A small cove nestled in a lip of land not far from Mount’s Bay and Penzance owes its name to a family of famous smugglers. Prussia Cove is a small, secluded, rocky cove with little beach, a few kilometers west of Praa Sands.
The pebble beach and grotto is dominated by a beautiful manor house and a series of former coastguard houses and fisherman’s huts which are all owned by the Behrens family and are now used to host weddings and holidaymakers throughout of the year.
The area is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Geological Conservation Review Site and is within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and consists of four small coves and several cottages and houses. The names of the creeks from west to east are Piskies, Bessy’s, King’s and Coule’s.
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But the oddly named Prussia Cove owes its name to Cornwall’s dark past of smugglers and shipwreckers, Methodism and getting by when fishing wasn’t lucrative enough to put food on the table. Once known as Portleah, Prussia Cove became the home and base of operations of the Carter family who turned smuggling into an art form in the late 18th century.
John Carter, born in 1770 in Breage near Helston, became one of the greatest smugglers on the coast – so much so that he called himself the “King of Prussia”. The eldest of the Carter brothers even named the cove Prussia Cove, due to his deep admiration for Frederick the Great, who was – the current King of Prussia at the time.
According to biographies and histories, John Carter was a mixture of hardworking fisherman, honest merchant and hoodlum. It operated from Bessies Cove, a rocky cove near Perranuthnoe in Mount’s Bay. It was an area known for its lawless gangs of shipwreckers and smugglers.
But it was a time when few people thought smuggling was a crime. John and his brother Harry were well known along the French coast, but during the French Wars they were arrested and imprisoned in Saint-Malo for a year on one occasion.
The wars Britain fought cost the country a fortune, which meant taxes had to be raised to pay for them. A good way to increase revenue was to tax imported goods. This in turn led to an increase in the practice of smuggling whereby small, fast boats did all they could to evade excise and bring contraband from France and the Continent, from cloth to water life, wine and tobacco and all they could. get your hands on it and sell for a profit.
The Carters’ landing cove, Prussia Cove, was the ideal place for this kind of enterprise. The cove had slipways for landing goods, and the Carters had a house with cellars and attics where they could store the contraband they landed. To this day you can see the cart tracks left in the rocks that lead from the water’s edge to the slipway and up the hill.
Contraband aside, the Carters were confirmed Methodists. John’s brother Harry is said to have held Sunday services on the quayside for smugglers during his exile in Roscoff. The Carters even banned swearing on their ships.
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According to historians, the Carters owned two large ships and were good sailors with extensive knowledge of the Cornish and French coasts. These boats were a 160-ton, 19-gun cutter and a 20-gun lugger, each with a crew of about 30 men. Each ship would be equipped with at least one smaller craft for coastal work.
The risks associated with smuggling were high. The best you could hope for was transport to colonies in Australia, but more often than not penalties for smuggling involved a one-way trip to the gallows for a quick hanging. In 1803, the Carters’ home at Prussia Cove was put up for auction.
A copper mine had been opened on the cliffs overlooking the creek, and coal was landed to drive the mine’s steam engine. Maybe mining made more money than smuggling. In 1807 John simply disappeared from the creek and Harry retired to a nearby farm and continued to preach full time. Other members of the Carter family are said to have continued smuggling into the 1820s.
However, the tax men were getting better at their jobs and smuggling was becoming less profitable. In 1825 the construction of a coastguard post at Prussia Cove finally put an end to smuggling at Prussia Cove and only the name remained.