1789 – Further encounters

May 1789

All goes quiet on this front, for six or seven years, before further references to the Carters’ battery of cannon appear in the Penzance Custom House correspondence in the autumn of 1789. During the preceding months and years the Carter boys and their consorts had been very active behind the screen of Cudden Point.

In the May there had been an irregular landing of fishery salt out of the Carters’ 45 ton sloop Success – legitimately registered at Penzance as No.15 in 1786. Large volumes of fishery salt were essential to cure Cornish pilchards for export, and home consumption, and despite the authorities discounting the Carters’ ‘fishery’ concerns as a blind for other activities, they did carry on a very productive commercial fishery in the cove. Over the years they consumed large quantities of fishery salt, which was held under the regular inspection of the Salt Officers – another branch of the revenue services.

Salt was liable to Customs or Excise duty, depending on its source. This particular cargo of salt had been duly entered at Penzance on May 6th by James Dunkin, 1 as ‘Guernsey salt.’ The Customs duties were immediately paid, prior to the sloop removing to Prussia’s Cove to discharge.2 This she did under the watchful eye of a tide-waiter, boarded on the vessel to ensure that there were no overt irregularities respecting the discharge of her cargo. Meanwhile, the officers at Penzance, suspecting that it was in fact fine ‘British Rock Salt,’  subject to Excise duty at a higher rate than the Customs duty on imported salt, obtained a search warrant, and a raid on the cove was mounted.

On the 11th of May a party of officers of undisclosed size, led by Collector John Scobell, Deputy Comptroller Webb, and the acting Tide Surveyor Thomas Andrew, arrived in the cove. There is no mention of them passing any battery on their approach, even though the only significant lane to the coves would have taken them right past it.

On their arrival on the beach they found that part of the cargo of salt (some 120 bushels) had already been landed and cellared, and a stop was put to any further discharge. Acting Tide Surveyor Thomas Andrew then boarded the sloop, where one of his men already held the deck, and seized the cargo. Four inferior officers were then placed on board to keep possession of her. The cellared salt was duly seized and secured with the King’s locks. Another 250 bushels of salt, on board two boats acting as lighters, was also seized and put under the guard of the officers.

Up to this point all appeared quiet and under the control of the customs officers. However,  ‘the afternoon being far advanced the Collector thought it adviseable to return to Penzance to get more Assistance  which he accordingly did and sent off’.  Even riding a fast horse, it would have taken Collector Scobell three or four hours to ride to Penzance, raise assistance, and return. During his absence the tables were turned on the officers in the cove, who were forced to withdraw towards Penzance. Meeting Collector Scobell on the road, on his return:

… they all informed the Collector that he had not long left the place, before the people arose on them in a most riotous manner Struck Mr. Webb the Comptroller twice, drove them off and went on board the Vessel, turned the Officers then in possession of her on Shore and immediately went to Sea. We thought it proper to send in Search of a Revenue Cruiser, having neither one in this Port, which was the same night done both at the Ports of Falmouth & Gweek. At the former port Mr. Webb found the Sprightly it then blowing very hard he could not get on board her but wrote a Letter to the Captain acquainting him with the Circumstances.3 We fear his Search has been fruitless as we have not heard a Sillable of the Vessel or Cargo since: the affidavits of all the officers concerned are preparing which we shall humbly beg leave to lay before your Honble Board as soon as compleated for your Honors Consideration and directions.

We are &c. – JS, JW

National Archives CUST 68/14 No 89/1789

Discretion being the better part of valour, they did not make a second attempt to seize the salt. The ‘people’ of the neighbourhood [probably tinners from the adjacent mines] having turned on the Customs officers – presumably in significant numbers. There is no mention of the battery at this time, and no reports of any serious injuries or wounds being received or inflicted on either side. Of the sloop Success, nothing more is heard, and for several years afterwards the Tide Surveyor noted her as having ‘neither entered inwards nor cleared outwards’ in his annual return to the Registrar General of Shipping, each September.4

Frustratingly, there is a brief report to this Prussia’s Cove smuggling incident, published in the Hereford Journal, of Wednesday, May 27, 1789:

A violent outrage took place a few days ago, in the smuggling vicinity of Penzance. Prussia’s Cove was the scene of conflict; a notorious nest for the outrageous eluders of the King’s duty. The officers were, however, discomfited; and the smugglers put to sea victorious.

Hereford Journal, of Wednesday, May 27, 1789

The turn of events is familiar enough, and the naming of ‘Prussia’s Cove,’ as the location confirms the accepted form of the name, but the lack of supporting detail about the incident itself is so disappointing.

August 1789

Towards the end of August 1789, another run of goods was in progress at the cove. On this occasion Captain Richard John, commander of the hired revenue cutter Dolphin (another of Knill’s craft), had received information that a run was to be attempted, but, with his allegiance to his St. Ives employer, Capt. John chose not to tell the Penzance officers about it. Seizure rewards were a significant part of the remuneration of all revenue officers in this era. In theory this incentive would ensure diligent zeal amongst the officers in the execution of their duties. In practice it achieved this to some degree, but it also made the officers very venal, and susceptible to bribes – creating an atmosphere of jealousy and cut-throat inter-departmental rivalry.

This all pervading atmosphere led to officers keeping information as close a secret as possible. The fewer officers concerned, the greater the share of the prize for each individual. Thus there was at best reluctant cooperation between the different departments and branches of the revenue services. In this respect, while the sea-going Customs cruisers reported to local collectors whenever they put into port, they operated independently once at sea. In Mount’s Bay there was an additional abrasive factor in that the ‘local’ revenue cutter Dolphin, while using the St. Michael’s Mount harbour as its base of operations (the home of her commander), was officially attached to the Port of St. Ives, on the North coast. To reduce capital costs many Customs revenue cruisers were hired vessels: a significant number of them being outfitted and financed by the different Collectors and their ‘friends’. Much to the chagrin of the Penzance officers they were constantly refused permission to have a cutter under their direct control, and the Dolphin being the property of John Knill, Collector of Customs at St. Ives, was a perpetual irritation.

Unfortunately no St. Ives Custom House records for this period are known to have survived, so, regrettably, we have no direct reports of these events from that side. Our only source is the subsequent complaint made by the Deputy Comptroller at Penzance to the Board of Customs in London.


I beg leave to represent that on Saturday Night of the 29th Ultimo, the Dolphin Revenue Cutter commanded by Mr. Richard John fell in with, and detected the Brig Lord Hood of this port, running her Cargo consisting of about Forty Pipes of Brandy & Geneva at Prussias Cove (otherwise Porth Knowles) within this Bay, which was Seized by the said Mr. Johns and Crew; from part of the Goods being alongside rafted, a considerable time was taken up in Hoisting it on board again, which detained them untill morning, when to my utter astonishment instead of bringing the Seizure to this Warehouse, which could have been done in the Space of an half hour, the said Cutter, and Brig made Sail with the wind direct a Head for the port of St. Ives, which employed all that day, and night and part of Sunday to effect: as I am at a loss to account for proceedings so very unjustifiable, and contrary to the Honble Boards orders in this case which affords so great an opening for Embezzlement, if Commanders of Revenue Cutters are permitted from Caprice or partiality to carry their Seizures to any Custom House they please, request you will lay this transaction before their Honors, that Captain Richard John’s disobedience of Orders may meet with an impartial Investigation.

I am Gent.

Custom Ho. Penzance, Jos. Webb, D-Com.

5th Sep.r 1789

National Archives CUST 68/14

The Lord Hood was a substantial brigantine of 126 tons, formally registered at Penzance as No.6 in 1787. She was owned by the Dunkin brothers, wine and spirit merchants of the neighbourhood, in partnership with a London merchant, John Bevan. Her seizure carried great kudos but the unhappy Penzance officers had no share in it. In his protest, Joseph Webb did not go into any great detail of events in the cove that weekend. Yet again there was no mention of the battery and the fact that the seizure was successfully accomplished tends against its involvement on this occasion.

November 1789

Two months later again, on the evening of November 8th, the Penzance officers sent information of another intended landing to Capt. John at St. Michael’s Mount. We don’t know the state of the tide so the Dolphin may have been aground in the harbour. For some reason Capt. John sent off his mate in charge of the cutter’s boat to investigate. The following morning he reported –

Dolphin, Mount 9th Nov.r 1789


In consequence of a Message I received from you at 11 Oclock last night, informing me that a Sloop named the Liberty belonging to Penzance laden with Geneva, bound to Gibraltar, had sailed from your Pier the same Evening, intending as you imagined to Run her Cargo in this Bay, instead of proceeding on her Voyage.

I immediately dispatched Mr. Hopkins Mate of the Dolphin in her Six Oard Boat to Prussia (otherwise Trenknowles) Cove, having an Idea she might attempt to land there. On his arrival near the place he was Suddenly fird on from a Battery, close under which he discovered a Sloop at Anchor which he verily believes to be the above Vessel. From his knowledge of the strength of the place, and from the reception he met with, he thought it prudent not to venture nearer her.

You Gentlemen cannot be Strangers to this notorious smuggling place, nor Ignorant of the repeated repulses the Vessels, and Officers of the Revenue have met with there, and the necessity there is for something to be done to prevent these daring people from making such opposition in future.

I am Gent. &c. – Richard John.

National Archives CUST 68/14

At last we have a direct report, however brief, of the cove battery firing on a revenue boat. But, ‘repeated repulses’, implies that it had happened on more than one previous occasion. So why are there so few reports of such incidents? Of the sloop Liberty we shall hear more later, but she was not mentioned in the Penzance officers report to London, made two days later:

Custom Ho. Penzance, 11th Novem.r 1789

Honble Sirs,

Inclosed we beg leave to transmit your Honble Board for your Honors Consideration a Letter which we received yesterday from Captain Richard John of the Dolphin Cutter in this Service by which your Hon.rs will see how the Officers of the Revenue are Situated in this Port, indeed its scarce possible for them to move out of their houses by night thro’ fear of being molested, –  We beg leave likewise to represent to your Honors that the Cove alluded to by Captain John, is situated about 7 Miles from hence in the Eastern part of this Bay, has a Battery on the Hill over it mounted with Six Cannon, and the Country all round full of a most daring set of Fellows, who wo.d take the greatest pleasure in the Destruction of any Officer & are at all times ready at a Call to obstruct them. We humbly beg leave to observe that we are quite unprotected, having neither Military or Naval force Stationed in this Extensive Bay to assist us.

We are, &c. – SJW

National Archives CUST 68/14 No 134/1789

Were the Penzance officers really that fearful for their lives, or were they in cahoots with the smugglers? The Board of Customs answered their report ten days later, informing them that they had informed the Secretary at War – but quite what he was expected to do about the battery, if anything, has yet to be discovered. In one form or another the battery survived for another day.

Read on …

  1. Ostensibly a regular merchant, but also a smuggler and ‘free trader’ of some renown. (See Charlotte MacKenzie, Merchants and Smugglers in eighteenth century Penzance: the brothers John and James Dunkin, Troze.)
  2. National Archives CUST 68/14 No 83/1789
  3. HM Cutter Sprightly, Lt John H. Nicholas, on smuggling duties
  4. National Archives CUST 68/14 No 128/1789 et seq.