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Photograph of Brandy Cottage in North Gower
Brandy Cottage in North Gower was built specifically for smuggling, and once had vast cellars for storage. Click picture to enlarge


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Guide-Book: Wales & Northwest England


Information about smuggling in Wales and north-western England is not easy to find. Many of the official records compiled by the individual custom houses were lost in the fire that destroyed the Thames-side custom-house in 1815. What records remain provide a rather scant picture of the activities of the free-traders.

The fact that there is so little information to be found, though, certainly doesn't imply that the citizens living on the coast between Bristol to Carlisle were any more willing to pay customs and excise duty than the inhabitants of other parts of Britain. This poem, by the 18th century poet and singer Richard Lloyd of Plas Meini, sums up the simmering resentment in Wales

They've fixed the tax for the year today
God would never have done it this way
A tax when you die
A tax when you're born A tax on the water
A tax on the dawn
A tax upon the gallows tree
Even a tax on being free [166]

Certainly, the surviving correspondence between the customs board and the collectors of customs suggests that the level of evasion in this part of the country was fairly typical. However, by comparison with the south and east coasts of England, smuggling here was a comparatively minor problem, and the customs authorities were often more preoccupied with wrecking than with the deliberate running of goods.

A determined and ingenious smuggler can usually succeed in bringing goods ashore practically anywhere, but the geography of Wales, and the character of the Welsh provided the free-trader with some useful benefits: much of Wales was (and is) remote and sparsely populated; the few preventive centres were widely scattered, and under-funded; there are plenty of gently-sloping beaches and sheltered coves, which made landing easy in some areas; and the traditional independence of the Welsh people, and their resentment of interference from England must have also helped smugglers conceal their activities.

In what is now Cumbria, the majority of written information about smuggling comes from the legal side of the fence — court records detail sentences, and custom house books itemise seizures. So the picture we get of the Cumbrian smugglers is a dry and rather dull official one, rather than the more human folk image that prevails in many other areas.

The official records paint a picture of considerable smuggling traffic off-shore, but rather less contraband actually crossing the coast. This is perhaps surprising, since Cumbria would seem to be ideally situated for smuggling: it is just a short distance from the Isle of Man, a major sources of contraband, and borders Scotland. One possible explanation is that smugglers found it easier to land goods in Scotland than on the English side of the Solway, and had a ready market north of the border.

Certainly this explanation is confirmed by some of the comments in the local custom house letter books: in 1733 the authorities at Whitehaven reported that they regularly saw small boats from the Isle of Man 'Steering up for the Scottish Border where they generally land without much opposition, then bring the goods on horseback in the night into England'. And nearly two decades later the collector of customs at the same port noted that, although large quantities of goods came in via Scotland, landings on the Cumbrian side of the Solway had declined.

Records of sales of seized goods provide a guide to the level of smuggling activity around the Cumbrian coast, and in some years the quantities are considerable. However, the source of much of this contraband was vessels seized at sea, so it's hard to distinguish between goods that would have been run into England, and those that were headed to Scotland.

As in Scotland, Cumbrian use of the word 'smuggling' covers not only illegal import and export, but also illicit stilling of spirits, which lies beyond the scope of this web-site. Certainly this fraud on the revenue was widespread in the 18th century, and the smuggling yarns that are to be found in books — notably centred on one Lancelot Slee of Langdale — generally fall into this category. Nevertheless, relatively few stories of land smuggling have found their way into print, either officially, or through oral history. Perhaps the Cumbrian smugglers kept their lips tightly closed?


As happened elsewhere, the character of smuggling in Wales and the northwest varied in line with the prevailing taxation policies, but trading patterns had an effect, too. The south coast of Wales had two great advantages — proximity to Bristol, which was the main British port for trade with the New World; and relatively high population, eager to buy uncustomed goods.

It was a simple matter to transfer to small boats at least part of the cargo from inward-bound ships as they sailed serenely along the Bristol Channel, and then attribute the shortfall on arrival to 'spoilage' or 'lost in storms'. More often, bribery secured the silence of officials not only at Bristol but at official landing places in Wales. When tobacco smoking came into vogue, many Welsh clay pipes were filled with Virginia leaf imported in this manner.

The Channel Islands was a major source of contraband entering Wales, and at least one Guernsey smuggler, Richard Robinson, had vessels off the coast of Glamorgan. He commanded the largest of these himself, and a smaller vessel was in the charge of his son Pasco. The pair were operating in the 1730s, principally landing goods on Flat Holm, for later onward shipment to Wales.

Smuggling in Wales received a boost with the Irish 'troubles' at the end of the 17th century. These led to a ban on civil shipping in the West, so honest residents were deprived of much of the cargo that would previously have been legitimately landed. Smugglers were happy to step into the breach, and import the creature comforts that people had become used to.

North Wales and northwest England look out across the Irish Sea, and there is evidence to suggest that much of the contraband landed here came from Ireland. Heavy taxation on salt made this a favourite cargo for smuggling ships, and Ireland was a major source of rock-salt. As the incident at Conwy demonstrates, salt smuggling drew support from every part of the community. Recognizing that there was a problem, the authorities carried out a survey of the Welsh coast in 1740 — a member of the salt board trudged wearily from port to port, largely (and often prematurely) reporting 'no smuggling takes place here'.

Irish vessels didn't necessarily take the shortest route and may have avoided mid-Wales because of the risk of running aground on the sandy shallows which abound in the local bays [167]. Instead, many Irish ships made a longer trip through St George's Channel, to land goods on the south Wales coast.

Besides being a major original source of some forms of contraband, Ireland was probably also used as a depot for goods brought in from the continent. The trip from the Irish coast took only a matter of hours with favourable wind and tide, and an overnight stop in an Irish creek must have seemed an attractive option to exhausted crews who might otherwise face an opposed landing at the end of the long trip from France.

Ireland wasn't the only off-shore depot. Lundy Island to the south was heavily used by smugglers for storage and freight forwarding, and other islands — especially Ramsey, Skomer and Skokholm off the Pembroke coast — were probably used in the same way.

North Wales and Northern England are conveniently close to the Isle of Man, and certainly much of the untaxed brandy quaffed on Anglesey and in Cumberland came into Britain via the three-legged isle.

Brandy may have been the first cargo smuggled into Wales, but one Victorian writer suggested that wool and corn export was rife in Wales long before import smuggling began...'The almost impassable hills and cwms (dingles) were looked upon as protection against discovery'. She added that the people involved in wool export were chiefly landowners, whereas the importers...'of brandy, Hamburg spirit, tea and silk...were of a lower order, who frequently showed so much brutality that eventually they became a terror to the people.' [168]

It wasn't just luxury goods that smugglers brought to the eager Welsh and Cumberland markets: in some parts, grinding poverty and near starvation created a demand for even ordinary foodstuffs. Poverty cut both ways, though, and was exploited not only by the smugglers, but also by the preventive forces, who relied for information on paid informers.

[166] Quoted by Thomas and kindly translated by Hugh Denman

[167] Watkins, KC

[168] Trevelyan, Marie