Some of the best tales still told in Devon and Cornwall are about smugglers and smuggling. This clandestine activity once busied the region’s rugged cliffs and hidden coves; the ideal landscape for the hauling of contraband. During the later part of the 18th century, when ‘free-trading’ was at its height, thousands of gallons of alcohol and millions of tons of tea were arriving up and down the West Country coast – usually under the cover of darkness.
From the smugglers themselves to the hawkers who helped them, this thriving activity was costing the Revenue £3 million in a single year. In fact, the black market was so prolific it was believed that one in every five horses in the country was being used to transport smuggled goods.
Smugglers could make small fortunes if they played their cards right, and many decided to run the risk under the guise of humble fisherman or labourer. Women and children too were involved in the running and hiding of black market goods, which could be anything from lace and silk, to French Cognac (more commonly referred to as “Cousin Jackie”), and even human hair. If you lived in a coastal community, and weren’t directly involved in smuggling, the chances were that you’d be more than willing to turn a blind eye to such “goings-on”. Crossing the smugglers was a dangerous move, with infamous gangs, such as the Cornish Carters of Prussia Cove, armed to their teeth. The opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Smuggler’s Song’ helps to capture this “see no evil” attitude:
If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet, Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street. Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie. Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by.
Up and down the Devon and Cornish coast illegal goods were stashed in caves, under floorboards, down mines, and at the bottom of fish cellars, as the smugglers (who referred to themselves as “gentlemen”) endeavored to keep one step ahead of the Customs officials and Excisemen. Eventually, the might of the crown proved too much and the golden days of smuggling began to fade under the shadow of the hangman’s noose.
Tales of infamous West Country smugglers continue to help keep this fascinating piece of history alive, with legends such as Tommy Crocker and the story of his secret tunnel, helping to entertain all those who set foot in the Pilchard Inn on the famous Burgh Island off Bigbury-on-Sea.