Smuggling Around Combe Martin 

Smuggling activities once operated not far from Combe Martin's sheltered fishing cove in North Devon

Lundy Island, Lee Bay and Morte, Ilfracombe, Combe Martin, Heddon’s Mouth, Watermouth Cove and Trentishoe: they all feature in local histories of smuggling.

Click here to see more pictures ˃

Modified on June 20, 2024 at 00:01 UTC

Created November 5, 2023

By Combe Martin History and Heritage Project ©2023-2024

 

Abstract

This original article delves into the intriguing history of smuggling and wrecking, along the rugged coastlines of Devon and Cornwall. From the 13th to the 19th centuries, these illicit activities shaped the lives of coastal communities such as Combe Martin in North Devon.

While the main body of the article delves into the intriguing narratives and factual accounts of smuggling in the area, the conclusion also examines the specific impacts these activities had on the Combe Martin community and its industrial development.

The ‘golden era of smuggling’, a fascinating period in British economic history between the 18th and 19th centuries, left behind tales of daring escapades, hidden coves and notorious free-traders. More than any movie or book, tax-evading rebels, criminals, and the underground economy, created a rich tapestry of folklore and a lasting legacy. 

Sources for histories of smuggling are fragmented and obscure, and the motivations and actions of smugglers varied widely, reflecting the complex socio-economic conditions of the time. During the 18th century, authorities considered smuggling a social crime and a grave offence due to its detrimental effects on society, and significant losses to import revenue.

Thus, the authorities were compelled to implement stricter regulations and controls; and the penalties for anyone convicted of smuggling activities were broadly severe. However, the British government was fighting a losing battle, given that nominally respectable, law-abiding citizens, including those from the upper classes, were actively participating in free trade.

Smugglers were not only of the seagoing variety; land-smugglers were a crucial part of the illicit commercial industry which was much less romantic in reality. Join us on a journey through time as we unravel the secrets of smugglers, exploring the economic motivations behind their actions, and separating fact from fiction in the myths that surround them.

Photographs and pictures are included at the foot of this article. To learn more about this fascinating period that affected Combe Martin and its industrial history: see the included source footnotes. Pictures are included further down this page.

Introduction

Like other coastlines—Yorkshire, Wales, South England, the Isle of Man— Devon and Cornwall have plenty of old tales about West Country smugglers (free-traders) and 'wreckers' (looters). Popular tales come from the decadent 18th century and early 19th century, reflecting the complex and often clandestine nature of maritime trade during that era.

View our pictures on this page˃ 

The northern coastline of Devon, particularly the fortified refuge of Lundy, was infamous in the 'Golden Age'. The majority of smuggled goods were successfully brought ashore, but the authorities often exaggerated their limited victories, denying credible allegations of complicity.

In 1786, at Heddon’s Mouth, authorities confiscated twenty barrels of spirits and thirteen bales of tobacco. The revenue cutter Scorpion seized fifty barrels of brandy, one hundred and fifty pounds of tobacco, and four bags of tea at Northam Burrows in 1782. (Hesketh, R., 2007).

Meanwhile at Instow, the waiting customs officer ('tidewaiter') discovered two hundred and ten casks of spirits and a stash of tobacco (ibid). While the smugglers were reviled by the authorities, they were often seen as folk heroes by the local population, who appreciated the community benefits brought by the smuggling trade.

Robert Hesketh (2007): Devon Smugglers, the Truth Behind the Fiction. Bossiney Books, Launceston.

Infamous Freebooters

While not from the West Country: infamous freebooters John Avery, Henry Every, and William Kidd operated during the 17th and 18th-centuries. Such freebooters captured the public's imagination, and folklore has exaggerated or invented details about these pirates.

Privateers-cum-pirates, corsairs, and picaroons recovered treasure from wrecked galleons, and plundered possessions in foreign climes. We will look at notable smugglers, tax evaders who operated in southwest England during the 'Golden Age' of smuggling.

Besides a wealth of dramatised folklore about smuggling and wrecking: there are important historical accounts and academic studies that provide insights into the activities and motivations.  

In 1825, the authorities prosecuted two men from Combe Martin and nearby Berrynarbor, for harbouring contraband (Out of The World and Into Combe Martin, 1989). At that point in time, the ‘Golden Age of Smuggling’ was all but finished.

Centuries old trade in fish, timber, ores, metals and minerals, expanded after the Industrial Revolution 1760-c1840. Smugglers infested the Bristol Channel during the 18th century, posing a persistent challenge for the patrolling Customs and Excise officers, and their revenue vessels.

"Smuggling was more profitable than fishing" in Britain. And in its heyday, "more illegal spirits were being smuggled in to the country than came through London Docks" (Castelow, E. 2023). Money was syphoned abroad, and massive volumes of contraband were channelled into England.

Historian E. Keble Chatterton (1906) wrote that Combe Martin on the Bristol Channel, and Wales particularly Pembrokeshire, became notorious for smuggling. Like Exmoor, the Welsh coast had large numbers of secluded beaches and small coves well off the main trade routes.

E. Keble Chatterton (1906): King's Cutters and Smugglers 1700-1855. Project Gutenberg (2006).

For more local histories, see the North Devon AONB publication: Silver, Smoke and Strawberries, available from Combe Martin Museum.

Historic UK (2023): Smugglers and Wreckers (online).

National Museums of Liverpool (2023): Smuggling |Information sheet 24.

Old Brewery Units of Measure

Old measurements and standards varied by locality and content, but as a rough guide: a gallon of wine was defined as 4 quarts, 8 pints, or 32 gills, equivalent to 231 cubic inches or 3.785 French litres. Different sizes of wine containers were used, including the Dutch Anker (about 8.3 imperial gallons), rundlet (11 imperial gallons), and tierce (about 35 imperial gallons).

The hogshead measured 54 imperial gallons. There was the puncheon (70 to 120 imperial gallons), pipe or butt (126 gallons), and tun (210 gallons). In the case of ale and beer, the gallon was divided similarly to the wine gallon, amounting to 282 cubic inches or 4.6 French litres.

Various containers were used for ale and beer, such as the firkin (7.5 imperial gallons), kilderkin (15 imperial gallons), barrel (30 imperial gallons), puncheon (72 gallons), butt (106 gallons), and tun (216 gallons). These figures are approximate.

For spirits, the British Reputed Pint and Reputed Quart were the standard units of measure across Great Britain and its empire from the late 17th century until the early 20th century. Initially, different standard gallons were used depending on the type of alcohol.

We double-checked our sources, and it's impossible to define exact old measurements before they were standardised in different regions. Yet they were all important in determining the quantity of beer produced, stored, and sold. More importantly, they were used for calculating taxes and excise duties on beer and ale.

Note that different measurements were used for imported wine and spirits from other parts of the world e.g. 1 pipe of Madeira was roughly 77 imperial gallons, 1 pipe of Sherry equalled about 90 imperial gallons, and 1 pipe of Port was about 96 imperial gallons.

See also: The Oxford Companion to Beer: Definition of bottle sizes.

Nottingham University (2006): Weights and Measures.

Customs and Excise Evasion

Smuggling was, and is, the illegal practice of transporting goods across borders without paying the required taxes or duties. During the 18th and 19th centuries: this illicit trade developed from small-scale bootlegging into a national commercial industry.

Customs duties and excises serve to regulate the import of goods, particularly those that are potentially harmful or illegal, into the country. Additionally, they provide a layer of protection for domestic industries against overseas competition (Customs and excise - Oxford Reference).

Customs duty - indirect tax - is levied on goods imported from a foreign country. The duty or indirect taxes levied on goods manufactured in the country is called excise duty (HMRC Manuals, UK Government). While duties and excises are a source of government revenue: the cost of the tax is often passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices. 

Also see: Combe Martin during 1831-1845 by topographer Samuel Lewis.

Read a history of Combe Martin˃

Tea Kickstarted Bootlegging in Britain

The British love affair with tea goes back to 17th century Stuart England, when the luxury beverage made its grand entrance into Britain thanks to Portugal's Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II, and tea addict. The Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland brought her 'medicinal' packed loose-leaf tea, a precious commodity at the time.

Susana Varela Flor (2021): Queen Catherine of Braganza and the Consumption of Tea in Stuart England (1662-1693).

In 1767, Sir Stephen T. Janssen - MP and Lord Mayor of London - claimed the causes of bootlegging could be traced back to Britain's high taxation on teas. As early as 1660: tea tax  maintained Parliament's right to tax the colonies.

While it helped bail out the Crown's major joint-stock companies, the tax was part of a broader shift in the system of land tenure and revenue collection.

JANSSEN, Stephen Theodore (d.1777), of St. Paul's Churchyard, London | History of Parliament Online.

The Golden Age of Smuggling

The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—the age of mercantilism or one-sided trade—are often characterised as the "Golden Age of Smuggling". For most of the 18th century, British authorities faced a prolific smuggling industry run by armed and determined criminals.

In this free-trade, small-scale evasion of customs and excise duties soon developed into a major criminal industry fully financed by investors, and indulged by local communities including the upper-class. After a long run, the Golden Age had significantly declined by the mid-nineteenth-century.

Smuggling featured in the unlawful exportation of wool during the early seventeenth-century. Wool was immensely valuable to the English economy, particularly during the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period. 

Since the thirteenth-century the wool trade had contributed significantly to the wealth and prosperity of England, funding towns, cities, and religious houses. In 1661 the illegal export of wool was made punishable by death (National Museums Liverpool - Information sheet 24). 

Criminal trade in contraband eventually extended to the illicit importation of teas, luxury items such as silk, lace, salt, red wine from Portugal, and French brandies. Paul Musket (1996) states that some smugglers were serious entrepreneurs; others were casual opportunists.

Former smugglers employed by the revenue services were well aware of the opportunities open to them. It’s plausible that during the high age of smuggling: bribery and corruption could have occurred within the Revenue Service.

In the history book Smuggling in the British Isles published by The History Press in 2011: maritime historian Richard Platt explores the fascinating realm of smuggling. The book offers insights into who the smugglers were, what drove them, how they transported contraband, and the strategies they used to avoid detection.

Bree Rosenberger (2020); The British Smuggling Dilemma: 1698-1784. Core.ac.uk.

John H. Moore (online, 2023)Smuggling c1680 to c1840.

Paul Muskett (1996, 1997): English smuggling in the eighteenth century. PhD thesis The Open University.

Richard Platt: Smuggling in the British Isles: A History. The History Press; 2nd Edition (1 Aug. 2011). 

Combe Martin Smuggling

Towards the end of the classic smuggling era: bootlegging was rarely reported in the busy import and export trade between Combe Martin and the Bristol Channel ports. Yet one local businessman was caught.

A thriving hub of commercial industry: Combe Martin regularly imported and exported cargoes including lime, metals, the 'world's finest strawberries' and other fruits, vegetables, and coal. There must have been plenty of opportunities to smuggle and conceal contraband, using several methods of concealment.

In 1825 the authorities prosecuted John Dovell of Combe Martin, and also William Low from nearby Berrynarbor, for harbouring smuggled goods. Storing or keeping smuggled goods imported without payment of duty, or otherwise unlawfully imported, has long been a crime.

There is a record of a John Dovell who was born in 1789 at Parracombe, and died on May 27, 1873, in Combe Martin. He is buried near the path in the northern part of the graveyard of St. Peter ad Vincula Church and is the most likely John Dovell out of three possible candidates.

Combe Martin Local History Group (1989): OUT OF THE WORLD AND INTO COMBE MARTIN. Combe Martin. Rotapress.

John Dovell, b.1789 d.1873 - Ancestry®.

The contraband industry was never confined to the merchant service or privateers. During the 'golden age of smuggling': communities, Support vessels and various types of steamers and ferries were involved. Also cargo ships, fishing smacks, pilots and marine protection vessels. 

Hardly a criminal, the respectable 'great entrepreneur' and shipbuilder John Dovell was highly influential by 1825. Messrs Dovell and Low were fined £25, about a year's wages for a labourer or just about enough to buy a cottage with a garden in Combe Martin (CMLHG, 1989). 

Goods were smuggled into West Wales from the independent Isle of Man - "the great smuggling entrepôt in the Irish sea" - and Ireland. In Pembrokeshire, many areas of the coast have names linked with smuggling, such as Ogof Wisgi (Whisky Cave).

Twm Elias, Dafydd Meirion (2017): Smugglers in Wales Explored. Gwynned. Llygad Gwalch Cyf (1 Feb. 2017).

WJEC GCSE HISTORY: CRIME & PUNISHMENT. 2023.

The Ulster Historical Foundation (2023): Trade - Irish Sea and Coastal Trade. "Isle of Man, independent possession of the Duke of Athol".

Owling

A common trade in Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries: ‘owling’ referred to illegal but profitable exports of sheep or raw wool, sent from Britain to the continent. Smuggling was not confined to imported luxuries such as tea, spirits, fabrics, tobacco or even drugs. 

There is every chance that owling happened in Combe Martin. Why it was called 'owling' is not known, yet it was often carried out by night-owls and involved 'owling boats'. This form of smuggling was a significant part of the underground economy of the time. 

Hugh Chisholm (ed. 1911). "Owling". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Paul Musket (1974): Military Operations Against Smuggling in Kent and Sussex, 1698-1750.  

'Smugglers Caves' Around Combe Martin

There are caves and secluded beaches in the Combe Martin locale, and some are thought to have been used by smugglers. Combe Martin's beaches and caves are popular with tourists, and a few caves can be seen from Combe Martin harbour's concrete causeway at low tide.

A system of caves and tunnels at Napps near Berrynarbor was discovered during limestone quarrying in the early 1900s. Cave explorers are advised to stay safe, and only attempt investigations during daylight at periods of low tide.

The next bay inlet along from Watermouth is called Samson's Bay. With its yawning cave, the bay is purportedly named after a local smuggler who operated there. 

Under Combe Martin's coastal rock formations there are large overhanging caverns, formed by the Combe Martin slates and Holey limestone. See the North AONB website: Combe Martin Beach.

A series of caves lies on the North-western edge of Combe Martin beach at Lester Point, with  rock pools full of marine life (SS 5755 4745). Combe Martin's beach caves, explored by miners over a century ago, can only be reached by boat at high tide, or by the modern concrete causeway at low tide (SS 5747).

Derek Voller (2018:) Caves and Rock Pools, Combe Martin, Devon. Geograph.com.

German U-boats at Combe Martin

Other clandestine activities happened at Combe Martin during World War II, when the secluded Sherrycombe Waterfall at EX34 0PE is said to have been visited by WW2 German U-boat crews. In local tradition backed-up by news reports: the German crews were secretly collecting fresh water. 

South West Coast Path Walks: Sherrycombe and Girt Down.

John H. Moore: Mining around Hele Bay and Combe Martin, north Devon (johnhmoore.co.uk).

A Case (or Cask) at Watermouth in 1785

Berrynarbor News (1996) reported a story from 1785: Tidesman George Fishley (the customs official waiting for ships coming in with the tide) of Watermouth near Combe Martin, found a 96 gallon cask of rum in an outhouse near his cottage.

By the time George had reported the find to Ilfracombe and returned, the rum had gone. Tidesmen were 'Preventive Officers', appointed to check cargos arriving at designated Legal Quays. Excise duties on behalf of the Crown were calculated and charged to the ship’s owner.

Grahame E. Farr (1970): Ships and Harbours of Exmoor. Exmoor Press (1 Sept. 1970).

Combe Martin's Secluded Beaches

Secluded beaches and caves lie along and below the Combe Martin Hangmen crags. Ideal smuggling spots: these caves are unmarked or their names are forgotten. Yet local tales of smugglers’ caves around Combe Martin's shores are not the full story.

In local histories, contraband was moved to inland caches including barns, mines, Combe Martin's nineteen lime kilns, and several quarries. It was much safer to keep contraband moving. 

Contraband Caches and Distribution

During the summer, goods were landed on the north side of Cornwall between Land's End (Penzance) and Hartland Point (Bideford), then distributed by coasters to Wales and the ports of the Bristol Channel. Some were carried inland on the backs of dozens of horses, protected by a strong guard.

According to E.K. Chatterton (1906): during the winter, contraband was landed on the shores of the Bristol Channel, including the little harbour at Combe Martin. Farmers and land-smugglers came down with horses and carts to fetch the goods.

Contraband was subsequently lodged in barns and other ingeniously devised caches such as pits, tunnels, quarries, beaches, and fields. Combe Martin's rural industrial landscape must have afforded several hiding places for the smuggling community.

The methods employed by land-smugglers concealing newly delivered contraband varied from region to region; and maritime historian Richard Platt includes floating barrels in inlets and small harbours such as Combe Martin (Smuggling in the British Isles, 2011).

E. Keble Chatterton (1906): King's Cutters and Smugglers 1700-1855. Project Gutenberg (2006).

Ilfracombe to Woolacombe and Mortehoe

For ‘Smugglers Caves’, look from Ilfracombe to Woolacombe and Mortehoe. The names of the cliffs along the South West coastal path allude to the area’s smuggling past: Brandy Cove Point, Breakneck Point and Damage Rock.

Folk stories claim that Mortehoe Wreckers lured ships onto rocks, and freebooters looted their cargoes. It was also alleged that sailors were killed so that their personal effects could legally be taken, albeit the evidence is barely credible.

Elizabeth Berry  (1798 - 1877) - "Freebooter" - seems to have been convicted in 1850 of looting the wreck of the Smack William and Jane, at Mortehoe. She was reportedly fined £1 which she could not pay, and given 21 days hard labour. The Smack William and Jane apparently drove ashore, and was lost in thick fog on Morte Sands on February 15, 1850.

Richard & Bridget Larn: Shipwreck Index of the British Isles ("Devon"). Lloyds Registry of Shipping, Vol. 1,1995.

'Betsy' Berry seems to have married John Berry at Mortehoe during August 1819. Apparently she bore several children, and lived in Mortehoe for most of her life. There is little evidence to prove that Betsy Berry was anything other than an opportunistic looter.

Ruby Frances Bidgood (1965): Two Villages … The story of Mortehoe and Woolacombe. BPC Wheatons; 4th Edition (1 Jan. 1984).

The secluded Sandy Cove, by the southwest coastal path near the north-western tip of Devon, is supposed to be where smugglers secretly landed their contraband. Sandy Cove lies on the western side of Lee Bay just beyond Lee Bay Beaches (S W Coast Path, Woolacombe, Ilfracombe EX34 8LR).

Lee Bay

Lee Valley near Ilfracombe has a little scenic bay with the inevitable ruined lime kiln; in fact at one time there were no less than 18 lime kilns around Combe Martin. Lee Valley, 11 miles west of Combe Martin and 20 minutes by car, is overlooked by the headland at Duty Point.

One of the first Coastguard stations was established at Duty Point in 1822. Duty Point Tower near Lee Bay is a mid 19th Century, two-stage lookout tower near the cliff edge. It is square, with buttresses and battlemented parapet, and with a staircase turret.

Exmoor National Park HER MDE20953: Duty Point Tower, north of Lee Abbey (Building).

It is constructed from stone and is a local landmark. This might provide reason enough to believe the local tales of smuggling, and the area is also littered with shipwrecks caused by the Bay's vicious rocks. 

One locally recorded Revenue success was the seizure of a quantity of tobacco and spirits from a small smack, the Sunrise from Aberthaw, South Wales, carrying lime and culm. The owner and master managed to escape from the Preventive Boat Service operating from Heddon's Mouth. 

On the cliff path out of Lee Bay there is a spot known as 'Smuggler's Leap', where legend has it that a smuggler was being chased by a Revenue officer. They were both on horseback and fell to their deaths in the struggle. 

Heddon's Mouth

Heddon's Mouth between Martinhoe and Trentishoe has a reputation for landing smuggled goods. The towering cliffs at either side of Heddon's Mouth are some of the highest in England. The first noted seizure here was in 1786, when an Irish wherry boat unloaded a cargo of spirits and tobacco onto the shore.

Before most of the goods could be spirited away, a party of Customs men descended onto the beach and managed to secure 20 ankers of spirit (c.166 gallons), plus 13 bales of tobacco weighing up to 100 pounds each. 

The wherry escaped with its landing party, and nobody was convicted. This is a typical tale of smuggling on this side of the Bristol Channel; one of the many direct confrontations, usually fights,  between Customs officers and smugglers. At the time, it was believed the wherry belonged to the notorious smuggler of Barry Island: Thomas Knight of Lundy.

Travis, John (2008): Smuggling on the Exmoor Coast 1680 - 1850. Exmoor Society.

Watermouth

In May 1799 a cutter called the Hope, from Appledore, landed no less than 96 ankers of brandy at Heddon's Mouth. It then moved further west to Watermouth just beyond Combe Martin, and landed the rest of its cargo comprising some 80 ankers. 

However, the master misjudged his bearings and came in too close to the shore. The vessel ran onto rocks, sank, and all hands were lost. This seems unusual because the small harbour of Watermouth was considered one of the safest points along this coast. 

A customs inspector ‘tide-waiter’ was regularly employed at Watermouth, to collect the duties on coal and culm which was used in the lime kiln situated near the shore.

Trentishoe and Martinshoe

Trentishoe and its neighbouring hamlet of Martinhoe are situated in a lonely, sheltered valley but close to the sea. One can easily understand just how they gained their smuggling reputations.

The little 13th century church at Martinhoe—only a few feet longer than Culbone Church in Somerset—was allegedly used to hide smuggled goods. 

Indeed there is an entry in the parish register against the recorded death of one Dick Jones at the grand age of 103; 'the last of the smugglers'. Apparently the long, cold nights on the shore with hot brandy did him little or no harm.

There is a local tale of a local inhabitant, Jim Hoyle, who allegedly concealed 262 barrels of brandy, worth over £1,000 at the time, beneath the floor of his stable in the year 1827. In the tale, customs officers recovered the contraband while Jim escaped through a window.

South West Coast Path National Trail (2023): Walk - Trentishoe Down. Southwestcoastpath.org.uk.

Ilfracombe

Ilfracombe is the longest established and the most important port along the Exmoor coast. At one time it was a refuge harbour and the safest spot along the whole of the south side of the Bristol Channel. An 18th century visitor described Ilfracombe as 'a beautiful natural basin sheltered by craggy heights'.

In 1783, suspicions were raised about all the pilot boats in Ilfracombe being involved in smuggling. One of these boats, named the Cornwall, was confiscated and subsequently dismantled into three pieces (Johnhmoore.co.uk, 2023: Smuggling in Hele Bay).

From 1804 to 1824: Thomas Rudd, a Custom House Collector responsible for examining cargo at Ilfracombe, had a familial connection to smuggling activities. His son-in-law, Cooke, was a known smuggler who managed to evade capture (ibid).

Historically, Ilfracombe also developed a fine reputation for shipbuilding as well as a flourishing trade with Ireland, Bristol, Falmouth the notorious smuggling port, and the Welsh ports especially Swansea. This latter trade link quickly segued into a regular ferry service. 

This picturesque setting, combined with its mild climate, made Ilfracombe a popular destination for tourists during the 18th century and beyond. 

Ilfracombe quickly developed as a Victorian seaside resort on a par with Brighton. George Eliot alias Mary Ann Evans, prominent English writer and poet in the Victorian age, stayed in Ilfracombe during the summer of 1856. Eliot left many descriptions of the town and local area.

Georgeeliotarchive.org | Lois Lamplugh (1984): A History of Ilfracombe. Chichester. Phillimore and Co.

The Smuggling Industry Depreciated Tax Revenues

About the middle of the eighteenth century, the tea smuggling trade into this country had grown enough to reduce the overall revenue. Of all the tea that was consumed in this country, much less than half of it was tax paid; the rest was bootlegged.

Teignmouth and Harper (1923) state that in 1743, estimations put "the yearly average of tea imported through official means at 650,000 lbs". Yet, the total consumption was triple this figure, suggesting a considerable amount of tea was brought in through unauthorised routes. This highlights the extraordinary demand for tea during that era (The Smugglers).

Lord Teignmouth (RN) & C.G. Harper: THE SMUGGLERS - Picturesque Chapters in the History of Contraband (1923). London. Palmer.

Author E. Keble Chatterton (1906) wrote that the smugglers were well financed, and were themselves seasoned sailors and skilled pilots. Ruthless gangs manned large and heavily armed vessels; they attacked the King's Cutter enforcement vessels, and stormed Customs Houses.

Gangs occupied towns and terrorised communities by committing murder and torture. Moreover, they had some of the best designed and best built cutters and luggers of that time.

Cutters and luggers from Guernsey carried contraband of 400 to 800 ankers (thousands of gallons) of spirits each. There were casks of illicit port and sherry for the wealthier classes; and bales of illegal tobacco (Chatterton).

E. Keble Chatterton (1906): King's Cutters and Smugglers 1700-1855. Project Gutenberg (2006).

Smugglers Britainhttp://www.smuggling.co.uk/famous.html. 

British Tariffs, Customs and Excise 

According to Ashworth (2003): mid-17th-century British tariffs and excise taxes facilitated the expansion of burgeoning industries including cotton, iron, and pottery.

Low taxes in the 17th century played a significant role in stimulating the growth of certain commodity-based industries. This fiscal policy greatly contributed to Britain’s ability to establish a dominant global position in production and trade (Ibid).

However, the financial burden of this system fell on consumable goods particularly spirits and tea, which were heavily taxed. According to Morrisette (2003): in 18th century England a considerable number of people of all classes preferred to live with their luxuries like brandy, gin, tea, tobacco and fine fabrics, rather than pay duties or go without. 

Ashworth states that the complex system of tariffs and customs fees gave rise to a vast underground "parasitic black market". Acquiring and transporting goods, funding smuggling trips, or buying large quantities of goods for resale, were widespread profitable practices. 

Wrecking Ships by False Lights (Trope)

Persistent folktales and tropes describe criminals deliberately using false lights to lure ships onto rocks, before looting the wrecks and killing survivors. Those stories are mostly untrue (Hutchings, 1972, i.a.).

Besides turning away from suspicious shore lights: seasoned mariners of the 18th and 19th centuries were skilled navigators, well-acquainted with wreckers, thieves and pirates. Lighthouse keepers played a crucial role; their beacons warned ships away from dangerous rocks and guided them safely to harbour.

British Lighthouses were privately owned and licensed. The abuse of licenses led to foreign ships fearing to seek refuge on the south coast of England, in case they were boarded and extorted.

Hague, Douglas B; Christie, Rosemary (1975). Lighthouses: Their Architecture, History and Archeology. Dyfed, Wales: Gomer Press.

While there is no conclusive evidence of criminals intentionally luring ships onto rocks in North Devon or Cornwall: for poor coastal communities in the 18th century there were obvious economic incentives for salvaging wrecked cargo.

Yet in Cornwall, part of the Atlantic Ocean seaboard specifically the Celtic Sea: communities from different classes collected and claimed shipwrecked goods, and found themselves on the wrong side of the law (Pearce, C.J., 2010).

The spectacle of a ship struggling against the waves would draw locals to the shoreline. They would swiftly dismantle wrecked vessels and seize any goods onboard for themselves (Ellen Castelow, Historic-UK).

The law deemed it illegal to claim salvage from a wrecked ship if anyone was still alive on it, therefore shipwreck survivors might not have lived long to tell the tale.

Castelow says that Wrecking was another aspect of the Cornish smuggling trade, "as goods that were washed ashore from a wrecked ship were regarded as common property." This information is contained in Castelow's Smugglers and Wreckers, at Historic UK online.

Richard J. Hutchings (1972): Smugglers of the Isle of Wight. G. G. Saunders; 1st Edition.

Andrew Gritt (n.d.): Representations of mariners and maritime communities, c.1750–1850. University of Central Lancashire.

In the book Cornish Wrecking (2010): Cathryn J. Pearce PhD dispels the myth of evil Cornish wreckers deliberately luring ships onto rocks for looting. Yet, some Cornish communities had their own ideas about collecting and claiming goods from shipwrecks on the shore.

On the Cornish coast and elsewhere, the moment a wrecked vessel touched the shore she was considered fair plunder. And men, women and children worked to break her up, night and day. The Rev John J. Daniell (1894) describes shipwreck survivors being murdered for their watch.

Cathryn J. Pearce (2010): Cornish Wrecking, 1700-1860 Reality and Popular Myth. Boydell Press.

Rev John J. Daniell (1894): A Geography of Cornwall. London and Truro; Longman and Co.

Cornwall's Lizard Peninsula

During the late 18th century: Cornish smuggler Harry Carter (publ. 1900) wrote of wreckers and smugglers operating around the Lizard Peninsula, southern Cornwall. While wrecked cargoes were collected in Cornish communities: tales of criminals causing shipwrecks with false lights are found in books, tourism myths and biographies, but rarely in court records.

Carter: The autobiography of a Cornish smuggler : (Carter of Prussia Cove) 1749-1809. 2nd Ed. London, Gibbings and Co [Nabu, 2010].

Bella Bathurst (2006): THE WRECKERS: A Story of Killing Seas, False Lights and Plundered Ships. Reprint. London; Harper Perennial. 

The Birth of Consumerism

Merchant trading licences became incredibly expensive, adding up to 60% to the price of goods. Consequently, a significant portion of the population - including merchants - engaged in so-called “free trade” that continued into the 19th century. For some people it was their livelihood, while others occasionally acquired a couple of illicit ankers (roughly 15 gallons).

In those days there was scarcely a fishing village—along the south coast, at any rate— which did not own a vessel, often several, whose sole and peculiar employment was the importation of contraband articles for the use of the adjacent populace (Henry N.S. Teignmouth).

Ashworth posits that this illicit industry between 1640 and 1845 gave birth to consumerism.

Dr E. Jones. (2012): Inside the Illicit Economy: Reconstructing the Smugglers' Trade of Sixteenth Century Bristol. Bristol. ac.uk.

W. J. Ashworth (2003): Customs and Excise: Trade, Production, and Consumption in England, 1640-1845. OUP.

A. T. Morisette, (2013): "They Would Have a Law of Their Own": The Discourse on Smuggling at The Old Bailey, 1736-1814.

Henry Noel Shore Teignmouth (baron): Smuggling Days And Smuggling Ways... Sagwan Press (24 Aug. 2015).

When the government reduced tax on tea and other goods in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: smuggling declined as it was no longer as profitable. British Free Trade policy reduced import duties in the 1840s; and in 1849 the Board of Excise was amalgamated with the Board of Stamps and Taxes to form the Board of Inland Revenue (The National Archives).

In 1874, authorities in the United Kingdom made "1,157 confiscations of contraband goods; 53 fewer than the previous year. A total of 1,094 individuals were found guilty of smuggling, marking a decrease of 80 since 1873" (Teignmouth and Harper, The Smugglers, 1923).

The amount of tobacco and cigars confiscated in 1874 was 10,738 lbs, and the volume of spirits was 266 gallons. Still, the figures were significantly lower than the previous year (Ibid).  Therefore the end of the classic smuggling era in Britain can be traced back to the mid-19th century.

Combe Martin Local History Group (1989); Out of the World and into Combe Martin. Rotapress Combe Martin.

Lord Teignmouth (RN) & C.G. Harper: THE SMUGGLERS - Picturesque Chapters in the History of Contraband (1923). London. Palmer.

Caves and Secret Passages in Cornwall

Infamous West Country smugglers in the late 18th century include the Cornish 'King of Prussia' John Carter and his brothers in the Penzance district. Smugglers certainly did adapt and use secret caves and passages, for storing contraband around Cornwall.

According to Harry Carter's memoirs (ed.  John B. Cornish,1900): "They stored them there [in caves], and sometimes, but not often, the "officers" found them"... "Caves of which the mouths have been built up, and which are reputed to be connected with the house on the cliff above by secret passages" (Harry Carter [1900]: "Introduction", p. Xiii).

The autobiography of a Cornish smuggler : (Carter of Prussia Cove) 1749-1809. 2nd Ed. London, Gibbings and Co [Nabu, 2010].

This book is written by Harry Carter, John Carter’s brother, and is a first-hand account of the Carter family’s smuggling operations.

Mercantilism and 17th Century Protectionism 

Britain's historic trade in illegal imports and exports dates back to the 13th century, when a Custom duty was placed on the export of wool, an essential commodity in Europe.

British 'protectionism' emerged in the 17th century, when the Navigation Laws required all trade between Britain and the colonies to be carried in British or colonial vessels. Additional limitations on trade subsequently increased customs duties on goods, and consumables.

Mercantilism was embraced by Britain and other nations such as Portugal and France, seeking to increase their wealth by obtaining large amounts of gold and silver, and by selling more goods than they bought. This led to high duties and taxes, plus increased prices.

Following the Stuart Restoration during 1660, the English Parliament maintained its strategy of safeguarding English commerce. Through the enactment of new laws in 1660, 1662, and 1663, trade between England and its colonies was effectively restricted to vessels from England or the colonies.

The 'Navigation Laws' were intended to protect English (and later British) commerce from foreign competition, and lasted until the middle of the 19th century. 

UK Parliament (2023): The Navigation Laws ; Restoration |Oxford Reference (2023): Navigation Acts.

Cheaper Goods, Criminality and Violence

In reaction to higher costs, taxes and restrictions: highly organised smuggling gangs evaded  customs duties and taxes, and sold cheap imported goods brought into the country illegally.  The contraband trade benefitted smugglers and communities alike, yet it was also associated with lawlessness and violence.

England's 'Gin Craze'

Between 1689 and 1697, the Government passed a range of legislation aimed at restricting brandy imports. This protectionism further encouraged gin production in the 18th century, contributing to the 'Gin Craze' especially in London, and to lower birth rates.

Rosenberger (2020) points out "the Crown’s political endeavours to make gin more popular". The British government encouraged gin production through policies like the Gin Act of 1736.

These policies aimed to support the British grain industry and boost revenue. Gin was cheap, easily available, and became a powerful drug for the poor. The term ‘Mother’s Ruin’ survives to this day, reflecting gin’s negative impact on fertility, social stability and family life.

Bree Rosenberger (2020); The British Smuggling Dilemma: 1698-1784. Core.ac.uk.

The 'Bloody Code' Legal System

In Early Modern Britain, trade in contraband was linked to the 'Bloody Code', and legacy laws from the Tudors and Stewarts. Bridges (The London Museum, 2022) says that by the late 18th century the English legal system - often referred to as "the ‘Bloody Code’ - had established over 220 crimes in Britain that could attract a death sentence."

Paul Bridges (2022): The long fight: executions and death-penalty reforms in Britain. The London Museum.

In turn, an underground economy developed for taxed and prohibited items. It has been widely mooted that this illicit trade in goods and exports gave birth to consumerism.

William J. Ashworth (2010): Smugglers and the Birth of Consumerism in 18th Century Britain. BBC History.

Illicit trade towards the end of the 17th-century was more profitable than fishing. Between the eighteenth and the middle of the nineteenth-century: bands of British seamen smuggled valuable goods such as wool, tea and spirits, around the British Isles and to and from the Continent.

Moreover, the English upper-class might evade excise duty on imported fine textiles and silk.  The principal reason for British protectionism was to shield clothing manufacturers from foreign competition. England's plentiful stocks of wool - depreciating in local market value - were not matched by its textile industry.  

Items such as French silk waistcoats threatened the British silk industry, thus they were deliberately overtaxed to counter the French monopoly on embroidered accessories. 

National Museums Liverpool (online 2023); Smuggling (Information sheet 24).

Infamous West Country Smugglers

The Cornish 'King of Prussia' John Carter and his brothers were active smugglers, working out of Prussia Cove in late 18th century Cornwall. Hannibal Richards was another; plying his trade from North Devon's Lee Bay and always escaping justice. These villains operated during the highly profitable and often violent heyday of smuggling.

Castelow (n.d.): Smugglers and Wreckers. Historic UK ; Geni UK (2022): Hannibal Richards.

Thomas Benson hailed from a long-established merchant family in Bideford, North Devon. He conducted trade with France, Portugal, and Placentia in Newfoundland. Benson owned lime and ash businesses in Bideford; a North Devon MP, he was also an infamous smuggler.

In 1743, an elder brother advised Thomas Benson, in his will, to discontinue all trading with ships and vessels as soon as possible, due to the uncertainty and risks involved.

Despite his brother's advice: Thomas Benson continued his trade, supplementing his legitimate business with smuggling and piracy.

Crimes Against The Nation

Devon sits in close proximity to France and Ireland, once notorious for smuggling expensive products. According to E. Keble Chatterton (1906): Ilfracombe, Clovelly, Bideford, Combe Martin, and Porlock were especially affected by maritime corruption and excise evasion.

Before the 1770s, the government portrayed smuggling as a crime against the nation. The smuggling trade also provided employment and good wages for sailors and landlubbers, especially in times of recession. 

Smugglers referred to their commonplace trade in terms of tradition, and entitlement. Facing armed prevention from the British Army, smugglers saw fit to arm themselves.

National Museums Liverpool (online 2023); Smuggling (Information sheet 24).

Preventive Cutters and Spotters

The more obvious sea routes and caves were patrolled by the preventive cutters and spotters of the watchful Revenue. Before firing on a smuggler, a cruiser was bound to hoist his Revenue colours—both pennant and ensign— day or night. The beaches, and the paths destined to join the designated southwest coastal path through Combe Martin, were also patrolled. 

Smuckellors

In English print culture, the term “Smuckellors” was first used to refer to smugglers in a Royal Proclamation of 1661. The Dutch word Smokkelen appeared in English print in the seventeenth-century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

A proclamation by Charles II on August 9th 1661 included the first known use of “smuckellors”, meaning thieves who stole from the King (Jones, J., 2021).

Jacob Jones (2021); Wretches, Rogues, And Rebels: Smugglers In English Print Culture 1660-1766. 

King Charles II and the Board of Customs

In 1671 an official Board of Customs was established by Charles II, tasked with the duty of collecting Customs fees. During the 1680s, customs cutters were supplied to Revenue Officers, to aid them in monitoring and preventing the age-old trade in smuggling along the coastline.

Hansard (2005) : Official Report... on The Commissioners For Revenue And Customs Bill.

The Rise of Smuggling in the Eighteenth-Century

By the end of the 1720s, the primary sources of revenue were indirect taxes, particularly customs and excise taxes. Later, the government demanded strict enforcement of the Smugglers Acts passed in 1736 and 1746. The smuggling trade followed its own rules.

A.T. Morrisette (2013): They Would Have A Law Of Their Own. The Old Bailey, 1736-1814. Core.ac.uk.

An Instrument of Terror

Under Britain's 18th century capital punishment legal system: a 1723 Act made hunting deer, rabbits or hare a capital crime. Even paper or a pack of Playing cards was heavily taxed. 

As a result, many in the civil population did not regard smuggling as a crime in itself, but rather as a response to laws which have since been called 'The Bloody Code of Terror'. 

By the early 19th-century, the Collector of His Majesty's Customs at the Port of Dartmouth reported that smuggling had increased in the counties of Devon and Cornwall (Chatterton, 1912: Kings Cutters and Smugglers).

Drawback Scams

The term “drawback” generally refers to a refund on customs or excise duties paid on goods that are later exported. Scammers would exploit this system by falsely claiming exports and receiving refunds.

Early in the 18th century, smuggling on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea - a private domain outside of Crown jurisdiction - involved merchants bringing in goods from mainland Britain, and then applying for the drawback or reimbursement of paid import duty.

These goods, now free of customs duty, were transported back to England. This method expanded quickly, and seafaring vessels began to sell directly to the Manx. What started as a simple drawback scam had segued to large-scale smuggling.

J.R. Dickinson; The overseas trade of the Isle of Man, 1576-1755. Bailgate Books, 2006.

The Commutation Act of 1784

The British Parliament under William Pitt the Younger, passed the Commutation Act in 1784, significantly lowering the punitive duties on goods which had driven the profitable trade in contraband for a century. 

Reductions to high duties on goods effectively curtailed the lucrative smuggling trade that had been thriving for a century. The Commutation Act signaled a clear shift in trade policy, and sent bad news to smugglers and their associates.

Paul Muskett B.A. (1996); English Smuggling in the Eighteenth-Century. Open University 1996.

Kings Cutters and Smugglers 1700 - 1855

In King's Cutters and Smugglers: 1700-1855 (1912), Chatterton describes a unique period of maritime history. British smuggling in this period was largely due to the Continental Wars of 1792 to 1815, creating a shortage of able-bodied men for home service.

This situation also severely stymied Britain's customs and preventive boat services. And despite being at war, the illicit trade between Great Britain and France persisted. Along with official corruption: smugglers operated with relative impunity (Historic-UK, 2023). 

British customs agents were unable to prevent smuggling because they didn't have the resources to cover thousands of miles of our coastline. Moreover, local officials were involved in the very same smuggling game (ibid).

John Carter the Self-Styled ‘King of Prussia’

Cornish Captain John Carter, "born in 1779" and nicknamed the ‘King of Prussia’ after Frederick the Great, had carried the pretentious title since his childhood days according to family memoirs, which also reveal John Carter to have been a devout Cornish Methodist. Perhaps Carter and his ilk believed that God was on their side.

Carter became a notorious bootlegger (The Cornwall Guide, 2022). His base near Lands End was protected by cannons which, according to his brother's memoirs, John Carter actually fired against Customs officers. 

The secret harbour he used is known as Prussia's Cove or Porth Legh in Cornish. The Cove lies near the parish of St. Hilary, west Cornwall, on the border with Breage parish.

National Maritime Museum Cornwall (online Nov. 2023): The Guns of Prussia’s Cove.

Smuggler Harry Carter's memoirs were published in 1900, edited by John B. Cornish. The Carters are mentioned in several other contemporary books: J. Henry Harris in Cornish Saints and Sinners (1915) wrote that "only a century ago, the man who lived in the Lizard District was the king of Cornish smugglers and privateers, and defended himself with his own cannon."

Along with his brothers Harry and Charles, Capt. John Carter ran a profitable smuggling operation using three small inlets – Pisky’s Cove, Bessie’s Cove, and the aforementioned Prussia's Cove. Reportedly, John Carter mysteriously disappeared in 1807 or 1809 and was presumed dead.

The autobiography [memoirs] of a Cornish smuggler : (Captain Harry Carter, of Prussia Cove) 1749-1809. Gibbings and Co.

Cornish Saints and Sinners, by J. Henry Harris (1915). Palala Press (17 Nov. 2015).

The Cornwall Guide (2023); John Carter - The King of Prussia - Cornish Smuggler.

Smuggler Hannibal Richards 

Hannibal Richards (1764-1849) was a notorious smuggler, known to have operated from Lee near Ilfracombe. He moved there in 1789 from Morwenstow in Cornwall, where he had been one of the Cruel Coppinger’s gang of smugglers: a band of cutthroats, thieves and pirates.

Geni.com: Hannibal Richards. B. April 06, 1754. D. July 23, 1849 (85).

The terror linked with Coppinger’s name throughout the north coasts of Cornwall and Devon was so extreme that the people themselves, wild and lawless though they were, submitted to his sway as though he had been lord of the soil, and they his vassals (Harper, C.G., 1909. Ch. X, p. 129).

Charles G. Harper (1909): The Smugglers - Picturesque Chapters in the Story of an Ancient Craft. Gutenberg.

Richards lived on Gwythers Farm at Lee Bay’s secluded rocky cove, some 11 miles north-west of Combe Martin. More well-known locally perhaps, is the Smugglers Cottage at Lee.

According to genealogy records, Richards married Jane Gammon who was born in Lee village. He continued his nefarious ways and was well-known to the authorities until his retirement.

Always close to arrest, Richards avoided conviction and died at Ilfracombe in 1849, aged 85. He is buried with family in Ilfracombe’s Holy Trinity Parish Churchyard

Read more at the Lee Bay website. 

Thomas Benson (1708-1772) of Bideford and Lundy Island

In 1747, Benson secured a government contract to transport convicts to Virginia, but instead shipped them to Lundy Island off the coast of North Devon. He had leased Lundy from Lord Gower for £60 in 1748, and used these convicts as forced laborers to rebuild the island.

Benson argued that sending convicts to Lundy was equivalent to sending them to America, stating that ‘they were transported from England, no matter where it was so long as they were out of the kingdom’. This interpretation of the law was upheld.

Benson was elected MP for Barnstaple in 1747, categorized as Opposition. In 1752 he faced prosecution in the Exchequer for unpaid duties on British plantation tobacco worth around  £40,000. When he failed to pay the duties and penalties amounting to nearly £8,000: his Knapp [Nap] House estate at Northam was sequestered for the duration of his life.

In 1753, Benson orchestrated a scheme involving his ship, the Nightingale, which had been heavily insured. He arranged for the ship to be scuttled in the Bristol channel, after its cargo had been unloaded on Lundy.

However, a crew member turned informer, leading to the arrest of the ship’s master and his main associates who were eventually executed. Benson managed to escape to Portugal, where he passed away in 1772. He is regarded as infamous for his stand against the government.

Accessed Nov. 2023: Bideford 500 (online): Smuggling and North Devon. The History of Parliament (online): BENSON, Thomas (1708-72).

Gin or Jenever ('Mother's Ruin')

From the first half of the 18th-century, gin and white malt whisky were the cheapest available strong drinks. Ellen Castelow discusses 'mother's ruin' at Historic-UK and describes how Gin was a catalyst for debauchery and suffering.

Castelow states that "much of the gin was drunk by women: consequently children were neglected and daughters were sold into prostitution". Wet nurses administered gin to quieten  crying babies (HISTORIC UK online, 2023). 

Illegally imported gin and homebrew Jenever a.k.a. 'mother's ruin' became so plentiful that settlements on the south-east coast of England used it for cleaning during that era. 

Fed by smuggling and illegal trade: the 'Gin Craze' was characterised by a surge in the consumption of gin popular among the poor and working-class people, especially in London.  The Gin Act of 1793 prohibited the sale of ‘Distilled spirituous liquor’ without a licence costing £50 (Castelow, E., HISTORIC UK, 2023).

Ingenious Smugglers and "Wreckers"

Ingenious smugglers could move cargoes comprising 3,000 gallons of hidden spirits which might have been 1,500 untaxed cases of brandy. Vessels employed ingeniously hidden compartments, and false keels. Contraband was carried in concealed pockets on the person.

E. Keble Chatterton (1906): King's Cutters and Smugglers 1700-1855. Ch. XVIIProject Gutenberg (2006).

Alcohol, spirits and tobacco were transported in cleverly compartmented casks with tobacco concealed at both ends. Some casks had a double-layered construction; the inner layer held the legitimate cargo such as wine or ale, while the outer layer concealed the contraband.

Lore Versus Fact

Violent gangs of smugglers certainly operated in the real world; and parliament tried to clamp down as early as the 1740s. These efforts were not really effective until the British government lowered taxes in 1784.

After smuggling among communities in south-east England dissipated under civilising authority, smuggling through Cornwall and Devon assumed a greater national significance. Neither criminals nor the authorities kept meticulous records of smuggling or wrecking activities; thus original or reliable materials are hard to find.

Writing for the National Archives in 2022: Adrian Wilson considers the stories of wrecking to be a "vile slur!" and an insult to sailors. Wilson refutes the notion of anyone intentionally causing shipwrecks by using deceptive lights:

"There is no substantial evidence to suggest that any such wrecking incidents occurred in Cornwall, or probably anywhere else." (Wilson, The National Archives,  2022).

Wilson suggests the wrecking trope was potentially a form of government propaganda; aimed at swaying public sentiment against smugglers who were destroying the revenue. And that such stories insult the intelligence and seamanship of master mariners and crews.

Adrian Wilson (2022): The National Archives; The Right of Wreck.

There is a dearth of evidence to support all the tales of smuggling or wrecking. This has partly to do with poor record-keeping and alleged cover-ups. The fine art of smuggling wasn’t confined to lower-class common criminals.

Richard Platt (2011): Smuggling in the British Isles: A History. CheltenhamThe History Press.

The End of The Golden Age of Smuggling

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the British government reduced taxes on goods, including commodities like tea. As a consequence, the profitability of smuggling declined.

When legal imports became more affordable: the incentive for smuggling also diminished. The subject is covered by Richard Platt (2011) in Smuggling in the British Isles: A History. Also see the website Smugglers Britain.

The flourishing smuggling trade was effectively stopped by the abolition of a century of harsh tea taxes (The Tea Act of 1773), and the Commutation Act was passed in 1784. These were pivotal events in the history of British tea trade.

"Twining, Richard". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.

The Industrial Revolution introduced new trade methods and transport systems. Legitimate trade routes evolved, shifting the focus away from smuggling. The allure of hidden coves and secret landings gradually faded, marking the end of the golden age of smuggling.

Conclusion: Smuggling and the Impact on Combe Martin's Industries

While the article has delved into the intriguing history of smuggling and wrecking activities along the North Devon coastline, it is important to also consider the specific impacts these illicit operations had on the local community of Combe Martin and its industrial development.

As a coastal town strategically situated to participate in the lucrative smuggling trade, Combe Martin was likely deeply intertwined with these underground economic activities. The sheltered fishing cove and nearby coves and inlets provided ample opportunity for contraband goods to be landed and distributed inland, away from the watchful eye of customs authorities.

This thriving smuggling economy likely provided an important source of income and employment for some Combe Martin residents, who may have supplemented their livelihoods through involvement in activities like ferrying goods ashore, operating safe houses, and distributing untaxed merchandise.

The influx of cheap, smuggled goods could have also provided a boost to local industries like inn-keeping, retail, and manufacturing.

However, the presence of this vibrant black market may have also undermined certain legitimate industries, as legal trade and tax revenue were diverted. The authorities' efforts to crack down on smuggling, through increased patrols, seizures, and prosecution, could have also disrupted the local economy and strained community resources.

Further research into historical records, local accounts, and economic data of the time period would be necessary to fully uncover the complex and multifaceted impacts of smuggling on Combe Martin, and on its industrial development.

Yet it is clear that this fascinating aspect of the region's past was deeply intertwined with this community's and other communities' economic and social fabric.

Supplementary Sources

We also include history from the Combe Martin Local History Group books (1989-1999), available at Combe Martin Museum. Also from current Exmoor National Park articles, and Historic UK.

More comes from Devon smugglers: The truth behind the fiction, by Robert Hesketh (2007).  Additional information was sourced from The National Maritime Museum of Cornwall (2023). Also from Charles G. Harper’s THE SMUGGLERS (1909).

© Author JP 2023-2024. All Rights Reserved. 

Article created on 05 November 2023. 

How to Cite: Combemartinvillage.co.uk. (2023). Harrison, J.P (Nov. 2023): Smuggling in North Devon / Early Histories | Combe Martin Village History [Stories of Combe Martin in North Devon]. [online] Available at: https://www.combemartinvillage.co.uk/early-histories/ [Accessed date].‌

Combe Martin History, smuggler party, Combemartinvillage.co.uk