Smuggling, the sneaky underbelly of Cornwall’s piratical history that has been with us for centuries. Evidence of this notorious trade in Cornwall is everywhere; a simple walk on the beach will reveal the caves and manholes beaten into the cliffs that these daredevil men used to transport stolen goods from sea to land. In most coastal towns and villages, there are rumours of hidden passageways and a corrupt officials.
Now, along with smuggling expert Jeremy Rowett Johns, myCornwall takes a look at Cornwall’s darker side and its most notable figures.
For the people of Cornwall, the idea of depriving the government of revenue extorted by high taxes was a legitimate activity, not to mention the increasing traffic flow of cheap alcohol made it a drunken one too. To many, smuggling was a principal source of employment.
THE BANK OF SMUGGLING
No account of smuggling in Cornwall would be complete without reference to the isolated haven of Polperro and Zephaniah Job, the notorious ‘smugglers’ banker’. In the 1770s the smuggling trade changed from a cottage industry into a highly lucrative business on a scale unrivalled elsewhere.
Job arrived in Polperro with ambitions of being a schoolmaster but he ended up acting as bookkeeper, general correspondent and advisor for the illiterate smuggler fishermen. Zephaniah conducted business for nearly 30 years, between 1788 and 1804, give some indication of the scale of the trade. The sums he collected amounted to nearly £100,000: on average, the Polperro smugglers paid Job a total of nearly £6,000 a year over a 20 year period.
Job died at the age of 73 in January 1822 with an estate valued at £7,766 and no will. Most of his ledgers and account books were destroyed by a fire shortly after his death, possibly to destroy any incrimination evidence.
KING OF THE COVE
Perhaps one of the most notorious Cornish smugglers, who have since inspired countless playwrights, books and folklore, were the Carters of Prussia Cove, who catapulted smuggling into the fantastical legend it is beheld in today.
Residing in their haven of Prussia Cove in Mounts Bay, the celebrated gang consisting of brothers John and Harry Carter, ruled this side of the coast from 1770 to 1807. It was John Carter who took on the role as the self-styled ‘King of Prussia’.
The Carter family had all the necessary credentials for exploiting the smuggling trade. Their home, Prussia Cove (originally Port Leah), was difficult to reach from the landward side, at least without being seen, but it offered convenient slipways for landing cargoes of goods. The Carter brothers were fine seamen and owners of two large vessels: a 19-gun cutter of 160 tons, and a 20-gun lugger, each with a crew of around 30 men and equipped with at least one smaller boat for close inshore work.
An uneasy truce appears to have existed between the Carters and the customs authorities at some times. Poorly paid and disliked by many, minor officials were unwilling to put their lives at risk apprehending smugglers, while others were more than happy to turn a blind eye in return for a bribe.
In 1803, the Carters’ property in Prussia Cove was offered for sale by auction, although some said this had been arranged to convince the authorities that the family were now ‘going straight’. And in 1825, the building of a Coastguard Station at Prussia Cove put an end, once and for all, to the King of Prussia’s smuggling realm.
CRUEL BY NAME AND NATURE
The legends and folklore surrounding Cruel Coppinger make it difficult to distinguish truth from fantasy. According to legend, Coppinger was an evil and bloodthirsty fellow originating from Denmark, consumed with a need for money and power. Shipwrecked on the Cornish shores, he was the sole survivor of his crew, who waded through the stormy waters to land and leapt up on the horse of a young woman, riding off with her to her house and installing himself there, uninvited. Eventually, Coppinger won over the favour of the young woman, Dinah Hamlyn, and married her.
Coppinger and his band of smugglers, wreckers and pirates, known as the Cruel gang, ravaged and ruled the secluded footpaths of Cornwall, beheading Revenue Officers to ward off officials and terrorizing the English Channel aboard their ship, the Black Prince, luring Revenue cutters into shallow waters and wrecking them.
Cruel’s fearsome reign came to an end when pressure from the Revenue Officers finally became too much. It is said that Coppinger disappeared on a ship into the night, carried away with the wind and never seen again.
TODAYS SMUGGLING UNDERBELLY
In today’s twentieth century, the romantic allure of smuggling has long vanished with the past but the grit of it still remains in the underbelly of the UK’s drug gangs, who use many parts of the Cornish coast to try and smuggle in illegal drugs to dealers and distributors. This year a bust on a trawler in Falmouth containing what was believed to be £80million of cocaine shows that smuggling is still very much alive and ever as dangerous on these shores
SEA, SKY & SAILS – Beautiful Artwork by Donald MacLeod
The stunning images for this article were supplied by the maritime artist Donald MacLeod. The St Ives artist specialises in historical paintings of famous ships and nautical battles, you can see more of his wonderful work in his gallery or alternatively contact him at:
01736 794665 or http://www.stivesgallery.co.uk/