surprising if there not support for the free-trade in the hinterland of Penzance. And indeed, a Madron man described how, when his father was apprenticed to a shoe-maker...

'to vary the monotony of the work, however, they often turned Gorran or Portloe, ten miles away, to fetch home smuggled goods — chiefly brandy. ...On arriving home, the liquor was coloured the right shade with burnt sugar, after which it was returned to the kegs and sold to trusty customers.' [149]

At Ludgvan, two miles north east of Penzance, the customs officers could not sell seized liquor in 1748, because of the vast quantity smuggled in. Smugglers were asking 3/3 a gallon for the illegally imported liquor: the reserve price on the seized goods was 5/6. See also this Penzance website which gives a concise description of smuggling in the area.

Engraving of St Michael's Mount

St Michael's Mount Click picture to enlarge 

The Carters of Prussia Cove

SW5527 red map button 7m W of Helston (map 203). The cove is approached along a minor road which leaves the A394 at Rosudgeon, some 7 miles E of Helston. There is a car park a short walk from the bays.

The most famous smugglers of the Mount's Bay area, and perhaps of all Cornwall, hailed from Prussia Cove, which is just east of Cudden Point. The place actually takes its name from the soubriquet of one of the family who lived and worked here. John Carter was the self-styled 'King of Prussia', and together with two brothers, Harry and Charles, he ran an efficient and profitable smuggling operation that continued for many years.

John Carter is said to have got his nickname from boyhood games in which he regularly claimed to be the King of Prussia. The cove was formerly called Porthleah, but gradually became known as 'the King of Prussia's Cove', and later just Prussia Cove or King's Cove on account of the Carter family's association with the area. The family used three small inlets for their business: Pisky's Cove on the west side, Bessie's Cove (named after the brewess who kept a beer shop on the cliff above) and King's Cove.

The spot has considerable natural advantages: it is

...'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; a harbour cut out of the solid rock and a roadway with wheel-tracks, partly cut and partly worn, climbing up the face of the cliff on either side of the cove, caves and the remains of caves everywhere, some of them with their mouths built up which are reputed to be connected with the house above by secret passages — these are still existing trademarks left by one of the most enterprising smuggling gangs that Cornwall has ever known' [150]

Certainly some of the fame of the family can be attributed to the autobiography written by Harry Carter. You can read it by clicking here. It was penned after he had seen The Light, given up smuggling and retired as a preacher. The book is short, but still makes for heavy reading, rambling on for pages in the best traditions of Wesleyism. Nevertheless, Carter describes in the course of the narrative some hair-rasing scenes.

Engraving of Harry Carter in a French prison. Illustration by Paul Hardy
Harry Carter in a French prison. Illustration by Paul Hardy. Click picture to enlarge

One Ill-fated smuggling trip took him to Cawsand — and almost to his death. As he guided the boat into the harbour, he assumed that the two small boats that came alongside were preparing to unload the contraband. Too late he realized they were from a man-of-war, and a fierce battle ensued. He was struck down, severely wounded, and left for dead, but after several hours his body was still warm although 'his head is all to atoms' as one of the guards observed. Despite his injuries, he was able to crawl across the deck and drop into the water. Once in, he found — not surprisingly — that his stout swimming skill had deserted him, and he was forced to pull himself along ropes at the ship's side, until he could touch the bottom and crawl out of the water. On land, he was picked up, half dead, by local men...

'My strength was allmoste exhausted; my breath, nay, my life, was allmoste gone....The bone of my nose cut right in two, and two very large cuts in my head, that two or three pieces of my skull worked out afterwards'

There was a bounty on Carter's head by now, and he fled from one safe house to the next, eventually taking refuge at Marazion and the farmhouse at Acton Castle. He lit fires only by night, so frightened was he of discovery, but recovered from his wounds in three months. That he even lived — let alone recovered — seems extraordinary when you remember that the incident took place in 1788.

Even before he took up the cause of Methodism, Harry Carter was an upright, honest and godly man, and the rest of the family appear to have been from a similar mould. Swearing and unseemly conversation was banned on their ships, and when living in exile in Roscoff, Harry Carter held church services every Sunday for the group of English smugglers in town. John Carter had a reputation for honest dealing. A favourite story tells how he broke into the Penzance custom house to rescue some confiscated tea stored there. His comrades were reluctant to help in such a risky venture, but John explained that he really had no choice. He had promised to deliver the tea by a certain date, and if he failed to fulfil his side of the contract, his reputation for honest dealing would be called into question. The excisemen, returning next morning to find the place ransacked, are said to have commented 'John Carter has been here, and we know it because he is an upright man, and has taken away nothing which was not his own.' Clashes with the excisemen occur in abundance in the book, naturally enough, but the most spectacular was probably an incident in which the smugglers fired a fusillade of shots at a revenue cutter, from a battery of guns impudently stationed between Bessie's and the King's cove. No damage was done, though the cutter returned fire.

Smuggling continued for some years after the King of Prussia had quit the throne. One later story tells of two men from the cove who were rowing home their small boat — the wind having dropped. They put in at Mullion, only to encounter a couple of excisemen on the beach. Offers of bribes were fruitless, so the rowing continued to Prussia cove itself. Here, hidden from the preventives by a headland, they traded cargo with a fisherman hauling in his pots, and when met by the excisemen, were able to show a clean hand. [151]

Mullion Cove

SW6617 red map button 6m S of Helston on the B3296 (map 203). The Chair is at SW660170 red map button , overlooked by the cliff path a mile or so S of the village.

Mullion Cove at the east of Mounts Bay was a favourite landing place for contraband, and the locals burned with loyalty for the free-traders. On one occasion here, Billy of Praow was bringing ashore contraband brandy, when the cargo was captured by a government brig. When news of this disaster spread the local people raided an armoury at Trenance, and opened fire on the brig in the bay until the cargo was returned.

Another story centres around the Spotsman: the nickname of a prominent local smuggler. Returning from France with a cargo of brandy, the Spotsman succeeded in landing the goods between Predannack Head and Mullion Cove, at a spot called locally 'the Chair'. However, the custom house had organized a reception committee, which the Spotsman's friends told him about when he met them at Predannack, just as they were firing a furze beacon. A mad scramble back to the cliffs saved the day: the tubs were quietly moved off the rocks to a nearby mineshaft. When the customs men arrived on the scene, the coast was deserted, and despite the fact that they came within a hundred yards of the hidden brandy, the excisemen were deceived, and returned with only the smugglers' boat to show for the night's work. When the preventives departed the smugglers clambered down the cliffs and recovered their property undetected. Two tubs that had floated free were later picked up by a friendly fishing boat. [152]

The Spotsman was fortunate to escape capture or injury on that particular run, but he wasn't always so lucky — on another occasion he was slow to reply to a challenge by another smuggler, and was therefore mistaken for a revenue man and shot. Fortunately he lost only his thumb in the encounter.

It was Lieut Drew, the chief Coastguard for the Mullion area, who is credited with smashing the smuggling ring in the district. Drew and a fellow coastguard interrupted a run, but the smugglers melted away into the night: the two men clambered to the beach to find a rope leading out to sea. Pulling on the rope, they hauled in 100 tubs! Aided by reinforcements summoned with flares, the men marked the tubs and put them under guard. In the morning, a crowd gathered to watch the coastguards man-handle the contraband up the cliffs and take it to Gweek custom house. Drew interrupted other attempts to run goods in the area, notably at Angrowse Cliffs, where the firing of a furze beacon warned off the smuggling vessel hovering off-shore. Despite the warning, the preventives from Mullion and Penzance recovered nearly 100 tubs that had been sunken by the ship. By 1840 the game was effectively up. [153] At Gunwalloe a little way to the north, caves on the beach were said to be linked by a tunnel to the belfry of a nearby church, and another passage joined the Halzephron inn to Fishing Cove, the home of a local smuggler called Henry Cuttance.


SW6225 2m SW of Helston. Methleigh Manor is at SW624264 red map button (map 203)

Local legend tells that tunnels connect caves in the cliffs to Methleigh Manor a mile or so away, and describe a chamber under the kitchen floor 'big enough to accommodate twelve jolly smugglers'. The floor of the Manor House was recently re-laid, and when workmen raised the flagstone said to cover the chamber, they found to their disappointment only a solid floor beneath. However, tales of tunnels hold more water, perhaps literally: tunnels cut in the bedrock do indeed exist at the Manor: they channelled water from the hills down to the mill that still stands in the courtyard. When dry, these tunnels could perhaps have been used to store contraband.

There are also rumoured to be further smugglers' tunnels leading from caves in the harbour area and other places on the coast nearby. The cliffs where some of them terminated are the site of many graves of drowned sailors, including, no doubt, some unidentified smugglers. The philosophy was that, since there was no way of determining whether these victims of the sea were Christian or not, they weren't entitled to burial in a churchyard. Stories of the drowned mariners make grim reading, as this letter from a local vicar to the Lord of Methleigh Manor illustrates:

Dear Sirs,
By the enclosed paper you will find that the number of dead bodies and of such parts of bodies as with respect to interment should we think be considered and paid for as such whole bodies, taken up within the precincts of your manor and buried there, after the last wreck amounts to 62. The extraordinary charge of two men attending constantly, one for 12 days, the other for 13 days at 1/6, was thought to be necessary, in order to secure the bodies as soon as they should be cast ashore, from being torn by dogs etc, and to prepare graves for their immediate reception being at that time very offensive.
The circumstance accounts for the great consumption of liquor without which the people would hardly have been prevailed with to touch the broken bodies, and also for the pack and rope by which they were drawn up over the cliff... [154]

The Ship Inn at Porthleven was rumoured to have numerous escape routes; these must be very cunningly concealed, because a search by the present landlord revealed no trace. However, a old local man recalls how, while standing in the cellar, a draft of air drew the smoke from his pipe into a fissure in the rock wall!


SW6728 red map button 10m S of Redruth (map 203). The Angel Inn is in the main street . There is a well, and other original features inside the pub, and the yard mentioned in the story still exists at the back of the pub.

Buildings at Helston were frequently pressed into service to house smuggled goods in transit from the coast, and an amusing story is told of the Angel Inn. George Michell drove a cart load of silk up to the pub, but was met by the landlady, who warned him of a party of searchers, awaiting his arrival. Michell sent his son round to the yard with the cart, walking brazenly into the bar, and bought the crowd of searchers a drink. Relieved that they had their quarry in sight, they accepted, and Michell managed to spin out the conversation for a good while, lacing the talk with flattery about the preventives skill and insight. Eventually, they heard a rumble of cart wheels, and, rushing to the window, the searchers saw an old horse-drawn hearse driving off — which they dismissed as a pauper's funeral. Needless to say, when the officers eventually got round to searching Michell's cart, they found only innocent provisions. [155]


Mousehole (SW4626) red map button lies just S of Newlyn. The pretty harbour is approached down steep hills — park outside the village and walk in, especially during the summer season.

Mousehole is the most westerly of the Mount's Bay smuggling villages, and here too the excise authorities do not appear to have been particularly diligent. Contraband was carried around openly during the day — when asked why he had not apprehended the villains, the preventive assigned to the town said he had been pelted with stones, and lay in his bed recovering.

This attitude did not go down well. Around 1780 charges were brought against the Mousehole officials for accepting bribes and cooperating with the smugglers. This is hardly surprising: Richard 'Doga' Pentreath of Mousehole was described by the Penzance Collector of Customs as 'an honest man in all his dealings though a notorious smuggler'. Another smuggler, Thomas Mann, was also described as honest.


Prior to the development of tourism, the population of the Scillies was hard put to find any legal gainful employment besides fishing, which was in any case seasonal. Smuggling was therefore the mainstay of the Islands' economy, and the Scillies were for a long time a valuable staging post for smuggling in the west country.

This idyllic state of affairs came to an end with the establishment of a preventive boat on the islands in the early part of the nineteenth century. The boat was effective, and the almost immediate result was ruination for the inhabitants. In 1818 they petitioned the Prince Regent, and their plight caught the attention of the Magistrates of the Western Division of the Hundred of Penwith. This grand-sounding body sent what would now be called a fact-finding mission to the islands to find out whether the pleas of the islanders had any foundation. The conclusion drawn was that the islands' economy had indeed been destroyed, and that

'some substitute should be provded...When this powerful measure was adopted by the present administration, it never could be in their contemplation to crush forever a multitude of families on those islands; who had for generations been brought up in this mode of support, and whose proceedings must at least have been very mildly treated for many years...the new System in the islands has destroyed almost every comfort of the unhappy sufferers.'

The problem was at least partly solved by a cash injection to stimulate the fishing industry. [156]

[148] Penzance custom-house book

[149] Jenkin

[150] Cornish Magazine

[151] Jenkin

[152] Harvey, EG, 1875

[153] Vivian

[154] The West Briton, reprinted in a mimeographed information sheet supplied by the present owner of Methleigh

[155] Jenkin

[156] Vivian