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Smugglers and Wreakers

Cornish Legends and Myths

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12 May 2009

Cornish Legends

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For centuries Cornwall's rugged coastline was a haven for wreckers and smugglers, activities which reached a peak in the 18th century. Ordinary folk and even the clergy, seizing the opportunity to ease their miserable lives a little, plundered wrecked ships and engaged in smuggling with enthusiasm. One vicar whose Sunday service was interrupted by a man announcing a wreck on nearby rocks is said to have begged the congregation to remain seated until he'd taken off his cassock " so that we can all start fair " and the Rev. Thomas Whitford, rector of Cury in 1739 was actually caught in possession of 4 casks of wine looted from the wreck of The Lady Lucy on the rocks at Gunwalloe.


Clergymen like the Rev Richard Dodge of Talland were quite heavily involved in smuggling and Dodge even spread stories of ghosts and demons around the village to keep prying eyes away from his illicit activities. Smuggled contraband would often be hidden in Church crypts, bell towers, pulpits and even tombs! It has been estimated that between 1780 and 1783 as much as 2 million pounds of tea and 13 million gallons of brandy were smuggled into the country.


Smuggling was a dangerous business and the penalties for being caught harsh, including heavy fines and, at one point, even death for those caught either smuggling or harbouring smugglers. Preserved in Talland Church is a memorial with a rhyming epitaph which tells of the sad death of Robert Mark of Polperro, who was shot at sea by Customs Officers on January 24th 1802.

In prime of life, most suddenly,
Sad tidings to relate;
Here view my utter destiny,
And pity my sad state.
I by a shot which rapid flew,
Was instantly struck dead.
Lord pardon the offender who
My precious blood did shed.
Grant him to rest, and forgive me
All I have done amiss;
And that I may rewarded be
With everlasting bliss.

Whilst the village parson would often engage in illicit smuggling, other smugglers too were not quite what they seemed. One of Cornwall's most famous, Harry Carter - the so called "King of Prussia Cove" was a devout Methodist and lay preacher in between running contraband from Roscoff, and whilst in exile there he even held services on the quayside for his fellow smugglers.

 

 

Maritime art by St Ives artist Donald MacLeod. West country Connections

 

 

Contrary to legend, Cornish Wreckers rarely attacked or killed wrecked sailors, nor did they actually lure ships onto the rocks. They acquired the name usually because they simply plundered the wrecks. The strong winds and treacherous rocks around our notorious coastline provided their opportunities. Indeed, when the vessel Postilion was driven ashore on the North Coast in November 1732 the ship was certainly plundered, but not until every crew member aboard had been helped safely ashore.


The Custom Officers, or "Preventive Men" who were sent to deter them, however, were a different matter. On many occasions, when they had successfully retrieved cargo either from wrecks or from the hands of wreckers themselves their storehouses were later broken into by local people reclaiming what they considered to be rightfully theirs. Many wreckers and not a few Customs men were killed in pitched battles over the booty. Invariably there would be little left to salvage once the wreckers had been at work. Once the cargo had been removed they would strip the ship of every saleable asset, right down to its timber and sails.


The pickings from wrecks could be so substantial that some of the so called "Preventive" men could not resist the temptation to help themselves too. One such, it is believed, was Sir John Knill, Collector of Customs at St. Ives between 1762 and 1782, and Mayor in 1767.Though he published a scholarly pamphlet on the prevention of wrecking he is said to have dealt in looted cargo as enthusiastically as the next man.


Sir John Killigrew erected the first lighthouse at The Lizard in 1619 to the chagrin of local people who had benefited considerably from the wrecking of vessels. His actions not only caused fury but also astonishment, for the Killigrew were some of the fiercest and most notorious pirates ever to plague the coasts of Cornwall. Much of the wealth he had inherited came from piracy. A mere 37 years earlier the infamous female pirate Lady Killigrew had seized a Spanish ship sheltering in Falmouth harbour, drowned most of the crew and removed its cargo.

 

Smuggling and wrecking were popular pastimes in Cornwall, especially in the 18th century when they reached their peak. Many people sought to enhance their lives by collecting goodies from wrecks, or indulging in a spot of smuggling. Perranporth on the north side of the Cornish coastline had a syndicate of smugglers, including men of the cloth, and The Dolphin in Penzance was a meeting place for smugglers. The Ship Inn in Porthleven was once a smuggling inn. It is thought that it had secret passages, but none have been found. There are also tunnels leading from caves on the west side of the harbour to Methleigh Manor, where there was once a contraband store. Unfortunately, the tunnels are now blocked. Tunnels are also to be found at Gunwalloe Cove, where they once led from a cave to the church. Allegedly, coins from shipwrecks can still be found underneath the sand of this beach. Further along the coast at Fishing Cove, the Halzephron Inn was once connected to the beach via a tunnel. In fact, nearly all of the coves along this stretch of the coastline were somehow involved in the smuggling trade. Further around at Gweek, boats would come up the estuary to land their smuggled goods. This was true of the Helford River as well. Falmouth and Penryn have caves, which saw smuggled goods. Wells beach on the south side of the creek is supposed to have caves with tunnels, that are now blocked. Mevagissey and St. Austell were famous for smuggling, and Jamaica Inn near Bodmin was also notorious for its unlawful dealings (made famous by Daphne du Maurier). Almost all of the coastal towns and villages lying on the Cornish coast has some kind of connection with smuggling. Ordinary folk and clergymen alike all dabbled in a spot of contraband smuggling. Unfortunately, most of the caves and secret passages used for this pastime have long since been blocked, but the legacy of Cornish smugglers lives on as part of the county's heritage.

 

 

 

       

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