• Steve J Taylor

Newquays Smuggling and Pirate Past

Updated: Apr 7, 2019

SMUGGLING WAS rife in Cornwall during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.


With Newquay's long stretch of coastline the resort saw its fair share.


Low wages from fishing and agriculture were supplemented by smuggling.


While smuggling was not the glamorous and romantic adventure that we like to imagine, it was certainly a recognised, even respected, profession through which the majority of the population gained a better standard of living.


Among smugglers it was known as free trading in its literal sense, and though illegal, they did not consider it a criminal act to evade the customs duties.


It was, of course, these imports on trade from abroad that first led to the practice of smuggling.


A liberty loving people who had heretofore enjoyed the privilege of receiving their goods simply by paying for them jibbed at the extra amount demanded by the Government on the articles imported. Hence the necessity for smuggling arose.


In 1783, a committee, which had been appointed by the Government to inquire into the matter, found that in some cases vessels of 300 tons manned by as many as 100 men, were engaged in bringing 'goods' across the Channel.


'The most considerable of these vessels,' states the report, 'are able to make seven or eight voyages a year.'


The largest of them can bring, in one freight, the enormous quantity of 3,000 half ankers of spirits, and 10 or 12 tons of tea, whilst their strength is such as to enable them to bid defiance to the revenue cutters.'


There were ample locations where smugglers could land and store their contraband in caves in the Newquay area.


The most renowned location was the Tea Caverns located in the Gazzle.


It was not uncommon for 100 horses to be waiting there on a Sunday as well as weekdays for moving contraband.


Smuggling tales may have been hyped up in modern times, but it is undoubtedly true that Crantock was a major smuggling centre.


There still remain tunnels that lead from Crantock Beach to the Albion Pub.


Under the stone floor of the pub is a secret chamber that was used by the smugglers.


They hid many a cargo of silks, spices and brandy from the Revenue Men. Many caves at Porth were also said to be used for smuggling.


A secret smuggling syndicate existed at Perranporth, which included the Church of England parson and the Methodist minister, a ship was chartered, contraband landed and hidden in caves at Porth Cligga.


The first officer in the Customs of which there is a record for Newquay was Samuel Martyn of Higher Porth.


He was stationed in Newquay in 1766 n he was just 21-years of age, and died, a "natural death" in 1779 aged 46. This death looked suspicious and more than likely was. The doctor ruled it was natrual but others knew he had been killed as he had made the following report below.


'Martyn (about 1779) just before his death reported that an armed cutter had discharged her cargo of tea and brandy before she was taken, all aboard killed. Pirates and smugglers retrieved the contraband and the cutter taken into the harbour where it would be sold of in parts. It looked like Martyn has been taking money to turn a blind eye but witnessing this murder made him come forward and report the crime which resulted in his death.


The following letter was published in a local guide to Newquay written by William Rawlings of Saunder's Hill Padstow, dated April 24, 1775.


It is addressed to the Earl of Dartmouth, and Mr Rawlings refers to the barefaced smuggling going on at Newquay in the following words.


"There is a Customs Officer stationed two miles from Newquay but he hardly ever makes a seizure.


"Though there is scarcely a week in the year that one smuggler or another is not discharged there.


"I beg leave to trouble your worship with a small draft of the coast on which I have dotted, with the pen, the sundry smuggling coves near us, but the general place of rendezvous and headquarters of this most abominable trade is Newquay, in the parish of Lower St Columb.


"Here it is no uncommon thing for 100 Horse on Sundays with the Parsen as well as week days to be waiting for the arrival of one or the other of the wherries and some smaller craft.


"I am not without suspicion that much of our wool goes from here directly to France, and I now find that they bring back not only Brandy, tea, rum, geneva, but a multitude of other articles of French manufacture.


"If some honest guard is not put upon this place and some check put upon this trade the consequences every way is dreadful.


"The mention of an 'honest guard' seems to suggest that the smugglers may have adopted certain methods for dealing with the customs man by either paying him off or he just feared for his head as it was not uncommon for smugglers to cut a throat or behead a revenue office, even leaving them out at sea on a rock to drowned..


"Pirates have so long infected our coasts, and in the last week taken twenty vessels are harboured at Newquay.


"An Irish wherry secreted here carried off nineteen prisoners from Newquay a fortnight ago.


Rawlings suggested that there should be sloops of war on the coast, and asked the authorities to appoint one William Billing, an honest man "as head of the Port of Padstow," then we shall soon see the nest of smugglers at Newquay demolished."


This report appeared in the Royal Cornwall Gazette, on January 12 1833. The ship was on its way from Newquay to St Columb.


'On 7th inst was brought into Padstow the French vessel Jean Baptiste with 290 kegs brands and a crew of eight men seized by Mr J Williams Chief Officer Coastguard Station, Newquay.


'The spirits have been lodged in the King's Warehouse and six of the men have been committed to Bodmin gaol, - the Master and another man having made their escape on their way to be examined before the Magistrates near Indian Queens.'


And this article appeared in the West Briton in 1839. 'Newquay. The preventative boat established at this place had a hot encounter with a smuggler a short time since; but owing to the freshness of the breeze, the smuggler got off.'


Indeed it was the customs service that decreed that gigs should be limited to six oars from 8.


Otherwise it was feared that a gig would outpace the Revenue Cutters if they were doing a bit of smuggling.


Although smuggling is a very old industry it is still very much alive in our tourist trade.

You can join the Newquay Smugglers Walk, a guided tour of Newquay's smuggling and pirate past. Call on 07525639943 with daily tours leaving the harbour from April till September.



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