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Beach at Conwy
A local JP led a procession of smugglers to land a cargo on the sands here at Conwy. Click picture to enlarge


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Guide-Book: Wales & Northwest England


Moelfre is at SH5186 red map button and Amlwch at SH4492 red map button on the NE coast of Anglesey (map 114)

Smuggling to Anglesey probably reached its zenith in the middle of the 18th century [204], and was largely unhampered by the efforts of the excise authorities. One contemporary writer described the coast-waiters of Anglesey as 'Two fools, one Rogue, one Bully and one Numbskull' [205]

In 1763 the master of a revenue cutter outlined how the Anglesey smugglers worked: they travelled as passengers on the first available boat to the Isle of Man, often independently, then, after a rendezvous on the island, hired an Irish wherry to take the cargo back to Anglesey. The wherries had crews of 9 or 10, and the smugglers added a further 6-11 crew. They scheduled a landfall in the early hours of the morning, and simply enlisted local help with unloading, which took an hour or less. Farmers were in league with the smugglers, and had carts and other transport waiting; they also served as lookouts, with tinder-dry warning beacons at the ready.

When the Isle of Man returned to the crown, the smugglers who had been trading with the island instead chose north east Ireland as their base, in particular Port Rush. The sources of contraband were Belle Ile, Lorient, and Roscoff.

They abandoned the small boats they had used to ply to and fro between Wales and the Isle of Man, and instead took to bigger boats with better arms. These larger vessels forced the smugglers to use different tactics — they could not be beached as the smaller boats could, and their greater draft made certain passages impossible — Lavan Sands and Caernarvon Bar, for example, were risky, and the smugglers looked to the deeper waters at Moelfre and Amlwch. The larger ships were formidable opponents for the preventives, though, and in 1770 the revenue cutter Pelham was captured at Port-Ysky Bay by a smuggler colourfully named Jack the Bachelor. It was plundered and wrecked on the rocks at St Davids. [206]

Some smuggling still went on in small boats, as the following account, written in 1798, makes clear. Significantly, it additionally implicates a customs official from Amlwch in the trade. Fourteen people from that village had shares in a 25-ton sloop, including the doctor, and the custom house officer. They made a trip to the Isle of Man — supposedly a holiday — and on their return, a search of the ship revealed seven dozen bottles of wine and 4 gallons of rum. The crew excused themselves by saying that they'd bought the contraband for personal consumption on the trip, but that the weather had been too bad to open the hold. [207]

Though goods smuggled into Anglesey moved onwards to the mainland, much was consumed on the island itself: one writer commented in 1760 that the drink of the island was 'todi' — a sweetened mixture of brandy and water.

The diarist William Bulkeley, who lived in North Anglesey in the mid 18th century, was perhaps an unlikely imbiber of todi. Unlike that other famous diarist of the period, Parson Woodforde Bulkeley saw smuggling from both sides of the fence, since he sat on the bench at Beaumaris. In his capacity as JP he was lenient towards smugglers, and tried to discharge them without punishment at every opportunity. However, there is no evidence in his diaries that pressure was brought to bear to secure lighter sentences.

Bulkeley regularly bought smuggled goods. From a Flintshire man plying between the Isle of Man and Wales, the squire bought French brandy at five shillings a gallon, white wine and good claret. In 1750 he wrote that...

On account of a very penal law being passed last Session of Parliament against the running of soap and candles, there will soon be no soap to be had, but what comes from Chester at 7d a pound. I bought today of a woman in that business 20lb almost (which I am afraid is the last I shall have of her) [208]

Bulkeley probably bought smuggled salt, too. The sea salt factory on Salt Island in the centre of Holyhead mixed in smuggled rock salt to improve the quality of the product, and then passed the salt off as wholly of local origin. [209]


SH4864 red map button at the SE end of the Menai Straits

Smugglers in this area continued to enjoy popular support throughout the 18th century. In July 1783 several were captured and imprisoned at Caernarfon after a sea chase in which one of their number died, but after just one night behind bars the smugglers were released by the local JPs. With incredible cheek, the freed men then immediately attempted to prosecute the customs man who had shot their crew member. [210]


SH7878 red map button 2m S of Llandudno

An incident on the sands here in 1712 gives considerable insight into the relationship between smugglers, the revenue forces, and the local establishment. A smuggled shipment of salt arrived and the local population turned out en masse to collect. They arrived with carts to carry off the contraband, and at the head of the procession was a baronet and JP Sir Griffith Williams. A lone customs officer had the misfortune to observe the spectacle, and immediately lay down in the sand in case he should be spotted himself. He was — the smugglers beat him, blindfolded him and tied him up. He was imprisoned in a hen-house for a day and a night, and fed a diet of buttermilk — hardly a terrible punishment. When he reported the incident, the official could get nothing done about his ill-treatment, let alone about the smuggling, because he was accusing people who, if not well placed themselves, at least enjoyed the protection of the wealthy and famous. His enthusiasm, and that of his predecessors, may in any case have been open to question: one customs officer at the Great Orme went for 30 years without a seizure and was 'effectively redundant'.

The River Dee

The Llety Gonest is on the A548 between Talacre and Mostyn (map 116) . The Quay House red map button at Connah's Quay is at the end of Dock Road, a turning off the A548 on the western outskirts of Connah's Quay. Connah's pool can be reached by walking up a path at the side of the pub. Take a right turn up an alley, then first right towards the Dee, and down a flight of steps. Pen-y-Llan rock and the pool are on the left. (map 117)

Running goods in Dee estuary had been made virtually impossible by the mid-18th century owing to silting. This was accelerated by dredging to make the Dee navigable as far as Chester: the 1740 salt survey reported that 'The sea has of late years filled up the Channel so much that vessels of Burthen cannot come up as formerly, and by all I can learn there is no Running of any Kind in these Parts.' [211]

There were, however, some inland centres: Rhuddlan became a minor depot, and at Talacre a cargo of fine French wine was seized at the Great Barn, and taken to the Lletty Gonest inn. During the night, a party of 'Mostyn colliers' kidnapped the revenue men guarding the goods, and rescued the wine, which had been intended for the local gentry. The son of the landlord observed wryly that the 'colliers' wore valuable diamond rings, and fine clothes underneath their dirty rags. [212]

Connah's Quay, close to Chester, was named after a famous Welsh smuggler, as were Connah's Cave in Pen-y-Llan Rock, and Connah's Pool below it. Connah himself was reputed to have been the landlord of the Quay House. [213]


One Welsh smuggler carved his niche in history not by the extremity of his exploits, but by the fact that he wrote them down. He thus joins Jack Rattenbury and 'The King of Prussia' in that select band of smuggler/autobiographers. The National Library of Wales purchased the manuscript of William's story in 1982, and a brief summary of it appeared in the Library's Journal in 1985. [214]

Owen was born in Nevern, Pembrokeshire, in 1717, the son of a wealthy farmer. His wayward nature was evident from an early age: his father wanted him to go into the church, or into law, but he rejected both these plans, and made his distaste for farming abundantly clear, too. When he was 14 or 15 he ran away to Haverfordwest to join the crew of a ship trading with Bristol. The novelty of the sailor's life soon wore off; tired of being a skivvy and whipped when he stepped out of line, Williams returned to the farm, but found this suited him even less. On his father's land he was just a labourer, and clearly aimed for something better.

After a second false start on a Bideford ship, his father bought Owen a ship of his own. The 16 year-old sea captain soon began to exhibit another side to his character — as a philanderer. He began a debauched affair with a maid, which prompted his father to take back the vessel. Williams retaliated by marrying the girl, and at this his long-suffering father returned the ship, together with cash to set Owen up in business.

Williams traded legally for a while, but was clearly seduced by the rags-to-riches stories of the smugglers he mixed with on the dock-side. He tried his hand at smuggling goods in from the Isle of Man — and got caught on the first trip. He lost his ship and everything he owned, and fled to the West Indies, where he joined a smuggling ship called the Terrible.

From this point on, the narrative adopts a tone that shows William in a heroic light that is perhaps not entirely true to the facts. The Terrible engaged a Spanish ship in battle, and Owen dispatched 25 of the crew by rolling a powder keg, fuse fizzing, onto the deck of the Spanish coaster. Despite a wound to his head, Williams was soon back in Barbados, indulging in various licentiousness with the local ladies, and then later we find him on various smuggling trips in the area. On one of these he was captured by a British man-of-war, but was judged to be such a brave fellow that he was appointed midshipman, and stayed with the vessel for 20 months. Homesickness eventually set in, though, and Williams returned home, to set up a legitimate business with his own boat. He dallied with various local women, and fell out with his wife, who turned to drink.

As the years go by, Williams' catalogue of adventures grows: he returns to smuggling, with considerable success; aiding an Aberystwyth friend, he leads a large party who lay siege to a local mansion. Owen secures the surrender in heroic manner by loading a wagon with gunpowder, setting light to the wagon, then rolling it under the balcony of the building. Later we see him masquerading as a baronet off the Isle of Man, and playing double-agent as a customs officer with a lucrative side-line in smuggled goods. He falls in love with a young Manx girl, but is prevented from marrying her by his own reluctance to get a divorce, and by the fact that she is a minor.

Williams, like so many smugglers, had a remarkable ability to smile through adversity. Losing his boat and virtually everything he owned through the treachery of a crew member, he raffles a cow and raises £30.

His fortunes soon change, and with help from the Manx girl (whom he is now passing off as his wife) Williams buys a new yacht, and resumes smuggling. In 1744, though, the authorities are on his tail, and Owen's ship is attacked in Cardigan. Despite overwhelming odds, the ship's crew escape, but kill four men, including a customs officer, in the show down.

By this time, Owen Williams must have been notorious. Even the Isle of Man authorities, who were noted for their leniency, joined in the search, and Williams and his young sweetheart had to escape from the island on an Irish oyster boat. On the run in Ireland, they posed as peddlers until the heat died down, and then travelled back to Wales, to Ireland again, and eventually to the Isle of Man. Here, his luck ran out, and he was captured, and brought to trial in Hereford.

Owen Williams must have been a remarkable character, because he defended himself in the trial against 'a very severe prosecution' and was acquitted, largely because of his eloquent defence.

A free man again, Williams resumed a career which interleaved legitimate trading with smuggling and privateering. He became a castaway, wracked by fever on the Barbary coast, and lost his wife in a shipwreck. He went back to Cardigan to recuperate from the recurring effects of the tropical disease, and eventually fell in with James Lilly, a Cardigan fencing master.

Owen Williams lived such a full and colourful life that the end of the story seems sordid and depressing. Though the details are unclear, it seems that Lilly and Williams had burgled a house in Nevern, and had been spotted in Cardiff. Running from the hue and cry, Williams shot the leading pursuer — the Cardigan post boy — then turned his gun on his companion, Lilly. He was hanged in 1747, aged just 30.

[204] Eames, Aled

[205] Maritime Wales 10, quoting from Lewis Morris

[206] Calendar of Home Office Papers, 1770-2, 129, quoted in the Pembroke County Guardian, April 27 1901.

[207] Custom House letters to board

[208] Roberts, B Dew

[209] Glazebrook

[210] Maritime Wales number 10

[211] Customs & Excise

[212] Maritime Wales

[213] Maritime Wales 10

[214] Cylchgrawn Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru