Smuggling in Cornwall 

Cornwall is steeped in smuggling, pirate and wrecking history, often the Southern coast of Cornwall thats drawn upon for its smuggling past, such as Falmouth and Mevagissey, Polperro but the North coast of Cornwall has its fare share of smugglers caves, tunnels and tails..

Cornish Smugglers, Pirates & Wreckers

The act of violence or depredation on the high seas is the legal term of piracy, any crime committed at sea can be classed as a act of piracy and smugglers definitely fall in to this category, this romantic picture painted in today's world of a good old fisherman that the local villages liked, a fool hardly innocent smuggler in his brown breeches and flouncy shirt with tricorn hat and neck tie sneaking barrels of French brandy while the local women hung white laundry sheets to let the smugglers know the coast was clear is far from the truth but at the same time quite accurate. It seams so innocent, whats the harm in some cheap brandy that would cost you 6 times the amount in the UK than it did in France due to extremely high taxes, it all seams so picture perfect that is until you dig a little further in to the watery graves of the many people that would die at the hands of the smuggling trade, villages terrified so much so that they feared the smugglers more than the noose of the law.

Smuggling was born out of desperation, the country was in a downward spiral with all of the crowns money going to war and the threat of more wars. The government seen it a good idea to raise the tax on such items like tea, salt, rum, gin, brandy, tobacco to silk and wool, salt would cost 40 times the actual value of the salt. This effected the Cornish, a people of meagre means back then. The only industry really was fishing and they needed the salt to make oils, farming was a hard extremely low paid job. 

So with the tax hikes in the 18th century 1700's Cornwall would explode into a smugglers haven and the smuggler were not just fisherman. The smuggling here in Cornwall were part of everyday life from the highest of the community like the Mayor of St Ives who even had a privateer ship built to allow smuggling to the women of a 

Smugglers carry contraband through a village street in the dead of night, horses hoofs are muffled with rags while locals dare not look upon the smugglers as they fear for there lives!

village that may signal that the coast was clear by burning wet gorse bushes to create a smoke plume on a sunny day to the preventy men who were also paid off to turn a blind eye or if they did not they would be killed, just like anyone that did not assist the community in these sinister dealings. In truth villages feared the smugglers, farmers had to lend horses that may be captured or run to death. If they did not the smugglers would use organised crime gangs to threaten them, killing live stock to murder. One of the North coast most evil of all of our smugglers has to go to Cruel Coppinger and the Cruel Gang. 

Cruel Coppinger, Pirate, Smuggler and Wrecker! 
  • Cruel Coppinger
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  • By Pat, a family member of the pirate
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In the North Coast of Cornwall no man has ever been feared as much as Cruel Coppinger. His legends still live on in today's world deep in Cornish folklore and on the Newquay Smugglers Walk where you guide is John Coppinger himself. Cruel Coppinger attained extreme notoriety through his brutal, criminal behaviour and leadership of a ruthless band of smugglers and pirates, becoming a legend in his own lifetime and his stories that now echo through time. 

It is said that on a stormy night near Morwenstow, the rains came down like nails mixed with hail as howling hurricane winds lifted the surf and brought his ship into the rocks her sails were in rags, locals on the coastline seen that a wreck was to be had, so they gathered there horses and every able hand was upon the beach waiting for goods to wash ashore, any man that would land with it would be killed and lost at sea but what the locals did not expect to see was that of a huge man, bulging arms and chest, with a flash of lightning they could see the ship and a lone figure standing at the wheel, a silhouette of a giant. In the next flash of lighting they seen him dive from the ship into the waves. Within minutes he was upon the sand, even the waves in a hurricane could not keep him below the water. His ship vanished and was never found, some say it was a ghost ship!

As he appeared looming down over the villages with another crack of lightning he gripped and old lady, ripping her scarlet cape from her and throwing the old deer to the ground with force. Here a young maid had just arrived by horse and no sooner had the horse stopped he had ran and jumped upon the steed, gripping the young women by the waist, shouting out in the old tong of the viking, he was a Dane, the terrified horse galloped home back to her farm. There he forced his way in, using violence and threats. He would eventually blackmail the young maid into marriage. A sad life she would lead. Once he had hold of the farm he set about creating the most evil of all smuggling gangs made up of cut throat murders, pirates and thieves. He then took control of all wagon ways, tracks and pathways making anyone that was caught upon them pay him a fee.

The cruel gang were noted for the extreme violence of beheading and drowning any informers or preventy men. Everyone feared him, from Cornwall to Devon. 

By all accounts he was a dashing good looking man, a smooth talker but a deadly killer, a bully that picked on the weak as he liked to see them suffer, he would not think twice about trampling a child or animal upon his wild horse.

As his wealth grow from smuggling he had a ship built in his Danish port, a ship that could out run any cutter used by the customs and revenue, a ship that itself struck fear in the heart of any seaman. The Black Prince, this all black ship with black sails would work the English channel and the cost around Britain adding to notoriety, taking whatever it came across with violence and murder. He was so fared the locals believed he himself was in league with the devil or he was a demon and only god himself could stop him.

It was said he used the North Coast of Cornwall's caves to hide his loot and even live stock he had stolen. If any tax man or any man of the law even glanced at him he would simply murder them, it was said he had a black heart. If any locals had seen his ship or deeds the you were doomed, you were taken if not killed, enslaved for life and made to serve him on any of his fleet of ships or you would be killed, often beheaded in front of the villages as a warning. Through this fear no one would ever inform on his activities and so he went unpunished.

he and his gang of pirates knew the coves and reefs from lands end to Wales like the back of there hands, they would often take chase with customs and revue cutters hot on there heals only for the cutters to run aground and every man on board to be left to the sea or shot in the water as they tried to save themselves. 

He had so much money and gold that when he paid for a large farm and land overlooking the North Coast of Cornwall he paid gold doubloons, dollars and coins from every country in the world. But upon the lawyer making the sale he took it all back and layers life.

He finally had a son, born deaf and mute and said to have no soul as a punishment from god for his deeds but his son was the spawn of the devil, killing his first victim at just 6 years old, he had thrown a young boy from a cliff and was seen standing laughing. It states "dancing in frantic joy, and pointing with gestures of delight to the beach below. Hurrying down they found the mangled and bleeding corpse of a little child, his companion, whom he had enticed to the edge of the cliff, and, by an unexpected push, sent headlong on to the rocks beneath. From that day he was always to be found on the tragic spot, and when a stranger passed he would make unearthly sounds of delight, and pointing down to the beach, dance and throw himself about in ecstasy."


Cruel Coppinger himself beat his wife's mother after her husband had died, he wanted his inheritance so he would whip his wife and mother in law with a cat and nine tales, each knot taring into there flesh until she handed over the deeds and money for the land which helped his crime empire grow. 

But as the end of the piracy and smuggling came around, the tax man had more power, more men and they picked off Cruel Coppingers gang, man by man and the went for Cruel Coppinger. It was said that he fled to the ocean by a rowing boat on a stormy night. He was last sen climbing abord a moored ship out at sea, seiting it a sail in the wind, and vanished just as he had arrived in a storm. However, this does not do it justcie but this acount surely does. 

"And so, at last, things came to a climax, and deliverance was at hand for the poor suffering people.

Just such another time as preceded Coppinger’s arrival, burst again on that coast; the rain and hail came down in sheets, the gale blew furiously all day. At sunset a vessel appeared off the coast — full-rigged.

Presently a rocket went up from the Gull Rock, — a little rock island with a creek on the landside, a spot where many smugglings had taken place. A gun answered from the ship, again both signals were sent up. Then, on the topmost peak of the rock, appeared the huge form of Coppinger. He waved his sword, and a boat immediately put off from the ship, with two men at each oar, for the tide is terribly strong just there. They neared the rock, rode boldly through the surf, and were steered into the Gull Creek by someone who evidently knew the coast well.

Then Coppinger, who was standing impatiently awaiting them, leapt on board and took the command.

Their efforts to get back to the vessel were 177 enormous. Like giants they laboured at their oars to force a path through the boiling, seething waters. Once, as they drew off-shore, one of the rowers, either from loss of strength or of courage, relaxed his hold for a moment; in an instant a cutlass waved above his head, and one swift cruel stroke cut him down. It was the last brutal deed that Cruel Coppinger was ever seen to do.

He and his men reached the ship and got on board. What happened afterwards no one knows, for at the same moment she disappeared like some ghostly, phantom ship, nobody knows where or how.

Then, in even more fearful violence than before, the storm raged and beat on that coast. Hail, thunder, lightning, hurricanes of wind blinded, deafened, or killed all who were exposed to it.

Round Coppinger’s home it expended the very utmost of its fury; trees were torn up by the roots, the thatch was blown off the out-houses, chimneys fell, windows were blown in, and, as Dinah, terrified by the uproar and destruction racing round her, stood holding her uncanny child in her arms, through the roof and ceiling came crashing a monstrous thunderbolt, surrounded by flames, and fell hissing at the very foot of Cruel Coppinger’s chair."

Why not visit the Newquay Smugglers Walk and hear all about smugglers, pirates and wreckers in Cornwall as you explore the old smugglers path, see sites where smuggling took place along with ghastly murders. Visit us to learn more about Newquy's smuggling past, find out about Black Humphrey the Newquay pirate, smuggler and wrecker, Cruel Coppinger leads you n a tour of old Cornwall, from a home with a smugglers tunnel to the site of a customs officers murder, see the gig rowing boats and learn of how they were used in smuggling to the terms used by a full costume guide. Choose from our walking tour or our boat tour and explore the coastal path, Newquay harbour and back lanes with outstanding views of the coast where your guide can point out each smuggling cove and smuggling cave and re tell each story with facts mixed with thatrical style of story telling. 

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