St Ives and the history of Cornish smugglers

Despite the inroads of commercialisation, there lingers in many Cornish fishing villages and coves something of the romantic atmosphere of the old smuggling days, when sea-booted figures shouldered heavy tubs of spirits up steep cliffside tracks on moonless nights to the waiting horses above, running the gauntlet of Revenue cruisers, Preventive boats and the coastguard to get the precious ‘goods’ safely landed and away. Inevitably, much nonsense has been written about the smuggler; and the truth, as is so often the case, proves to be far more interesting than far-fetched fantasy.

The smuggler emerges from many tales neither as a criminal nor a hero, but as a courageous, resourceful and enterprising character, who did no one – except the Chancellor of the Exchequer – any particular harm, and benefited his fellows not a little in providing them with cut-price luxuries. Left to his own devices, he was the most harmless of men; it was only when Authorities sought to curb his activities that he showed how ready he was to defend what he regarded as his legitimate interests.

Most of these stories belong to the early nineteenth century – that period when smuggling was in slow but steady decline, and when the violence and bloodshed of earlier times had been somewhat moderated. Traditions of such incidents are still handed down in a few local families – though they are not always for the ear of the inquisitive stranger.

Every smuggling operation was carried out by two teams of men, who had to work in the closest concert with each other to achieve success – those on the ship which brought the contraband goods from France, and the shore party who helped to land and convey them safely away to their destination. The latter task was often the more dangerous, and required much physical effort, particularly when heavy casks had to be carried up high and steep cliffs. This explains why it was sometimes necessary to employ large numbers of men in the landing party – as many as a hundred or more – to get the goods removed expeditiously from the coast before the onset of daylight.

The greatest danger which the ships had to face came from the Revenue cutters which constantly patrolled the coasts of Cornwall and also from the Preventive boats, which usually operated closer to the shore. But even if they eluded these hazards, there still remained the possibility that their boats, on landing, might run into an ambush should the Preventive men have discovered that a ‘run’ was to be made at that particular place.

The existence of such an ambush would usually be known by the shore party, who might quite well have been disturbed by it themselves. The recognised manner of warning the boats approaching the trap with their precious cargo was by lighting a fire on shore. For this purpose, a beacon of furze or other suitable materials was prepared in advance, and some of the party were detailed to kindle this should the need arise. So common was this practice that it was made a punishable offence to light a fire upon the coast as a signal, and several instances are recorded where men were brought to trial for this offence.

At Cornwall Lent Assize in 1828, John Brown, John Dunstan and William Borlase were indicted for making a light to give notice to their associates at sea, in order to prevent the landing of a smuggled cargo. It appears that on the 9th of March Samuel Gammon, boatman of the Cawsand Coastguard station, was on duty on Rame Hills, near Porlorn [Polhawn] Cove, about a mile and a half from Cawsand. At three in the morning, Gammon and another boatman called James Dyer hid themselves in a furze brake near Rame church. They saw a fire in the gateway, and three men came into the field with lighted straw in their hands, and made lights in three different directions.

Gammon ran across and caught Dunstan, who was coming from the gateway where the fire had first been seen. On seeing three smugglers running across the field pursued by Preventive men, Gammon let Dunstan go and joined in the chase. Eventually three prisoners were secured. Before the fires were lighted, a vessel had been seen standing in for the land.

To take another example: at Cornwall Lent Assize in 1825 a smuggler named Spry was indicted for lighting a fire on the banks of the Helford river for the purpose of warning smugglers of the approach of Customs officers. It was proved that on the arrival of Preventive men at the spot where the defendant was found, some straw was ignited, and the defendant cried ‘Run! Run! They are coming!’ The officers then rushed forward and secured him. Spry admitted the truth of this evidence, but declared he had no hand in lighting the fire; he was merely on his way home, and on seeing the officers approach cried out to the smugglers to run. He handed to the court a testimonial to his good character signed by several respectable persons, but this did not prevent him being found guilty.

During the early morning of December 4th 1831, the French smuggler Elizabeth, having on board 338 kegs of brandy and gin and some packages of highly dutiable manufactured glass, appeared in the vicinity of St Ives. Her master was a certain Jean-Marie Yves Creach, and she carried a crew of six French and two British. When first observed from the shore, she was standing into the bay under full sail, it being their intention to land the goods either at Gwithian or Hayle.

The Coastguard at all times maintained an all-night watch from several vantage points in and around St Ives and as soon as Moses Martin, Chief officer of the local station, was told of the craft’s suspicious behaviour, he and his assitants immediately went out after her in the Coastguard cutter, together with the St Ives customs boat. However, the smugglers had confederates waiting ashore; and as soon as they realised that the Elizabeth had been detected, they lit fires to warn her of danger.

The French vessel promptly turned about and put off again. A stern chase then developed between her and the pursuing coastguards. Martin was a sworn and inveterate enemy of local smugglers; and he kept determinedly on the vessel’s tail until eventually she was overhauled and captured about six miles from the coast. She was then brought in triumph into St Ives harbour.

Her crew were subsequently brought before the St Ives magistrates on December 13th and fined £100 each, but being unable to pay, they were committed to Bodmin Gaol. Two of them were Cornish: one, called Yellam, from Probus, and the other named Bawden, from Mevagissey.

As for the poor little Elizabeth, she suffered an even sadder fate. At that time, to prevent seized smuggling craft from being ‘bought back’ by their former owners at the subsequent auction and once more used for contraband running, the authorities had the hulls of such vessels sawn into three parts, and their ropes destroyed prior to the sale. And this is what happened to the Elizabeth.

A copy of the advertisement was put out by the St Ives’ Custom house. It will be seen from this last case that warning beacons were not always effective in enabling a smuggling vessel to make her getaway; but that many were saved by this means is an undoubted fact, and explains why those who lit these beacons were hunted down so vigilantly by the Preventive men.