Out to franklondya Cornwalls Rum Smuggling History

Out to franklondya Cornwalls Rum Smuggling History

The rugged coastline of Cornwall holds all sorts of nooks and crannies to harbour smugglers. And Cornish folklore holds all sorts of fantastic stories of smugglers and wreckers. But how much of the stories are myths? What were the real smugglers of Cornwall like? Were they heroes, or villans?

Records show a Dr Johnson describing a smuggler
as “A wretch who, in defiance of justice and the laws, imports or exports goods either contraband or without payment of the custos.”

That said, other records show an Adam Smith as giving this definition: “A person who though no doubt highly blamable for violating the laws of his country, is frequently incapable of violating these of natural justice and who would have been in every respect an excellent citizen had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so.”

It’s interesting comparing these two opposite takes on smugglers. And these are two sweeping statements to define all doing it, without much understanding of the why. I could hazard a guess that some of those involved had no choice, and some were the ones enforcing that.

Cornwall’s coastline is rocky, and back then (and still now in some parts), it was almost uninhabited, which meant lots of hidden places that were suitable for smuggling. There was also a lack of able-bodied men and a rise in official corruption, meaning there weren’t so many people around to guard these areas. Various goods were snuggled in, included tea, tobacco, brandy, gin and rum. A common reason for smuggling was the cost difference of buying in Europe. Tea could be brought for a sixth of the price in England, and brandy for a fifth. And where you buy cheaper, there’s money to be made by selling on!

Smuggling was a community exercise and therefore, it was often carried out openly with cargo being landed on the shoe. Community involvement could include anything from the local landowner downwards. Sometimes it meant gentry turning a blind eye, sometimes more. Once landed, the contraband would then make its way up the country. Often it would pass through Bodmin Moor, meaning a stopover in smuggling haunts like the Jamaica Inn, a place immortalised in Daphne Du Maurier’s novel of the same name.

There are some records of particular people and families during this era. The Carter family of Prussia Cover were infamous. And, John the eldest son had a deep admiration for Frederick the Great who was King of Prussia, and so the cove got that name. John managed to retire in the early 1800s. Not too bad!

Looe Island was used as a base by Brother and Sister team, Fyn and Joan. Looe Island sits in a fantastically strategic position, a few miles west down the coast from Plymouth. It is rumoured that the island was used to smuggle goods to from the Channel Islands to Looe for over 80 years from the 18th - 19th Century.

Tristam Davey was an evil faced tavern keeper who was also a smuggler. He had a close call when he and some men were chased by a revenue boat. Tristam knew the waters better than them, so took a difficult path through a reef of short slate rock which they were able to pass. The revenue boat wasn’t quite as lucky. You can read more about that in Baring- Gould’s “A Book of Cornwall”.

And a name you’ll be familiar with, if you’ve read our write up on Crusty Juggler, is Cruel Coppinger, whose biography written by Rev RS Hawker. He was reported to scare villagers. Into smuggling and was a fiendish shipwrecker, luring ships onto the rocks in order to haul away the cargo. His name was given to the roads which converge on the headland Steeple Brink in Cornwall. Below this cliff is an almost inaccessible cover and this is where he and his gang used to store their contraband.

Time passed and smuggling boomed until towards the end of the 18th century. There are various sources in regards to figures to look back on. Some sources say in the region of 500,000 gallons of French brandy per year were smuggled into Cornwall. The goods started to arrive fro further afield. Ships returning from the far east would heave to, offshore and sell china, silk and cotton goods free of tax to local boats. In 1763, three East Indiamen in Falmouth harbour, are said to have sold £20,000 of goods in this way. The Killigrew family who established Falmouth, was a family whose money and influence came from smuggling and piracy.

With the taxation system losing money, by around 1800 the Revenue men became more organised and proactive. The game changed and smuggled goods has to be dropped in secret in remote coves and collected when the coast was clear. This left a scar on the landscape with tunnels and passages being dug out of the rocks to hide their movements.

And the secrecy was necessary. There were big risks involved with this sort of activity. The minimum penalty was transportation to the colonies, although there were more severe punishments. There are records of hangings, with Robery Lang, a smuggler from Veryan is recorded as being hung at the crossroads of Ruanlanihorne and St. Mawes as an example to others.

Nonetheless, smuggling was an enormous part of our history. At one point in time it’s estimated that more spirits were coming through illicit smuggling routes than coming through the London Docks! And, in some respects, that illegal activity is still going on today under various guises.

Words by Bernadette Pamplin

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Bernadette Pamplin

Bernadette loves rum. She set up a gin focused blog Under The Ginfluence eight years ago. Since then, her passion has naturally spread from gin, to rum and other spirits too. You can find work from her on Gin Magazine, Distiller Magazine, and Spirits Beacon, as well as content for  The Gin Guide.

She’s also the editor of Rum’s the Word, writing articles on rums featured in the box, as well as other rum related topics. Bernadette has built up six years experience in judging for events like Gin of the Year, World Gin Awards, Spirits Business Awards, Gin Guide Awards, IWSC and the American Distilling Institute Judging of Craft Spirits and works behind the scenes, assisting with organising and participating in panels for the Craft Distilling Expo.