Cornwall’s historic and well-known connection to smuggling is something that has intrigued and inspired locals and tourists alike for many years.
In the past, Cornwall was a smuggling center for contraband goods such as brandy and gin. Smuggling reached its peak in the county in the 18th century.
Cornish men and women are said to have had little regard for the central government during the golden age of smuggling, thought to be between 1750 and 1830 – or for the central government and a distant king who imposed massive import taxes to fund foreign wars.
Read more: Roche Rock is Cornwall’s most haunted ruin that little you know
Duties were levied on a wide range of goods, including tea, brandy, silks, muslins, handkerchiefs and ‘salt’, essential to the Cornish fishing industry.
The tax on tea rose to 110% and there were 18 different duties on brandy and gin, totaling around 250%. Needless to say, the tax burden on ordinary people was huge.
With this in mind, Cornish people generally had no problem turning to smuggling to survive and support their families.
Cornish smugglers came from the ranks of diligent fishermen and working poor.
Get the best stories about the things you love most curated by us and delivered to your inbox every day. Choose what you like here
By the 1780s, however, what had started as poor people struggling to survive grew into a much larger enterprise, with the widespread realization that abundant fortunes could be created.
Of course, this meant that many port towns and villages were used as smuggling ports, to bring clandestine goods into the county, which could then be resold.
We have compiled a list of some of the most popular Cornish towns and villages used for smuggling goods during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Cawsand and Kingsand
Smuggling was rampant in these twin villages during the 1700s and early 1800s and the villages were the main center for contraband smuggling in the west of the country during this period.
Plymouth had a large naval presence, so goods were often brought to coastal villages close to the county border so that they could be transported to nearby towns.
Thousands of casks of spirits were landed here each year and in 1804 the Revenue Service estimated that around 17,000 casks of spirits had been landed at Cawsand and Kingsand in the previous 12 months.
The 18th century was known for smuggling and Cornwall, especially the south coast, was a major location. The wider customs port of Fowey, which covers the area from Mevagissey to Looe, was a hot spot.
According to the Fowey Harbor Heritage website, the mayor of Fowey was at one time accused of smuggling, in the 19th century.
It was reported that: “July 30, 1824 reported the seizure by Fowey Customs officers of a French cutter L’Union en route from Brest to Bordeaux, suspected of smuggling. Silk was found on board and the captain of the French ship was said to have been a friend of Mr Bennett, the mayor of Fowey.
“Customs officers then followed Bennett to his house and found French wine and brandy in a room. Exploring further, they discovered that Bennett was hastily opening other bottles of spirits and pouring out the contents. out the window. Strangely, no proceedings have been brought against the Mayor.”
Henry Cuttance was a well-known smuggler and owner of the Ship Inn, formerly known as the Halzephron Inn, in Gunwalloe.
The caves on Hayle’s main beach are rumored to be linked by a tunnel to St Winwalloe’s belfry, while another passageway linked the Halzephron Inn to ‘Fishing Cove’, Mr Cuttance’s home.
By the 1840s Cuttance ran a small but profitable smuggling operation at the same time – acting as a smuggler, salesman and distributor of contraband.
He is said to have kept a book detailing his stock and sales of contraband goods, including cheese, brandy and bales of cotton.
The buildings were sometimes used to store contraband goods in transit from the coast.
A considerably successful Helston lawyer, Christopher Wallis, frequently orchestrated the affairs of local smugglers and privateers. Wallis acted for salvors in many wreck cases and as local agent for a number of Guernsey merchant houses.
Although he is a qualified attorney, Wallis has previously been prosecuted for a contraband-related offence.
Anse du Meneau
Mullion Cove was also a favorite landing place for contraband with virtually the entire population involved.
The Mundays, who ran the Old Inn, were one of the main smuggling families in the area. John Munday, along with his accomplice Bobo George, stored their contraband in a cave in the creek, accessible only at low tide. Rumor has it that a tunnel leads from the cave to a farm on top of a cliff.
Mousehole, is renowned for its rich history of smuggling.
A 300-year-old former fisherman’s cottage in Mousehole is said to have an intriguing and mysterious history. Hidden behind a false wall in the cottage is an 18th century smuggler’s tunnel, which is presumed to lead to the harbor where smugglers would sneak into the country, avoiding the revenue men who patrolled the area.
The tunnel was locally known but remained blocked for many years until recently when it was discovered during renovations.
It is said that in 1765 a beach, three kilometers west of Padstow, served as a landing point for smugglers. That same year a man named William Rawlings wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth that his servants had encountered 60 horses carrying cargo from the beach about three miles from St Columb, “each having three teabags on them of 56 or 58 pounds of weight”.
The most notorious Cornish smuggler was John Carter of Prussia Cove. He was nicknamed the King of Prussia.
Using small coves in West Cornwall, Carter ran a successful smuggling ring for several years in the late 1700s.
The Prussia Cove smuggler had a reputation for being “honest”.
Speaking of the King of Prussia, John Carter is said to have broken into Penzance Customs House to retrieve his seized contraband – excise men at the time said he only took what he thought he was his property.
Tunnels under the Admiral Benbow pub in Penzance were used for smuggling into the county.
For many, the Benbow will be the first to think when it comes to contraband pubs. A local smuggling gang, known as the “Benbow Brandy Men”, operated from the Chapel Street pub in the 19th century.
They were known to have used a network of tunnels to bring gin, brandy and tobacco up from the port – under the noses of the excise men.
Since the 17th century, the First and Last Inn pub in Sennen has earned a notorious reputation as the headquarters of smugglers and shipwrecks – and is even said to be haunted by its own ghost.
According to its website, Joseph and Annie George led the first and last in the 1800s and successfully blackmailed the owner, Dionysius Williams, a wealthy farmer, into letting them live rent-free, due to their knowledge of his local smuggling business.
The pub is home to smugglers tunnels that lead down to the Sennen Cliffs. The tunnels were used when Annie conducted smuggling and demolition operations with the local pastor.
Falmouth’s main ports were designated as out-port Custom House, so for Falmouth Port most smuggling occurred at St.Mawes, Percuil and Gerrans.
St Mawes, near Truro, was the 17th century base for Robert Long, a 17th century smuggler. The smugglers faced a grizzly end if caught and after Long’s execution his body was hung in chains on the village road.
All that remains of the once thriving community of Talland is the church, perched on the steep hillside of Talland Bay. The bay was a favorite landing point for smuggling boats.
According to the Talland Bay Hotel website: “In the early 18th century the Vicar of St Tallan’s Church was the Reverend Richard Doidge, who was often seen in the churchyard in the dead of night casting away evil spirits, or according to all likelihood, local smugglers.
“On entering there is a headstone erected in honor of a certain Robert Mark, believed to be a Polperro smuggler who was killed from wounds inflicted by a gun from a man in the tax.”
Whitsand Bay’s remote location at the time made it a favorite landing place, before goods were taken inland.