1791 – A mention in dispatches

The sloop Liberty, which had escaped the previous encounter had been legitimately registered at Penzance as No.2 in 1786. Built at Topsham in 1780, she was owned by the Dunkin brothers, in partnership with one John Ellis of Penzance. She continued to trade freely on the coast until the summer of 1791.

On the night of August 25th they lay off the Isles of Scilly, acting in concert with the Friendship, another of the Dunkins’ vessels.

Extract of a Letter from St. Mary’s Scilly, Aug. 26.

Last night, about eleven, the Custom-House boat, with Mr. Hall, the surveyor, five boatmen, and an assistant, rowed within a boat’s length of a smuggling vessel, laden with contraband goods, which was then within the district of this port, immediately on which, though no violence was offered by the crew of the Custom-House boat, the crew of the smuggling vessel fired into the boat repeatedly, by which inhuman proceeding John Oliver and William Millet (a brother of Captain George Millet of the ship Princess Amelia in the East India Company’s service) fell and expired, the former by a shot received through the chest, the latter by two or more balls through the head and chest, and being so very near, his brains were scattered in considerable quantities in the boat.1

John Jane is also desperately wounded in the face, his right check [sic] being nearly carried away, and although sensible the loss of blood has been so great, and the nature of the wound so bad, little hopes are entertained of his recovery; the assistant, a son to one of the officers, was also much bruised.

An inquest has been held on the bodies, and the Jury have determined it wilful murder in the persons concerned. The smuggling vessel got off. – The excise officers were well respected and have left large families.

Sherborne Mercury, September 5th 1791.

The fatal shots were alleged to have been fired by one of the owners, James Dunkin, and a reward notice was duly published for his ‘discovering and bringing to justice’, along with the master of the vessel, George Branwell.

WHITEHALL, September 8, 1791.

WHEREAS it has been represented to the Commissioners of his Majesty’s Customs, that on the 25th August last, Thomas Hall, Surveyor of the Customs, at the Islands of Scilly, having received information of a smuggling vessel, called the Friendship, of Penzance, belonging to JAMES DUNKIN, and commanded by GEORGE BRANWELL; went out in his boat in search of her, and about ten o’clock at night fell in with her, in Old Grimsby Harbour, near the Island of Trescow; and that on his rowing toward the said vessel for the purpose of boarding her, a person from the deck hailed, and asked “What boat is that?” And upon the said Hall’s answering, “the Custom Boat,” two muskets or blunderbusses were immediately  fired by the said James Dunkin into the said boat, by which William Millet and John Oliver, two of the boatmen in the said Custom-House Boat were killed, and John Jane, another of the boatmen, dangerously wounded. – And whereas the Corner’s Inquest having sat on the bodies of the said William Millet and John Oliver, have brought in their verdict Wilful Murder, against the said James Dunkin, or others on whom he had vast influence.

His Majesty for the better discovering and bringing to justice the persons concerned in this most atrocious offence, is hereby pleased to promise his most gracious pardon to any one of the said offenders who shall discover his accomplice or accomplices (except said James Dunkin, or any other person who actually fired), so that any one or more of them may be apprehended and convicted of this offence.


And as a further encouragement, the Commissioners of his Majesty’s Customs, in order to bring the said offenders to justice, do hereby promise a reward of Five Hundred Pounds to any person or persons who shall discover and apprehend, or cause to be discovered and apprehended, the said James Dunkin, and a reward of Two Hundred Pounds for the discovering and apprehending any one or more of the other persons concerned in these murders, to be paid by the Receiver General of his Majesty’s Customs, upon conviction.

By order of the Commissioners , JAMES HUME, Secretary.

Sherborne Mercury, October 17 to November 17th 1791

This reward notice ran in the newspapers for a month, but no one came forward to collect it. The Friendship, and James Dunkin, disappeared never to be heard of again, while James’ brother John continued to trade openly at Penzance and Marazion. Their sloop Liberty’s part in this incident is not reported, but a month later she was intercepted in Mount’s Bay by the Dolphin, which followed her into the Mount Road anchorage. Once anchored Capt. John boarded her, as he subsequently reported to the Penzance officers. –

Gentlemen, I beg leave for the Honorable Boards information to acquaint you that yesterday about 6 Oclock in Morning off the Lizard I fell in with a Sloop who informed me she came from Roscoe [Roscoff] in France, bound to North Bergen.[*] On first discovery she was steering in Northward for the Lizard Land, wind EbS. but after being [hailed ] by the Dolphin she bore away and steered North West for the Lands end, but when about the Middle of Mountsbay she again altered her Course, by hauling the Wind to the N.E. towards a Noted Smuggling Cove where a Battery of Nine large Cannon are mounted and well known to you by the name of Trenowls, alias King of Prussias or Carter’s Cove, when within two miles of that place I cutt her off by Sailing twixt her and the shore, she then bore away and Voluntarily anchored in the Mount Road, as did the Dolphin

On boarding & examining, I found her to be the Liberty of this place, having on board twelve pieces Containing about 130 gallons each of Geneva on her Ballast, and is the identical Vessel represented to be aiding the Friendship Brig, about one month since at the Islands of Scilly when the Officers were Murdered –

I found by her Register she belonged to John & James Dunkin of Penzance, and the last Master Endorsed thereon was at your Office the 30th May 1789, to John Love as Master, who you must know have long since quitted her and is now Master of another Vessel belonging to your Port. Since him others have Commanded her, and at present John Tremethack claims that title, neither of which appears on the Register – In consequence hereof I think it my Duty to detain this Vessel hereby delivering her into your Charge for the Honorable Boards directions, which I trust will speedily be transmitted as I am threatened by John Dunkin with a prosecution for delivering the Register into your hands and humbly hope the Honble Board will also give directions about her Cargo, as it will detain the Dolphin in Port for the better Security of the whole.

I am &c , Richard John, Dolphin Cutter
Penzance 26th Sept.r 1791.

National Archives CUST 68/19: enclosure with 79/1791

There was some concern in HM Customs legal department about Capt. John’s right to detain the vessel and her cargo. The latter was to all intents and purposes covered by a ‘legitimate’ bill (or bills) of lading. The status of the vessel itself was questionable. There being a technical breach of the regulations in that the previous changes of master from Love, to others, and then to Tremethack, had not been duly entered with the Custom House at Penzance, neither was her register endorsed to that effect, as required by law. Thus no ‘master’s bonds’ had been secured for their good behaviour, and compliance with the regulations.

While this was all being sorted out, the Liberty was detained in Penzance, while the Board of Customs and their legal eagles pondering over their next course of action. Despite John Dunkin’s threat to prosecute Capt. John for the detention, his threat proved just a bluff. Nearly two years later the fate of the sloop and her cargo were still hanging in the balance.

Early in 1793 we find that Helston attorney Christopher Wallis is acting for the owners of the sloop – Dunkin & Ellis, and also for Dunkin & Treluddra, the apparent owners of the cargo. Throughout the rest of the year Wallis’s journal is punctuated with references to meetings and moves being taken to frustrate and thwart any prosecution. At this time Wallis’s interest also included the Lord Hood. His journal entry for January 31st is a typical one:

Attending John Dunkin ab.t the Lord Hood, drawing notices to put in Bail for Customs &c. Attending John Dunkin ab.t Seizure of Sloop & Geneva at Penzance & making Aff.s to put off the trial, on acc.t of absence of material witnesses &c.

Christopher Wallis Journal Jan 1st 1790 – Dec 31st 1793, Royal Institution of Cornwall Courtney Library DJW 1/2. The sloop referred to being the Liberty.

Their legal manoeuvring became quite convoluted, and in April 1793, John Ellis, petitions the Board for the Liberty’s restoration, through William Gatty, his Agent and attorney in the Court of Exchequer in London. Gatty gives several legal arguments as to why there were no grounds to detain her, which I won’t go into here, but were largely concerned with where the sloop actually was when first sighted – inside or outside of the prescribed statutory limits.

Responding to this petition, and the questions being raised, Richard John is less positive in his assertions,  observing:

I doubt our witnefses cannot bring forward facts sufficient to convict, and I wou’d not on any account run the Crown to an Expence in a Doubtful cause.

Not convinced that his witnesses were strong enough to ensure a conviction, Captain John was now more concerned about being out of pocket, and goes on to request that should the Board –  –

… chuse to deliver up the Vefsel and Cargo to the petitioner, I trust it will be on Condition of Satisfying the seizing Officer who hath been at considerable expence on retaining evidences & Maintaining them term after term holding them in readinefs expecting each term the tryal would be brought on as well as other charges accruing and make satisfaction.

National Archives CUST 68/16: 1793

This practice, of receiving a satisfaction for having made a dubious arrest, was common at the time. Still the Board of Customs were in no hurry to reach a decision, and it was not until May 1794 that they inform the Penzance officers:

Having read your Report of the 2nd Ultimo in return to our Order of reference on the Petition of John Ellis praying the delivery of the Sloop Liberty & her Cargo under Seizure at your Port. We acquaint you for the information of all parties that we have rejected the request & directed M:r Cooper our Solicitor to proceed in the prosecution of the said Vessel & her Cargo to Condemnation,

National Archives CUST 68/16: 1794

Despite this last intention and the lengthy and protracted progress of this cause, the final fate of the Liberty has not been discovered. Her registry at Penzance was never closed. Perhaps she just rotted away and fell to bits under detention in the tidal harbour.

While Carter’s battery was not actively concerned in this Liberty incident, its mention in Richard John’s report of September 26th 1791, did not go unremarked in London. In answer to a query about it from the Board of Customs, the Penzance officers replied on October 6th

In obedience to your Honors Commands Signified to us in Mr. Hume’s Letter of the 28th Ulto. N.o 40, We beg leave to acquaint your Honble Board, that we have [made] a particular enquiry respecting the Battery at Prussia’s Cove within the Limits of this Port, and find that there is one Errected mounting Nine, 6 pounders, and which the smugglers have frequently made use of by firing on the revenue Cruizers and their Boats and driving them off the Coast, particularly on the 9th November 1789, by their firing on the boat belonging to the Dolphin, as was represented to your Honors with our Letter of the 11th Novem.r 1789, N.o 134. Which enclosed one from Capt.n John setting forth that transaction.

We are &c , SJM.

National Archives CUST 68/15, No 85/1791

Nine 6-pounders or not, this further claim that the battery had frequently been made use of to drive off revenue boats and cruisers, may or may not have been true, but there is a singular lack or earlier reports to this effect. The single instance previously cited by them in November 1789, hardly being evidence of frequent use.

Read on …

  1. Both ‘John Oliver and Wm Mellet, boatmen shot at Old Grimsby by Jas. Donkin of Penzance’ were buried at St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly on August 27th. www.cornwall-opc-database.org