A Smuggler's Song by Rudyard Kipling

If you wake at Midnight, and hear a horse's feet,
Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson.
'Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Running round the woodlump, if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don't you shout to come and look, nor use 'em for your play.
Put the brushwood back again - and they'll be gone next day!
Five and twenty ponies …

If you see the stable door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
If the lining's wet and warm - don't you ask no more!
Five and twenty ponies ...

If you meet King George's men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you "pretty maid", and chuck you 'neath the chin,
Don't you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one's been!
Five and twenty ponies ...

If you do as you've been told, 'likely there's a chance,
You'll be given a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of pretty lace, and a velvet hood -
A present from the Gentlemen, along o' being good!
Five and twenty ponies ...

Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie -
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!


Smugglers, Pirates and Wreckers

Surrounded as it is on three sides by the sea, Cornwall has always proved popular with smugglers, wreckers and pirates.

In his book The Cornish Smuggling Industry, Paul White states that:

"In 1783, George Bishop estimated that throughout England 160,000 people and of fifth of the nation's horses were engaged in smuggling. Some 300 vessels were engaged full-time in smuggling as well as the numerous fishing boats, coasters, and merchantmen which engaged in it on an irregular basis. Perhaps a quarter of the whole export/import trade of the country was conducted illegally, and for some commodities, tea in particular, two thirdswas probably illegal. A quarter of that smuggled tea and half the smugggled brandy, entered by way of Devon and Cornwall.Within Cornwall, 'legal' tea, spirits or fineries were almost unknown. It
would be fair to assume that almost the entire adult population of Cornwall was involved in 'fair trade' as consumers, and the bulk of them know a lot more about it than that. Support for the trade was normal among all classes, even the revenue officers, often coming from smuggling families themselves, are unlikely to have thought the trade immoral. It was conducted as a normal business, and if there were occasional skirmishes, and even deaths, those were the fault of the villainous and unreasonable government in far-off London."

The old proverb, "'tis a bad wind that blows no good to Cornwall" has some basis in truth. The people of Germoe and Breage had a particular reputation, captured forever in the rhyme:

'From Wicked Rocks and Shelving Sands,
From Breague and Germoe men's hands,
Dear Lord deliver Us.'

Kathy Atwood, in her 2002 on-line essay, Cornish Pirates, explains further:

'There is also a probably apocryphal anecdote about a Cornish clergyman who was delivering the Sunday sermon when someone opened the church doors and shouted, "A wreck! A wreck!". The clergyman leaped from his pulpit and barred the door,begging the congregation to give him time to remove his gown so that he might get a fair start.'

A letter written in 1710 described the tinners of Germoe as "mad people, without the fear of God or the world." A hundred years later they would still "cut a large trading vessel to pieces on one tide...strip half-dead men of their clothing."

The ubiquitous Robert Hunt recounts a story:

'Men on the beach began to eye the cargo which was being off loaded onto the beach. A large crowd began to mill about threateningly and the Lloyd's of London agent from Penzance and his men began to get hemmed in slowly. The situation began to look ugly until a a local man who was also a colonel in the yeomanry called out his men and put a cordon across the beach to keep the crowd at bay.Meanwhile, the gale sent another vessel, the Russian Flora, bound for the Baltic with wine, onto the shore at Praa Sands. She struck at high water, so she washed onto the beach and accessible at ebb tide. The tinners, now joined by many others who had been thwarted at Marazion, swarmed all over the Flora. They stole everything, even the clothing from the backs of the crew. The yeoman colonel had his hands full at Marazion and by the time he reached Pra Sands it was too late. The Flora was in pieces with nothing left, but even so they had difficulty in getting the now drunken mob away from the wreck and rescuing the near naked and exhausted Russian crew. On 4 January 1817 the London brig Resolution, bound home with wine and oranges, was driven on the beach at Porthleven, to the east of the "Fishmonger's Arms" inn. The local tinners, fishermen, and most of the population from Porthleven to Prussia Cove pounced on the cargo of wine and within an hour a regular orgy was in full swing around the stranded brig. A custom man galloped off to Falmouth with the news and returned with a band of fifteen men were banned from working underground in the mines and then only after unspeakable abuse had been published.For these people to see luxuries beyond their imagining washed ashore lying there for the taking, is it surprising that they would take them? It was a small from salvaging to wrecking, then to smuggling.
Few, at that time, could see the acts of the wreckers as a symptom of a deep social and economic problem plaguing the poor and desperate of this region. Today, we might think that these folk could see little alternative to their bleak, colorless lives than taking the occasional bounty washed ashore. Anger and frustration, normally bottled up, exploded under the loosening effects of alcohol if the cargo was wine, spirits, or ale. Customs officers were seen by the locals as uncaring for their plight and concerned only with filling the crown's coffers with additional revenue, of which the crown already had in ample amounts.'

(Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England.)

Sabine Baring-Gould mentions terrible stories of ships lured to destruction by the exhibition of false lights on shore being told in Cornwall. He remembers an old fellow -- the last of the Cornish wreckers - who ended his days as a keeper of a toll gate. This fellow would never allow that he never had willfully drawn a vessel upon the breakers. When a ship was cast onshore by the gale, it was a different matter:

'The coast dwellers believed they had a perfect right to whatever washed ashore. By the turn of the century, the coastguard kept such a sharp lookout after a storm that very little could be picked up. The usual course of action then was for a person to heave up something heavy found on the beach in some hidden or inaccessible part of the beach. The government has an auction on the beach for found articles and if the object is spotted it was usually knocked down for a trifle and the man who found it could then have a lawful claim on it. If the item was not observed, then he could fetch it later at his convenience. It was generally considered too unsafe to try to make off with anything of size after a wreck but to obtain it by means of the auction because the auctions were not well attended and the bidders did not compete against each other vigorously.'

(Baring-Gould, A Book of Cornwall.)

Baring-Gould relates from his own experience seeing a farmhouse being demolished on the edge of Bodmin moors. The great hall chimney was of unusual bulk; and the reason for its bulk was revealed after it was thrown down. The hearth contained a chamber behind accessible from a low walled up door concealed behind a kitchen dresser and plastered over. The door was so low it could only be entered on all fours. One could also enter the chamber from a hole in the floor in the bedroom above. One could lift a plank in the floor exposing an opening by which anyone might pass under the wall behind the chimney though a kind of door and down steps to this airless and lightless apartment. Baring-Gould believes this room was used, without question, to hide kegs of smuggled spirits and tobacco. This house lay about fourteen miles from Boscastle, a dangerous harbor on the north Cornish coast; and about a mile from the main road from London, by way of Exeter, Launceton, and Falmouth. This house could keep well supplied with spirits free of duty for travelers along the road, and supply other taverns along the way. Roads, really rough lanes, lay between this house and the sea over the wild moors, lined by steep hedges of banked earth. The smuggler could pass to and from the sea well concealed with packs of mules carrying the contraband.

In another tale, Baring-Gould describes the demolition of an old church, where workmen found hollowed out grave-like spaces beneath the floor slates. Much larger than graves, these recesses undoubtedly held smuggled spirits. In fact, the clerk had found the concealed spaces and dug out some kegs and made some extra money selling liquor from these stores.

Three layers of men were engaged in the smuggling business:

'Freighters' - The men who entered the business as a speculation. He hired a vessel and purchased the cargo, and made the arrangements for the landing.

'Runners' - These men transported the goods onshore from the vessel.

'Tub-carriers' - These men conveyed the kegs on their backs, slung across their shoulders, up the cliff to their destination. These were usually local farm labourers. Their farmer employers had an understanding with the smugglers and supplied them with workmen in return for a keg of spirits.

The entire English coast was subject to blockage by the Government in order to prevent goods from being brought into the country without payment of duties. The utmost ingenuity and skill had to be exercised in order to run this blockade successfully. After this, the smuggler still ran great risk because most of the coast was patrolled.

One method to avoid capture when the coast was patrolled was to sink the kegs. A whole 'crop,' as it was called, was attached to a rope that was weighted by stones and fattened at both ends to an anchor. When a smuggling vessel saw no chance of landing its cargo, it sank it and fixed it with the anchors. The men on land received the bearings of the crop so it could be fished up later.

But the revenuers were aware of this dodge. Part of their duties was to grope along the coast with hooks -"creeping" was the technical term - for such deposits. A crop that was sunk in a hurry or in shallow water was vulnerable. The ropes could chafe and break, and one keg washed ashore was certain betrayal of the presence of a crop not far off.

As a rule, the contents of the crop did not suffer any deterioration for being underwater; but if submerged too long the spirits turned bad, known as 'stinkibus.'

Every keg as provided by the merchants at Roscoff and elsewhere were provided with a pair of sling ropes for attachment to a rope for sinking, or for carrying by the tub-men when safely on shore.

Very often, a rowboat towing a line of kegs was pursued and the smugglers were forced to let go the casks. When the coastguard secured them, but found the magistrates loathe to convict because they could not swear the kegs which were picked up were identical with those let go by the smugglers. Consequently, they were ordered to mark the line by casting to them a peculiarly painted buoy.

The government employed spies in foreign and English ports in order to find out information on smuggling. Woe to the spy if he were caught! No mercy was shown. So called 'Dead Man's Pool's are found here and there along the coast where such spies' bodies were found dumped.

(Much of the above taken from Baring-Gould, A Book of Cornwall)

Read more Baring Gould's stories at Gandolf's Cornish Legends site.


John Carter - The King of Prussia

Prussia Cove was the most noted smuggling cove between Penzance and Porthleven. There, to this day, stands the house of John Carter, the 'King of Prussia,' as he was called, the most successful and notorious smuggler of the district. His reign extended from 1777 to 1807, and he was succeeded by his son-in-law, Captain William Richards, under whom Prussia Cove maintained its reputation.

The story goes, according to Baring-Gould, that John Carter, as a boy, received his nickname the "King of Prussia." The cove had formerly been called 'Porthleah,' but it is now known as Prussia Cove in recollection of John Carter's exploits.

One one occasion, during his absence from home, the excise officers carried off a cargo that had lately arrived from France for Carter, to the local custom house store. On his return, Carter summoned his men, and they broke into the stores that night and carried off all that he held to be his own, without touching a single article to which he considered he had no claim.

On another occasion, when a revenue cutter pursued Carter, Carter ran through a narrow passage in the reefs and fired on the cutter boat. He continued firing until darkness when Carter was able to escape.


Cruel Coppinger

The most noted and daring Cornish smuggler was a Dane called Coppinger, who lived on the north coast near Hartland Bay. You can read his story here.

The Pirates of Poundstock

In the 14th century nearby Widemouth Bay was the realm of pirates who attacked trading vessels and committed vile deeds of plunder and abduction. Ill befitting the role of church curate, gang member William Penfound apparently fell out with his unsavoury colleagues and as he assisted at Mass in the Church on December 27th 1357 a band of armed men burst into the Church. Penfound was brutally murdered and his blood splashed upon vestments and altar furnishings. Since then, it's claimed, his restless ghost has walked abroad.

Later another vicar of the church was condemned to life imprisonment for complicity in murder, another hanged in Tudor times for leading a revolt against The Book of Common Prayer, and yet a third gained a reputation as a local lothario.

In 1535 William Woodwarde, Parson of Poundstock was seen assisting the escape of one of his many mistresses across a wall, holding up his breeches with one hand whilst her irate husband banged at the front door!

Pirates Today

Pirates are synonymous with Cornwall. Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Pirates of Penzance helped to cement the idea in people's minds. And, for many years, The Penzance Pirates were a successful Cornish rugby team . Now they may be re-branded as the Cornish Pirates (see news story here).

Perhaps, more poignant is this image (below). There has been a steady rise in Cornish nationalism during the past ten years as house prices have been pushed high by buyers from the south-east, and Cornwall has become one of Britain's poorest counties. The pirate has become a common image (along with the flag of St Piran) of those who oppose English law ...


For more information on Cornish pirates, smugglers and wreckers, follow these links:

Solar Navigator's brilliant resource site

Sandra Pritchard's site about Smuggling in Sennen

Kathy Atwood's full essay

And, never forget, International Talk like a Pirate Day!