Smuggling Around Combe Martin
Modified on February 27, 2024
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.
The ‘golden era of smuggling’, a fascinating period in British economic history, left behind tales of daring escapades, hidden coves and notorious characters. More than any movie or book, tax-evading rebels created a rich tapestry of folklore, and a lasting legacy.
The motivations and actions of smugglers varied widely, reflecting the complex socio-economic conditions of the time. During the 18th century, smuggling was considered a grave offense by the British authorities due to its detrimental effects on import taxes. Thus the penalties for such illicit activities were broadly severe.
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.
Like other coastlines—Yorkshire, Wales, South England, the Isle of Man— Devon and Cornwall have plenty of old tales about West Country smugglers 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Small-scale evasion of customs and excise duties soon developed into a major criminal industry, fully financed by investors and supported by local communities. After a long run, the Golden Age had significantly declined by the mid-nineteenth-century.
Smuggling - evading duty on goods leaving and entering England - 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, 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.
Combe Martin Local History Group (1989): OUT OF THE WORLD AND INTO COMBE MARTIN. Combe Martin. Rotapress.
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".
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, tobacco or even drugs.
There is every chance that Owling happened in Combe Martin. Often carried out by Night-Owlers (OED): 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.
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.
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 came down with horses and carts to fetch the goods, which were subsequently lodged in barns, and sometimes in caves.
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 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 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 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.
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 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).
Smugglers Britain, http://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 : "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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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. Cheltenham. The 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.
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).
Created 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].