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Photograph of Culver Hole on the Gower peninsula
A passage from spectacular Culver Hole may have helped Gower smuggler John Lucas to sneak his contraband inland. Click picture to enlarge

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Guide-Book: Wales & Northwest England


The Gower peninsula is conveniently close to the huge market place of Swansea, yet is amply supplied with secluded bays and sandy inlets where it was a simple matter to bring contraband ashore unobserved. Swansea coal ships found it convenient in the late 18th century to be 'blown off course' to Ireland, where they could load up with salt and soap. On the return trip, Gower made a handy stopping-off point. Those that exported coal to the continent did not return empty, either.

The chief preventive station was Swansea, but the authorities were hampered by lack of facilities and money (as elsewhere in the country) and there is the usual run of letters to the board of customs in the vein of 'If only we had a boat/a new boat/another boat/a bigger boat/ we could do more. In this instance, the grievance is probably legitimate, and the ill-equipped preventives were no match for the local free-traders, as this complaint in 1730 illustrates:

'The smugglers are grown very insolent and obstruct our officers in the execution of their duty...the master and mariners of the ship Galloway ...came up on deck with pistols and drawn cutlasses and refused them to rummage'.

The smugglers presented Gower farmers with an interesting quandary — The landowners had no choice but to cooperate by lending their horses and barns, yet the demand for carriers and bat-men drove up wages locally. If you want to sea the peninsula from the sea, and hear some smuggling stories, you may enjoy a trip on the Gower Explorer powerboat. Click HERE for details.

Brandy Cove

SS586874 red map button 2m W of the Mumbles (map 159). Take the B4593 to Caswell. Leaving Caswell, the road bends sharply to the right at the top of a steep hill, then left about a mile farther on, then right again. At this third bend, turn left down a cul-de-sac and park at the end. Follow the farm track to reach Brandy Cove.

The name of this delightful and concealed cove requires no amplification, and acts as fairly damning evidence of the role the beach played in the free-trade. The cove is almost concealed by rocks, and is often deserted, even when tourists throng more accessible Caswell Bay just half a mile away.

Engraving of Swansea harbour
In the 1720s Swansea smugglers were so influential that they had the port's customs officers summoned for jury service on a day when they landed a large cargo in the harbour. Click picture to enlarge

Pwlldu and the Highway

3m W of the Mumbles (map 159). The farms at Highway are either side of a minor road that leaves the B4436 at Pennard SS5588. To reach Pwlldu Bay, continue along the road and park at the Southgate NT car-park at SS555875 red map button , then follow the track for about three miles down to the isolated beach.

Central on the south coast of Gower, Pwlldu headland guided smuggling boats to the bay at its foot. The 300 foot high headland also provided a very convenient vantage point for keeping an eye on the opposition.

The name of the place is Welsh for black pool: a shingle bar blocks the river flowing into Pwlldu bay, forming a pool. The house behind the pebble bank was once the Beaufort Inn: the landlord here was said to have made a convenient arrangement with the local smugglers — they used his cellars for free storage, but they never took out of the cellars quite as many barrels as they rolled in. A cottage on the cliff path west of the beach was also used by smugglers, though it is now in ruins.

The bay was a hotbed of smugglers: one local writer claims that more contraband was landed here than anywhere else in the Bristol Channel. To the visitor the advantages are obvious. From the sheltered bay, transport inland was virtually invisible, the wooded Bishopston valley providing plenty of cover. From the valley, farms at Highway were used as staging posts, and as headquarters for the smuggling company. In the second half of the 18th century the gang was run by William Arthur of Great Highway Farm, and John Griffiths of Little Highway. William Arthur had been described as 'the most daring smuggler in Glamorgan during the 18th century', and at one stage he ruled Barry Island almost as a kingdom.

In 1786 there was a raid on Highway farm by 12 revenue men but Arthur had been kept well informed, and the customs and excise officers were met with a stout defence — a 'Body of desperate fellows...amounted to One hundred'. The king's men retreated with bruised pride. Two subsequent expeditions to capture Arthur failed in 1788.

A local tale relates how a customs officer arrived at one of the farms with a search warrant, and discovered a half-anker of brandy concealed in the attic. The officer sent for reinforcements, but in the meantime kept a close watch on the barrel. Meanwhile, the smugglers created a terrific row in the room below to conceal the noise as one of them bored a hole through the floor of the attic and the base of the tub, draining the contents of the barrel into a tub waiting below.

The farms at Highway still exist, some 400 yards west of the crossroads at Pennard. The present occupiers — one of who is descended from smuggler Griffiths — know nothing of the cellars [185], and the buildings have been considerably changed over the last two centuries. The former occupant didn't entirely escape the attentions of the law: he paid a fine of £5 5s for concealing prohibited goods in 1789. However, in 1802, the Swansea Guide referred to him as 'a proprietor of considerable stone-coal and culm collieries on the Swansea canal', so he had clearly retired from the free-trade by the turn of the century. [186]

Oxwich Sands

SS5187 red map button (map 159) 8m from Swansea on the A4118.

Smugglers landed many of their cargoes at Oxwich sands and an incident that took place there in 1804 is fascinating not only because it led to the break-up of the gang based at Highway, but also because it displays the näiveté of some of the smugglers. A smuggling cutter dropped anchor in the bay, and two of the crew rowed to the beach to ask directions to Highway. The two men walking on the beach gave the mariners detailed directions, and as the helpful locals ambled away the run began. By midnight most of the contraband had been carried to Highway, and hidden in cellars. A skin of earth concealed the entrance to the cellars.

Unfortunately the apparently casual passers-by were actually members of the preventive authorities, and in the early hours of the morning a raid started. Early searches were fruitless, but eventually the customs men discovered the hidden chambers, and seized 420 casks of spirits. Most of these were transported back to Swansea under guard, but 17 kegs never arrived — a crowd of 200 local people waylaid the convoy, and had to be pacified with a drink from the barrels. Even when the guard on the barrels was increased to 50 men, the spirits weren't safe; the commanding officer knew that his men would help themselves to the booze, so the soldiers were given permission to drink what they liked while on guard.

Port Eynon

At the end of the A4118, 13m from Swansea. The Salt House is at SS469845 red map button close to the beach car-park. To reach the spectacular Culver Hole red map button walk up to the Gower Society obelisk high on the headland (it's clearly visible from the Salt House). When you reach the obelisk, turn left (west) and walk along the cliff-top path. After about 120 paces, look to the seaward side of the path, and you should spot a track slanting diagonally down. Follow the track cautiously down to Culver Hole.

On the southernmost tip of Gower, the ruined Salt House is today the only reminder of a powerful dynasty that dominated smuggling there for a century or more. The Lucas family have a long and distinguished history — Sir Charles Lucas fought for the King in the Civil War, and was executed under Cromwell's instructions. The family had some black sheep, though, notably John...'of fine and bold front and very comely in the eye but lawless and of fierce and ungovernable violence'. John spent nine years roaming abroad...

'engaging his handes in much violations of all laws...'.

When he returned to Gower, he set to fortifying Ye Salte House:

'...with the battlement and walls thereof all round reached even unto the clift and the rocks on the edge of ye wilde parte of ye foreshore near unto Porth Eynon and storing said stronghold with arms and also rebuilded and repaired another stronghold called Kulverd Hall [Culver Hole]...[he] connected the two strongholds by a passage under the grounds where of no man was told ye mouthe. He became outlaw, engaged in smuggling matters secoured ye pirates and ye French smugglers and rifled ye wrecked ships and forced mariners to serve him...He was assisted by George ap Eynon of Brinefield and by Robert de Skurlege, and a band of ruthless young men gathered round them.' [187]

John Lucas wasn't all bad, though. It's said that all his law-breaking abroad was done 'in the King's name' and that he used the spoils of his smuggling trips to support the Gower poor.

There are local stories of a hidden cache of contraband in the vast cellars below the ruins, and secret passages in the area 'some of them big enough for a man to ride through on horseback'. Another local legend has smugglers using pigeon post to give advance warning of their arrival [188], but this story probably started because Culver hole was at one time used as a pigeon loft, quite separately from its role as a contraband store. Kulverd, the root of the place name, is old English for pigeon.

The church at Port Eynon was used as hiding place for contraband around the time of the battle of Trafalgar — kegs were hidden in the altar — and at other times, the goods were buried in the sand-dunes.


SS4190 red map button at the extreme W of Gower

The gently curving beach here was a natural Gower landing spot. Smuggling continued here long after it was stamped out at Port Eynon by the stationing there of a preventive boat and a force of eight stout 'Sea Fencibles'. Eventually, though, the preventives realised what was going on at Rhosili, and by 1805 had become a little more watchful. There were various clashes on the sands, and it seems the two sides were fairly evenly matched. In June, the customs officers seized 115 kegs, but three months earlier they didn't fare so well — two preventives were man-handled by a smuggling gang and severely beaten. One was locked up in William Stote's cottage in Middleton [189]. The Stote family were the most prominent Rhosili smugglers: a popular (though possibly apocryphal) story concerns two customs officers who asked Mrs Stote for stabling for their horses. She realized that they had probably come to search for a cargo of run spirits that were concealed nearby, so she delayed them with a drink. When they commented that the spirits were too strong, she topped up their glasses from the kettle on the stove. This, however, also contained spirits, and the customs men soon fell asleep. At this point Mrs Stote was able to raise the alarm, and the hidden contraband was dispersed.

Old Henllys

Park near Llanddewi church at SS460891 red map button then follow the track that passes the church for about a mile.

Local tales tell of a two-mile long tunnel leading here from Rhossili Bay, and while the tunnel story may seem unlikely, the isolated farmhouse was the home of the Mansell family, who were well known locally for their smuggling interests.

North Gower

Brandy Cottage is close to Cheriton: park near the Britannia Pub at SS446933 red map button and walk up the hill towards Llanmadog. Take the footpath on the right signposted Whitford Burrows: Brandy Cottage is the last white-painted house on the left.

Most of the smuggling on Gower took place along the south coast, but there is an occasional reminder in the north. Brandy Cottage overlooking the W end of Landimore Marsh was built at the end of the 18th century specifically for smuggling purpose. However, the entrance to the huge cellars rumoured to be underneath the cottage must have been well-hidden, for its location is now lost.

[184] Mostly from Edmunds, George, 1979, The Gower Coast

[185] personal communication

[186] From Phillips, D Rhys

[187] Archaelogia Cambrensis 1920 p339

[188] Country Quest

[189] Tucker, HM