Cornish Saints and Sinners: Smugglers

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Tales of Smuggling in Cornwall
by J. Henry Harris

Contreband in Cornwall

The old-fashioned way of smuggling in Cornwall was in a small lugger, running for dear life across the Channel in a gale of wind when the King's cutters were all snug in harbour. The tubs of spirits and parcels of lace and other things were landed right under the noses of the preventive men. Cornwall was as intended by Nature for smuggling as the inhabitants were for carrying it out. Every little bay and creek and cavern, village and farmhouse, even the tombs in the parish churches, can tell tales. And the women, they were hand in glove with their husbands and sweethearts, fathers and brothers; and all that made life worth living then, was made dependent on a successful run from a little French port with goods honestly bought and paid for, but - sorrow and shame of it - made contraband the moment they touched English soil. Some say bad laws made smugglers, others say people smuggled because they liked it.

The lugger which left a Cornish fishing cove was, as a rule, Family property, owned by father and sons, or by two or three brothers. The family capital was put into one purse, carried away, and converted into honest brandy, wines and other articles of commerce. Then the struggle commenced between the individual who pitted his own cunning and frail boat against the King's cruisers and all the resources of the State. He was surrounded by spies from the moment his cargo was on board to the moment he was ready to slip his moorings. He could trust no man. And then his voyage across the Channel was a race for life - in fog, in tempest when only a madman would run the risk, the old smuggler would "up sail and off"; and if the King's officer liked to follow, then all he'd see would be the drippings from the smuggler's keel. The god of storms was the smuggler's divinity, and he loved his little craft which was, for the time, a thing of life fleeing from pursuit, from imprisonment and even death when cannon-balls flew about. How the old smuggler prayed for storm and night, for any peril which would enable him to show courage and mastery over the elemental forces which would drive his pursuers to destruction!

And how he would fight when brought to bay! When becalmed, the King's cutter would send a boat alongside to board the lugger, every man armed with pistol and cutlass, and wearing the uniform of authority. Then the smuggler would fight for property and life, cast off the grappling irons, and cut down the man who ventured to set foot upon his little craft. And all the while the old man at the helm looked fixedly at the heavens and across the water to see if, perchance, a breath of wind was stirring. Only a breath might be his salvation when he was too far inshore for the King's cutter to venture, and his men fighting off the cutter's crew like heroes. Then a puff, and the sail would draw. Then more wind and, inch by inch, the lugger would sail away from cutter and cutter's crew, only, perhaps, to fall in with another enemy which had to be out-sailed, or out-manoeuvred, or fought off, as best served the purpose. There was no surrender when boat and cargo were the bread of the family.

Then the old smuggler would reach home, where every shadow might spell ruin; and all that was done was done in fear, and he would have to be cunning always, and ready to fight to the death. The old smuggler belonged to the heroic age, and in all genuine stories he bulks colossal against a midnight sky black with tempest.

If Nature intended a county for smuggling it is Cornwall, which seems somehow to have been caught when cooling between two seas and pressed inward and upward, so that it is full of little inlets and bays and caverns, which might have been vents for the gases to escape when the sea pressure at the sides became unbearable, and the earth groaned like the belle of the season in tight corsets. The caverns are given up to bats and otters and slimy things now, but in the good old days...!

The women, by all accounts, took kindly to smuggling, and stood shoulder to shoulder with their men when there was a fight with the preventive men. They ran off with the tubs of spirits and whatever they could carry, whilst the men held the King's officers in check. A young man who was content with a "living wage" on sea or on land wasn't thought much of by the black-haired, black-eyed damsels of the coast, who were up to mischief in the free-trade principles of their day and generation. The children were taught to look upon the sea as their own, and to regard smuggling as an honourable calling. Thousands of infant tongues prayed at night for God's blessing on smuggling ventures; and the Church was with the people. It blessed them and shared their profits when there was no danger of being found out. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained" was the good old motto bound upon the smugglers' arms and hearts like phylacteries, and was to them as a prayer.

There is an interesting tale told of an old smuggler named Enoch. He and his family possessed five hundred one-pound notes issued by a bank which had gone bust, and so were practically worthless. This was a serious matter, and Enoch proposed, at the family council, to run across to Brittany and exchange the worthless notes for tubs of good brandy. Everything was done in secrecy and in hot haste to prevent suspicion, and to get the cargo of contraband on board before news of the bank's failure reached the French merchants. Had they been members of the Japanese Intelligence Department they could not have kept the secret better. They had a splendid run, landed the cargo all serene, and cleared one hundred per cent profit.

Another story shows further the natives cunning, promptness and audacity. News was one day brought to the coastguard station by a boatman that a cask was stranded on an adjacent beach. The coastguard officer, who loved a joke in good company, summoned numerous men, good and true, to go to the beach, and there hold an inquest upon the said cask and its contents.

"My men," said the coastguard officer, "I summon you in the name of the Queen, God bless her, to come with me to Tregunna beach, and to taste the contents of a cask which we shall find there. I think it's a brandy cask," he added, "and you are to act as Queen's tasters. Now, my men, if you declare that the contents of the cask are wines or spirits, then the same will be seized on behalf of the Crown, and the Excise will claim it; and if you further declare that the contents taste of salt water, then the cask will be smashed in, and the contents run out upon the beach. You are the jurors, so meet me here in half an hour. If any of 'ee have a tin can it might be handy," said he, with a wink.

When the jurors met again, they all had something in their hands by way of tin cans or pitchers. There were men upon the jury who had not tasted spirits, at their own expense, for many years. They carried the largest pitchers.

The coastguard officer produced a gimlet, and broached the cask, and every man tasted. The smell was enough for most, but they tasted all the same and it went down handsomely, and some tasted again, to make certain. Said the coastguard officer, "What is it, my men?"
"So say you all?"
"One and all, for sure."
"Then I seize the cask, in the Queen's name." He took out a bit of chalk, and marked a broad arrow upon it. The jurors' jugs were empty now, but the best of the game was still to come. "Now, my men, tell me, as good men and true, whether the brandy has been touched with salt water."

So all tasted again, and said it was sickly and brackish, and made such faces that you might think they'd been poisoned.
"And so say you all?"
"Yes, one and all."
"And your verdict is that the cask of brandy, seized in the Queen's name, is brackish?"
"That is our verdict."
"Then I order the cask to be smashed in and its contents run upon the beach."

And when the head of the cask was broken in, he turned his back upon the men gathered there, and every can and pot and pitcher was filled, and if they had only known, they'd have had more pails and buckets and pitchers at the ready.

Smuggling made the sort of sailor that Nelson loved, a man who could fight and forgive when wronged, like the old smuggler of Talland, who had it recorded on his tombstone that he prayed God to pardon those wicked preventive men who shed his innocent blood.

It was in the Lizard district that smuggling reached its zenith. Prussia Cove is a place which Nature and a little art intended as an emporium for smugglers. Blind harbours, blind caves, hidden galleries, mysterious inlets and exits from a delicate network of safety and concealment. Only two centuries ago, the man who lived here was the king of Cornish Smugglers and privateers, and defended himself with his own cannon. All ranks engaged in smuggling. Mr. Philip Hawkins, MP for Grampound, left 600 to the King as conscience money. But privateering was a royal game, and men made money rapidly at the expense of the enemies of England. People used, it is said, to measure their gold in pint pots, instead of counting it. Now the caves of Prussia Cove are fern-arched, and the water drips, drips, drips upon nothing precious. The smugglers borrowed these caves from the piskies who have now re-entered into possession, for here are the piskie sands and piskie caves.

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Edited from "Cornish Saints & Sinners" (1906)  (T) 302.234.8904    (F) 302.234.9154    Copyright 2000, LLC