1781 – The first mentions

Reference to Carters’ battery first appears in official correspondence in the early 1780s but surprisingly there is not a single mention of it at this time in the extensive correspondence between the Penzance Custom House officers and the Board of Customs.1 The honours for first revealing its existence, within the Penzance Customs District, fell to the head of their rival revenue service, the Excise Commissioners:

To the Right Honorable Lords Commissioners of his Majesty’s Treasury

We have frequently been under the necessity of  representing to your Lordships the violences committed by the smugglers who often in open defiance of the Laws and the great extent to which their illicit  practices  are carried on. And our duty now calls upon us to acquaint your Lordships that it appears to us by a letter we have received from our officers in the West of England that a desperate gang of Smugglers have possessed themselves of a small cove & harbour about 8 miles from Helstone in Cornwall at which cove it is supposed upwards of twenty houses [where] Ankers of Spirits, besides large quantities of tea and other prohibited goods are smuggled  every year. – That for their security in this unlawful commerce, they have not only small  arms also several pieces of Cannon mounted on carriages and ready to fire on any persons who shall venture to molest them, and that upon two of our officers under the authority of a Warrant and assisted by a party of 40 Soldiers attempting lately to search the Houses of the Smugglers the men were fired upon by the said smugglers, both from the cannon & small arms and although they did at last search the houses yet they found the cannon loaded with grape shot and the smugglers drawn up with lighted matches in their hands seemingly determined to oppose possession of the Guns.

What steps it may be proper to take in a case of so extraordinary a nature must be submitted to Your Lordships but we thought it incumbent on us to lay it before you, not only as a matter relative to the Revenue under our management, but also as a circumstance for the information of Government in other respects.

In the meantime we have written to our officers in Cornwall for a more particular account of this transaction to the end that we may be enabled to lay a state of the case before the Attorney General for his Opinion.

We are etc. WL. WC. J. HL. JB.2
Excise Office, London, 4th Jan. 1782

The National Archives CUST 48/20 p266

In describing them as ‘a desperate gang of Smugglers’, it seems strange to me that none of the officers seem to have been killed, or severely injured, and that no names of these smugglers were revealed to identity them. There is no mention of John Carter as being the smuggler concerned, nor yet of any other of the Carters, nor of Prussia’s Cove as the location of this battery. There is no direct supporting account of this raid and the search of the houses, nor the date when this armed resistance supposedly took place.

No immediate action seems to have been taken against the battery. A little over a year later, it was, however, specifically referred to in a lengthy, coast wide, report on smuggling and smugglers, submitted to the Treasury Lords by the Excise Commissioners in February 1783. A copy of which was filed amongst Home Secretary Lord Shelburne’s papers.

To the Right Hon.ble the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury

May it please Your Lordship

In obedience to Your Lordship’s Commands signified to us by M.r Rose in his Letter of the 12.th December last, We have taken into Consideration the several Matters pointed out to us as proper …

Some way into a lengthy text, reviewing other parts of the country, we come to the key part about Carter’s battery –

One Instance however which has been represented to us, is of so extraordinary a Nature, that we think it may not be improper to mention it here for Your Lordship’s Information.

The Representation states, that two Brothers of the Name of Carter, notorious Smugglers, & masters of several Vessels constantly employed in smuggling, have possessed themselves of a small Cove or harbour about 9 miles from Helstone in Cornwall, where they have erected a Battery with several Pieces of Cannon Mounted on Carriages under Pretence of a defence against the Enemy, but which is evidently designed to protect themselves & other Smugglers in their unlawful Commerce; that Goods are frequently secreted within Reach of the Cannon, that upon two of our Officers under the Authority of a Warrant, & assisted by a Party of forty Soldiers, attempting to search the premises of the said Carters, they were fired upon by the Smugglers both from the Cannon & from small Arms, & tho they did at last search the Houses, yet they found the Cannon loaded with grape Shot, & the smugglers drawn up with lighted Matches in their hands seemingly determined to keep Possession of their Guns.

Eighteenth century documents relating to the Royal Forests, Sheriffs and Smuggling, selected by Arthur Lyon Cross, London 1928, p308-321. Shelburne Documents: Smuggling: Document LIV. See also The National Archives CUST 48/21 p41

 While the two brothers of the ‘Name of Carter’ were not named individually, given the hierarchy in the brotherhood, these would most likely have been John [then about 42 years of age] and Harry [about 31]. This second account clearly relates to the first, but it is frustrating that this incident at the cove was still not dated, and it is not clear whether the battery was then dismantled by the Excise officers. If it was it did not take the brothers long to set it up again.

Read on …

  1. The National Archives CUST 68/1-153 & 182-183
  2. The initials of the Excise Commissioners signing the document