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Photograph of St Cybi's Well
Welsh smugglers fooled a gullible customs man by telling him that their brandy barrels contained Holy water from St Cybi's well. Click picture to enlarge


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Guide-Book: Wales & Northwest England


Pembroke smuggling has a long history: French traders were bringing uncustomed wine into Pembrokeshire ports as early as 1611, according to a contemporary document. [190] In the 17th and 18th centuries, smuggling vessels traded openly with Caldey Island, south of Tenby and...

Cargoes (generally French Brandy) were run into every southern bay from Tenby to Dale...The town of Tenby too was deeply implicated in this illicit business. Probably a vast number of persons in all stations of life were implicated. The story goes that when a cargo was in, and the revenue men alert, or the weather squally, teams were requisitioned right and left, not infrequently the squire's carriage-horses were found in the morning sweating and exhausted; but a mysterious keg of excellent eau de vie stood in the hall, so no questions were asked. [191]

Swanlake and Manorbier

The Castle at Manorbier is at SS064977 red map button 6m W of Tenby. Swanlake Bay is just to the west. Sunny Hill, where the Swanlake tubs were hidden, is on the Ridgeway, about ´m NW of Manorbier station. Another favourite landing places nearby was Bullslaughter Bay, at SR940943 red map button [192]. (Map 158)

At Swanlake a smuggling story of treachery and loyalty dates from 1825. A Swanlake man confided in his wife that a local smuggler, Mr J, had temporarily stowed barrels in their cellar, and the following day the wife went downstairs, counted the barrels, and set off to inform the local customs officials, calculating that she would receive a reward of some £200. En route through Manorbier, she told a friend of her plan, who in turn told Mr J himself. The smuggler rallied his troops, the Swanlake house was cleared within an hour or so, and the contraband being transported to Sunny Hill and elsewhere. The reactions of the customs officers at their discovery — or lack of it — were not recorded. [193]

Engraving of Manorbier Castle in the 18th century
Manorbier Castle in the 18th century. Click picture to enlarge

A well at nearby Manorbier castle was used as a storage place by smugglers, and the place ...'was honeycombed with smugglers' cellars' [194]. You can still peer down the well and see the entrance to a smuggling tunnel leading to the sea.

Local stories revolve around the castle as the centre for smuggling activity in the area. A persistent tale features Captain Jack Furze, who arrived in Manorbier around 1800...

Dwellers in the neighbourhood... noticed a jolly-looking seaman patrolling in the grounds of the castle...and those who were favoured with his calls of an evening, liked his society immensely. He told them that 'he had saved a few pounds, and thought of taking the farm that was to be let in connection with the old castle'.

The sailor had a small brig, which he intended to keep running while farming and digging for coal. It emerged, though, that his mining and farming activities were merely a front for smuggling, and the castle cellars were being used for storing contraband. [195]

Jolly Jack Furze continued trading at Manorbier for some time, but eventually things began to get uncomfortable. As Jack's ship The Jane was heading for the coast one day, one of the King's ships appeared on the horizon. The Jane tacked away, but...

at a critical moment the King's ship caught the wind, and came onward so fast and so ably that the Saucy Jane was brought within range of her stern chaser. Then a storm of shots flew into the Jane and about her deck, making the little craft to reel again and the crew to look despondingly at the captain...but with the dexterity of a hare the Jane doubled then shot on its way. For an hour the unequal contest continued. The dusk was now creeping steadily on, necessitating to the cruiser a determined effort, or, in the darkness, their prey would escape. So putting on all sail, the pursuer dashed onwards, then, pausing, raked her fore and aft; but still Captain Jack was inexorable. 'Run below, you lubbers!' he said to his men 'or lie down on the deck, I'll manage the brig myself,' and alone at the helm, seeming to have a charmed life, unhurt, while the iron hail cut up his rigging, or made match-wood of his deck, he continued to double and tack until the welcome darkness settled down, and the cruiser, fearful of the coast drew off from pursuit. Tradition says that Captain Jack...exclaimed 'I told you so, you beggars, the timber is not spliced that'll run down Jack Furze!'

However, this was too close a shave for the smuggler, and he soon settled to a quieter life.

Pembroke Dock

Bentlas is at SM961017 red map button (map 158). Turn off the B4320 at Hundleton. You can see where Truscott tried to cross: the channel is a mere trickle at low tide, and a ferry once operated here.

In the 1830s, smuggling in Pembroke was organised by one William Truscott, known romantically as 'The King of the Smugglers', but his reign came violently to an end at Pembroke Dock in 1834. He had been captured at a cave used for storage at New Quay, 'a sequestered little inlet near St Govan's'. He managed to escape, and fled as far as the Pembroke River, which he tried to cross to Pembroke Dock from Bentlas. Here the Customs men shot and wounded him and he drowned.

The case aroused more than the usual amount of interest, because it appeared that the revenue officer who fired at Truscott did so the instant he ran into the water, and that the officers ignored the injured man's cries for help. The jury at the inquest judged that the conduct of the king's men 'was highly reprehensible, cowardly and cruel'acte [196]

St Brides Bay

Solva is at SM8024 red map button 4m E of St David's

That the villages around St Bride's bay were involved in the free-trade is beyond doubt: Skomer and Skokholm islands to the south were used as smuggling depots, and smugglers at St David's to the north scuttled a government ship in 1770:

The Pelham cutter, in the service of the customs...was attacked by two large smuggling cutters and a wherry, and, the officers being obliged to quit it, was boarded by the crew of the wherry. It has since been found at St Davids, with several holes in the bottom, and almost rifled of everything. The Commissioners have offered a reward of 200l for the conviction of any of the offenders. [197]

However, the most persistent stories from this area centre on Solva , where houses are reputed to have concealed cupboards and shafts that were used to hide contraband. [198]

Two stories in particular are concerned with the smuggling of salt and tallow, and both implicate people respected in local society. The Baptist chapel was lit by candles made from tallow smuggled into Solva harbour, and...

...One evening, the chapel being lighted with those candles, by some means or other, the excise officer became aware of it, and he suddenly appeared and comandeered all the candles, leaving the congregation in the dark.

The tax on salt was a particular burden to the local fishing industry, which relied on salt for preservation.

It was sold about 1s [5p] a pound about the first half of the [18th] century. There was also much smuggling carried on in the salt line, and the smugglers supplied the country with salt at 4d [1.5p] per lb. Their usual time for doing business was at night, and much liquor was supplied by the same traders at a low price. [199]

One day a spy informed Mr Raymond, the justice, who lived in Bank House [Solva] that a vessel had just come in and that they had salt smuggled aboard. Mr Raymond, who privately sympathised with the poor smugglers and was anxious not to convict them in this case, came slowly over the hill, roaring like a lion. 'I'll punish the rascals! They shan't thieve from his most gracious majesty, my beloved king. I'll salt the d — ls'. Those in the vessel below heard every word — as he intended. Hailing the men and demanding a boat, he hunted the hold of the vessel. Needless to say, no salt was found. But tradition says that the water in Solva harbour that evening was much saltier than usual. [200]

Fishguard to New Quay

Cwmtydu is at SN3558 red map button 2m SW of New Quay (map 145)

Salt smuggling was rife on this part of the coast, in particular at New Quay, the little bay of Cwmtydu, and at Fishguard. The salt survey commented that there were many small creeks around Fishguard, where vessels were able to land contraband unobserved.

'The Country People in General Favoureing the smuglers...I think a Boat here absolutely necessary both on Salt and Customs Accot as much Soap as well as Salt is Run here.'

Smugglers importing salt at Newquay clashed with customs officers from Aberdovey in 1704. The eight officers met with stout opposition from 150-200 locals who were unloading salt from 3 barques on the beach. In self defense, they fired over the heads of the crowd, who redoubled their attacks. The customs officers then fired into the crowd, severely injuring one of them. At daybreak, the 'Rabble' returned with the police, and had two of the customs men arrested and charged with injuring the local smugglers. It's not recorded whether they secured a conviction.

Engraving of Barmouth
Barmouth. Click picture to enlarge

Cardigan Bay

Pen-y-bont bridge is at SN686715 red map button where the B4340 crosses the Afon Ystwyth at Llanafan.

Smuggling in Cardigan bay took place primarily between Aberdovey and Borth-y-gest, a small village close to Portmadoc. [201] However, farther south the Trefechan district of Aberystwyth was reputed to have been a haunt of smugglers and other low criminals, and the best known of the local smugglers was a man called Jolly. He was landed contraband on Tan-ybwlch beach, running it up the Ystwyth valley to Llanafan. The journey onward to England was said to be completed by drovers. According to legend, the gang led by Jolly clashed with the revenue men at Pen-y-bont Bridge, Llanafan ...'a bloody battle ensued. The tale says that the smugglers attempted to escape through Pontrhydygroes, leaving dead and dying comrades'. [202]

Storing contraband in a cistfaen. Illustration by Jack Matthew
Storing contraband in a cistfaen. Illustration by Jack Matthew. Click picture to enlarge

The Mawddach estuary to the north has a well-established reputation for smuggling: ships could move contraband directly inland as far as Dolgellau. Court records for the Barmouth area substantiate the stories. A pub adjoining Llanaber church a mile or so from Barmouth was used to store contraband, and in the churchyard itself, graves known locally as cistfaen, (table tombs) were reputedly used for temporary storage.

Ships from Barmouth traded particularly with Spain, importing spirits, wines and silks for the fine houses in the area. At Barmouth, the smugglers would transfer goods to smaller boats for onward movement up the river. This trade was sufficient to merit building a custom house in the town.

A favourite hiding place for contraband was a headland called Trwyn Glanmor — a creek there reputedly leads to a cave. [203]

The Lleyn peninsula

St Cybi's well is at SH427413 red map button 5 m NE of Pwllheli: park by Llangybi church and follow signs along a footpath to reach the well. Castell March House stands at SH315295 red map button between Abersoch and Llanbedrog on the A499, almost opposite The Warren.

At the north of Cardigan Bay, this area had a rare advantage for smugglers in the days of the square-rigged ships: its two coast made running feasible whatever the direction of the wind. Porth Dinllaen on the north was a destination for many of the 18th century smuggling ships, and one popular local story tells how a group of villagers from the surrounding countryside met a revenue officer while they were returning home loaded with spirits. They were, however, able to persuade the innocent man that the tubs actually contained holy water from Saint Cybi's well.

On the south side of the peninsula, an amusing yarn links Castell March House and its master with the local smuggling fraternity: In the 17th century the owner, a knight called Sir William Jones, was plagued by a forceful butler, who proved impossible to dismiss. Attempts to sack him were treated as jokes, so Sir William hatched a plot to be rid of the man. He hired local smugglers to kidnap the butler and dump him in some distant part. However, the plot misfired, because once on board the smugglers' ship the butler made himself indispensable, and eventually took over as the ship's master. To exact his revenge, he turned the tables, and returning to Castell March, seized Sir William with the aid of the crew, and forced him to suffer the same fate as he had once wished on his irritating servant.

[190] John, Brian

[191] Bell, G

[192] Article in Telegraph Almanack, 1930: 'Smuggling Days' by Mathias, AGO.

[193] Local Pembroke newspaper (name not supplied in press cutting book) July 28th 1939

[194] Bell, G

[195] Wilkins, Charles

[196] Mathias, AGO

[197] Letter from Edw Stanley to Richard Sutton, 12 May 1770, published in the Pembroke County Guardian, April 27, 1901

[198] John, Brian

[199] Pembrokeshire County Guardian, June 28, 1902

[200] (unattributed) Haverfordwest library clippings file March 7 1924.

[201] Owen, Hugh J

[202] Llowarch, Weird Wonders of Wales, Cambrian News, 1986

[203] Owen, Hugh J