Pathways > The Pathways book > Smugglers' trails
Our rather quaint view of the smuggler as loveable rogue doesn't have much basis in fact. Neither was much smuggling of the type featured in films and books, with small boats creeping into dark harbours, guided by the occasional flash of a flintlock from the waiting shore party. Most contraband was brought in from abroad on a truly industrial scale, with gangs of hundreds meeting beached vessels on the shores close to London and other big cities. Demand too was massive, fueled by huge taxes on staples as well as luxuries during the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Nearly all of society was involved in contraband in one way or another, a fact that made it more difficult for the authorities to gain convictions. But the stakes were high and fights between smugglers and enforcers could be very violent indeed. Intimidation of the local populace was standard practice. Only in out of the way places, like Cornwall, was smuggling more as it is imagined in popular fiction, undertaken by small family concerns with a degree of decency. Here it was just a way of life and of earning an income alongside fishing and legitimate trading.
The Cornish smuggling walk, featured in the book, is free to download once you have joined as a member of Walkingworld.
Below you can read the full chapter from the book.
Smuggling flourished throughout Great Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries, encouraged by the punitive taxes that were levied not just on luxury products but even, as the desperate need to finance various wars ratcheted up, on staples such as salt, leather and soap. The taxes were made up of two components, customs and excise, though for the consumer the distinction was largely immaterial.
At the height of the smuggling era the price of tea was as much as four-fifths tax (as some might ruefully point out, not so very different from the situation with petrol or alcohol today). During the Napoleonic wars (1799-1815) the tax on soap went up to three pennies a pound (a quarter of a day’s wages for many workers of the time); the tax was not repealed until 1835. So the demand for contraband was huge. On some islands, like the Scillies and the Isle of Man, smuggling supported the economies so completely that when proper enforcement was instituted they virtually collapsed.
The trade in contraband permeated every level of society: those who were not actually moving contraband were providing a ready market for it. A successful run of luxury items could drain a whole region of cash. This meant that public attitudes to ‘free trade’, as some preferred to call it, were equivocal at least. It was notoriously difficult to gain a conviction even if smugglers were caught red-handed.
In the south-east of England, smuggling was a well-organised, properly funded, quasi-capitalist venture. With a huge market in London waiting to be satisfied, investors included established retailers, who could mix a bit of contraband with their legitimate stock. Finance sometimes came from pure speculators who simply looked for their money back with a hefty interest payment. Huge gangs could be mustered, bribes paid and large shipments purchased.
In this part of the country in particular there are records of smugglers’ brutality, with informants and revenue officers menaced, battered and killed without a second thought. In a case that became famous at the time, a minor customs official called William Galley and a prospective witness, Daniel Chater, were viciously murdered by members of the notorious Hawkhurst Gang. On Valentine’s Day 1748 Chater was being escorted by Galley to Chichester to identify his friend John Diamond, a member of the gang. Chater had made the mistake of mentioning Diamond’s name to his neighbours after seeing him on a smuggling run.
The two men unluckily found themselves at an inn in Rowland's Castle whose landlady was sympathetic to the smugglers. Members of the gang turned up and by morning had resolved to kidnap the pair. Galley and Chater were tied to ponies and beaten severely as they travelled along. They were taken to Harris’ Well in Lady Hope Park with the initial plan of killing them and throwing them down. However, the leader of the gang, William Jackson, changed his mind and they headed for another inn, the Red Lion at Rake.
Galley tumbled off his pony on the way to the inn. He was apparently lifeless when the gang dug up a fox hole less than a mile from the inn and dumped him in it, but judging by the state of his body when it was found, he later regained consciousness and made some attempt to escape. Chater was taken back to Harris’ Well and there the gang first tried to hang him with a rope that was too short. Having failed, they dumped him down the well and threw down rocks until his cries were silenced.
Seven members of the gang were tried and convicted at Chichester Assizes, after two others had turned King’s evidence. Six were hanged. Jackson died in jail before the sentence could be carried out.
In more remote areas, such as Cornwall, smuggling was mixed with more legitimate ways of earning a living, either trading or fishing. Attempts to control the illegal trade would be left to small numbers of enforcement officers, whose job was difficult if not impossible. It is likely that many took backhanders to turn a blind eye or, as stories tell, were simply lured to a public house and got drunk on the night that a shipment was due to arrive.
The riskiest time for the smuggling crew and the land party was the moment of landing. Smugglers developed quite sophisticated methods of signalling, as sending any sort of message to a smuggling vessel was itself an illegal activity. A classic ploy would be a light placed in a tiny window, known as a squint, carefully placed so that it could only be spied out at sea. With nights much darker than they are now, a single match or flash from a flintlock pistol could be enough to tell a ship that the coast was clear.
Sympathetic locals could be very helpful. One Cornish farmer would ride his white horse conspicuously across his land if he knew that the customs officers were either absent or otherwise employed. Elsewhere the sails of a mill were said to indicate the safety or not of making a landing.
After landfall most loads were initially carried away by hand, by gangs of ‘tubmen’. Containers were constructed for ease of carrying, the best-known being the half-anker, a small barrel with one flat side used for over-proof alcoholic liquor (which would be watered down and coloured before resale). Two half-ankers could be strapped together and carried one on the chest and one on the back. It must have been hard and bruising work, with the weight of the liquid crushing the air out of your lungs. Even so, a labourer or miner could make as much in a night as during a whole week in his normal employ, so no doubt there were plenty of folk willing to get involved.
Ponies may have been used, though smugglers had to be careful not to have beasts for whom there was no ostensible legal purpose. Tales abound of animals being ‘borrowed’ in the night with the owner’s tacit consent. The horse or pony would be found back in its stable the next day, wet and exhausted, and there would be a ‘present’ hidden in a locker or under some hay nearby.
Smugglers in Cornwall
David and Chris Stewart, accompanied by the dog, take a seven-and-a-half-mile walk through the haunts of one of Cornwall's most famous smuggling families.
Cornwall was not particularly well placed for smuggling operations, even though for centuries it was at the centre of the major Atlantic trading routes. It was backward, out of touch and not that close to the continent, and landing places were difficult. Unlike in the prosperous south-east, runs would be financed by individual families or by small groups.
The Carter brothers, John, Harry and Charles, ran a profitable family ‘firm’ from around 1770 to the early 1800s. John was clearly the prime mover. His nickname was the King of Prussia (a title he apparently gave himself during childhood games) and it is indicative of his influence that the centre of operations, Portleah Cove, came to be known as King of Prussia’s Cove, or Prussia Cove or King’s Cove for short. He is said to have developed the slipways, harbours and roadways and adapted the caves in nearby Bessy’s Cove.
Harry is one of the few smugglers to leave a firsthand account of his life and activities. Many smugglers, judging from the professions given in court records, would have been illiterate. Of those who could put pen to paper, few would have been inclined to put a confession into writing. Harry Carter’s memoir, first printed in the Wesley Methodist Magazine of October 1831, is a confession of sorts, written after he had ‘seen the Light’ and when he was old enough to not care about the consequences. It is sometimes rather heavy going. However, sections are lucidly descriptive and give a rare insight into a man caught up in a complicated and morally ambiguous profession.
Harry was one of 10 children – two daughters and eight sons. Carter is not a Cornish name and there is some suggestion that the family came from Shropshire, perhaps relocating in an attempt to better themselves. Although Harry’s father was a miner, he was also able to rent a small farm and two of his sons, the eldest and youngest, were educated as ‘good country scholars’ – the only two for whom this privilege could be afforded. Harry refers to their upbringing as ‘decent poverty’. In his teens he joined two older brothers, presumably John and Charles, fishing and smuggling to bring in money to help support the large family. The smuggling part of the business was clearly a success and, as a ‘speculating family’, they kept moving on to bigger and better ventures.
Harry taught himself to read and, more importantly for a smuggler perhaps, to keep his own accounts. Boat owners were known to keep two sets of books, one for the above-board business and one for private perusal only, which must have made accounting pretty complicated. By his mid-20s Harry was ordering his own vessel, a sloop, followed quickly by a bigger cutter, both of which did good service for him. ‘By this time I began to think something of myself,’ he says.
The cost of getting caught would have been high. Smugglers frequently went to jail; those who had been implicated in violence could be sentenced to death or, if they were lucky, to transportation. On one occasion Harry was tipped off that things were getting too hot for him to remain in the area, as a bounty of £300 had been put on his head. It is an astonishingly high sum for the time. For the brothers to be able to run their smuggling business over such a long period without being caught, there must have been some intimidation of the local populace.
However, if the popular image of the smuggler as a lovable rogue is just a myth, the Carter brothers must come as close to it as is humanly possible. They operated by codes of decency that were unlikely to be matched elsewhere. Harry is at pains to point out that he hated swearing and punished anyone he heard blaspheming on his boats. There’s also a story, not in Harry’s account but quite possibly accurate, that John Carter and his men once broke into a revenue store to retrieve a shipment that had been snatched. John’s men argued that it was too risky, but John insisted on their retrieving the goods on the basis that he had promised them to someone and he couldn’t let them down. Returning the next day, the revenue men commented that it must have been John Carter’s doing because he had taken only his own goods and left everything else.
We drive from Bristol to Cornwall in just a few hours, reminding us that Cornwall has become close enough for city types to weekend in their cottages and get back in time for work on Monday – a far cry from the days the journey must have taken in Harry Carter’s time. It’s late when we get near to Penzance, having stopped midway in Bovey Tracey to have a side window fitted in the camper van. We are hoping that there will be space for a small van at the campsite at Kenneggy, once the home hamlet of Charles Carter. We’re in luck: there’s just one pitch left, right up against a hedge so we don’t have to improvise a curtain for the new window. For the past couple of hours our terrier Brough has been stretched out in the footwell silently farting. So after a quick mug of tea we set off in the dark towards Kenneggy Sands, in the hope that the dog will empty before we are condemned to spending a confined and smelly night with him.
The first part of the track is wide enough, leading down to a circle of field gates. Here the path continuing down to the sea becomes little more than an enclosed ditch, with uneven stone and a lot of mud underfoot. On either side are traditional Cornish ‘hedges’, enclosing the path in deep darkness. The name is most likely derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hecg’ for a territorial boundary and so is not related to the planted hedges seen elsewhere.
Cornish hedges are similar to dry-stone walls but with a wider earth core between the stone sides and a wide concave top, or ‘batter’. Some survive from prehistoric times – it has been argued that they are some of the oldest manmade artefacts in the world still fulfilling their original purpose – while many are medieval or date from early industrial ages. With the earth core kept at a fairly constant level of dampness by water running off the batter in winter and foliage growing on the top in summer, and plenty of crevices in the stone wall sides, the Cornish hedge becomes a true mini-ecosystem. Various plants and flowers spring up through the seasons, while small animals, insects and reptiles house themselves in the stone walls.
The hedges must also have been fundamental to local smuggling operations. It’s easy to imagine such a path providing perfect cover for troops of tubmen, and possibly even ponies, spiriting their loads away into the hinterland. With these sunken paths an integral part of the landscape, there’s little need for the specially constructed tunnels so often talked about in relation to smuggling but so seldom found.
The next morning we take the same path down to the beach, following a family with windbreaks and buckets and spades. It’s much easier to negotiate in daylight. At the coastal path the family peel off left to climb down the ladder to the sand. We bear right. Above us is a terrace of coastguard cottages built in 1826 in a bid to put an end to illegal goings-on in the area – a case, one feels, of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. We pass by the Arts and Crafts-style house of Porth-en-Alls, designed in 1911, with its unusual high-walled circular turning space.
Soon the track opens out onto a terrace overlooking Bessy’s Cove. Clambering over a gate, we walk down onto the sloping rocks, joining a fisherman casting his line into the sea. King’s Cove is on our left; it’s now a private beach preserved for those renting the flats in the Porth-en-Alls property. On this promontory the Carters had the temerity to mount a battery of guns, used at least once to fire on a revenue cutter (which returned fire, though without loss on either side). King’s Cove is open to the seas and could only have been used for landing if conditions were absolutely right. Harry Carter reports using it once as his launching spot on one of his enforced flights into exile, fleeing to Roscoff in France in an open boat. It was an unlucky choice of destination, as he was promptly captured and held prisoner during France’s Reign of Terror.
As far as landing places were concerned, two strategies were available to smugglers. By landing on a wide open beach you would be in full view of any revenue men, but then equally they would be on full view to you. Open beach landings were, in the main, the preferred method for smugglers on the east coast. The incoming boats would be beached at low tide, giving plenty of room to arrange the unloading into waiting carts ostensibly there to collect kelp. With such landings the chief issue was how to avoid having a large gaggle of tubmen hanging around on the beach while waiting for the boats to come in. In some places the waiting men were said to bury themselves in the sand, with only their heads sticking out. On the signal the beach would erupt with men ready to get on with the unloading. It must have been a bizarre sight.
Where open beaches were lacking or unsuitable, the alternative strategy for smugglers was to sneak into a hidden cove, well away from prying eyes. Bessy’s Cove, on our right, is a sheltered bay, hemmed in by rocks, and the ideal natural harbour for a bit of smuggling. From whichever angle you approach, it is completely hidden from sight until you are right upon it. With some careful watch-keeping and a bit of judicious signalling, a ship anchored offshore could be warned off if revenue men were sniffing around.
It didn’t always go to plan, of course. Harry Carter tells of an attempted drop-off at Cawsand, further west on the Cornish coast. Seeing two boats heading out to his ship, he assumes they belong to his colleagues. Too late he realises that they are full of revenue officers. His crew panic and dart below before the ship is boarded, leaving Harry the only man prepared to put up a defence. He is overpowered and knocked down onto the deck. Twice the revenue men discuss putting him down below with the others and twice they don’t bother, on the assumption that he is either dead or nearly dead. With his skull ‘shot to atoms’, Harry manages to clamber over the side and tries to swim ashore. Rather unsurprisingly, he finds that his strength fails him. Luck must be on his side, however, as by hauling his way along some ropes he finds himself in shallow water at the bow of the ship. After some further painful hauling he meets some friends, presumably those who were supposed to be helping to unload the contraband. He is whisked across country to his brother Charles’s house.
As we look into Bessy’s Cove we can see the bricked-up caves, steep footsteps cut into the rocks leading down to a tiny pebble beach, and the slipway running diagonally up the further side of the cove. We climb down the steps to find a few parties of swimmers, mostly encased in black wetsuits, and family groups making the best of a rather weak sun. There are no visible entrances to the caves, forestalling our desire to search for smuggling tunnels. A brightly coloured dinghy bobs on a mooring at the foot of the slipway, right at the point where the unloading of contraband would be easiest.
Climbing back up the steps and continuing westwards, we find some tumbledown shacks at the top of the path leading onto the slipway. The shacks themselves may not date from the Carter brothers’ time but from this vantage point we can see a thatched cottage and the property now called Cliff Cottage, both of which are certainly contemporary. Cliff Cottage is thought to have started life as a fish cellar. Its over-large proportions and extreme proximity to the cove suggest that it owes a debt to the Carter’s smuggling operations. If, as some stories relate, John Carter did construct a tunnel from the cove, this house would seem a likely destination.
The coastal path continues to the west, skirting around Piskies Cove, a tiny natural beach without the obvious advantages of Bessy’s Cove but no doubt useful in emergencies. The footpath passes above a huge gaping cave and then on to Cudden Point, owned by the National Trust. Cudden Point splits the more populous part of the coast to the west, to Marazion and beyond to Penzance, from the rocky coastline we have just traversed. From the sea cliffs the ground slopes gently upwards towards the main road between Helston and Penzance, although it would have been little more than a track in Harry Carter’s time.
In between are tiny hamlets and isolated farmsteads. Harry and his brothers would have known every home and every person in this strip of land. Just above Piskies Cove is Acton Castle, a grand private residence owned by the Praed family. John Carter rented the farm at Acton Castle and, while the owners of Acton Castle were away, he was able to hide his brother in the house after his escape at Cawsand. Harry writes that he only dared to light a fire at night, for fear of the smoke giving away his position. It must have been a chilly and lonely hideaway. It seems he filled his hours there ‘improving his navigation’ – keeping up his theoretical skills while he couldn’t put them into practice. He still went down to Bessy’s Cove at night to join his brothers and companions for a drink of grog and some banter. In the end lying low became too difficult for Harry and he was forced into exile in New York.
Our path continues beyond Cudden Point, past Stackhouse Cove, and St Michael’s Mount comes into view. Perran Sands, by the village of Perranuthnoe, are dotted with bathers and surfers. We stop at the café by the path to the beach for a late lunch, and just beyond the car park stop again for ice-cream. Then it’s time to return across the fields, following field boundaries and sunken lanes connecting the dispersed farmsteads and hamlets. It’s been a wet summer and the tracks are filled with mud, so we try various routes. It’s indicative of the many choices our smugglers would have had in spreading their goods across the countryside, and we are only attempting paths that are marked as rights of way so there must have been many more. Eventually we find our way back to Kenneggy, where the dog collapses on the front seat and we can put the kettle on.
That night we tuck into fish and chips accompanied by a glass of red wine, surrounded by families chatting away happily in their tents and caravans. We realise that the sheer struggle to survive in those times – of which smuggling was just one small but indicative part – is so alien to us that it is almost impossible to imagine.
Below is a list of walks relating to smuggling:
Ayrshire and Arran
This walk follows the route of the old smugglers' trail. The trail consists of ancient woodland and enjoys stunning views over the Firth of Clyde. This can be made a circular route or you can return by bus. ... More info
Start inland on ancient footpaths between farmsteads before joining the coast at Kenneggy Sands. Then walk via Prussia Cove (home of notorious eighteenth century smuggler John Carter), past Cudden Point and back to Perranuthnoe via Stackhouse and... More info
From the popular seaside down of Teignmouth, this circular walk allows us to explore the rugged red-cliff coast and the delightful village of Holcomb, bringing us a hint of smuggling days of old before following the beach back to the start.... More info
A wonderful walk with high views over the coast and Dorset countryside, passing the well-known Smugglers Inn as you return along the coast; suitable for the whole family.... More info
Dumfries and Galloway
You are offered two walks for the price of one! The 'bright, rose-bowered, garden-encircled seaside village' of Auchencairn, once a smuggling centre, plays host to a 'country' and a 'seaside' leg, which may be enjoyed separately or walked as a... More info
Sorry ladies - it's a tree! It was used in the early 19th Century as a gibbet for highwaymen and smugglers. It's since been struck by lightning and there's not a great deal left to see. However, it provides a great excuse to do a lovely circular walk... More info
A short, circular walk for all the family to take pleasure in, with stunning views. There is plenty of variety with field-paths, shady tracks, woodland and downland. The beautiful surroundings offer a good chance of spotting deer along with other... More info
Isle of Wight
Smugglers and Lighthouse Circle;
a walk with views over the Isle of Wight and the English Channel, taking in some of the local history and landmarks.... More info
We continue our geological time journey of Part 3, but this time in reverse. Dinosaur footprints in the soft rocks lead us eastwards. We descend and detour around deep chines steeped in the rum of smuggling legends. Then, on through the unique... More info
At the start you can either walk along the beach, or the track behind the sand dunes if the tide is in. This part of the coast at Cart Gap was a smuggler's paradise! ... More info