1793 – Charles Carter’s trial

On February 21st 1793, the Attorney General opened a trial in the Court of Exchequer against Charles Carter. In the preceding months Charles, together with John Dunkin, had taken legal advice from Helston attorney Christopher Wallis. Wallis normally kept a very full Journal, recording his attendance on legal matters. But, his Journal for 1789-92, is quite sketchy due to imperfect health and press of business. In October 1792, he wrote ‘no perfect Journals or accounts have been kept by me for near three years last past.’ In the months leading up to the trial, he attended Charles Carter on several occasions:

January 12th – Attending Charles Carter relative to Exchequer.

January 23rd – Drawing draft of Petition to Commissioners Excise on behalf of Cha.s Carter to compound & sent same ingrossed to Messrs. Grylls to forward to Sir ffra. Basset.

February 2nd – Attended Messrs Grylls & Borlase relative to Charles Carter’s prosecution in the Exchequer.

February 3rd – Attended Charles Carter relative to his Exchequer business, and consulted thereon, then drawing & ingrossing an Affidavit to put off the Trial on account of material witnesses being absent …

February 7th – At Marazion by appointment consulting with Charles Carter about his Exchequer business.

February 12th – Attended Messrs Grylls & Borlase, Charles Carter & his witnesses respect his Exchequer suit, examining the witnesses, Brief &c. They set off for London this day in order to try the cause.

Christopher Wallis’ journal, Royal Institution of Cornwall Courtney Library

On this occasion Wallis did not go up to London for the trial, and despite his efforts on Charles’s behalf, the cause was heavily weighted against his client.

On the day Charles was prosecuted by a team led by the Attorney General, and was defended by a Mr. Rous, and Mr. LeMesurier. The two of the principal witnesses for the Crown were the Penzance Tide Waiters Richards and Julyan, though there were others, and the following account is taken from shorthand notes of the trial proceedings kept by a Mr Gurney.1 His status is not given, but I believe him to have been an attorney retained by the Excise Commissioners – the relative documents being filed in Kew under ‘Excise Trials.’

The only shortcoming with the full account is that, while Gurney’s copy of the trial proceedings seem virtually word for word, he does not record the indictment, the charges laid against Charles Carter. For this we only have the Attorney General’s opening statement of intent:

… the intent of the present prosecution is to recover treble the value of the following goods which our Case contends were seized in a Cave in a Cellar belonging to the Defendant namely 649 Gallons of Brandy 40 gallons of Rum 1874 gallons of Geneva and 2 pipes of Wine.2 Gentlemen the questions of fact which you will have to try will be whether the Defendant was concerned in unshipping these articles before the payment of duties or whether these articles came to his hands unshipped without payment of duties or whether he harboured these articles being unshipped and landed without payment of duties.

The evidence presented for the prosecution by our two Custom House men from Penzance is much fuller than that given in their previous reports. However, this is not the place to follow the trial evidence verbatim. For our purposes it is sufficient to consider the Attorney General’s opening address to the jury, which seems to give a fair account of events that unfolded at Prussia’s Cove that day. I give it here in full:

Gentlemen, As this Case is in its circumstances a very singular and extraordinary one I shall take the liberty of stating to you with some degree of particularity what are the facts which I am instructed to say we shall be able to prove

Upon the 10th of June 1792 for you will find the transactions with respect to which the evidence applies are transactions of the 10th, 11th, and 12th of June 1792 upon the first of these days a Custom House Cutter of the name of Dolphin watched a Smuggling Brig which bore the name of the Lord Hood into a Cove which I understand is upon the Cornwall Coast known by the name of the King of Prussia’s Cove the Defendant Mr Carter has for many years been proprietor of several Cellars which are at that Cove for the purpose of curing fish in the pilchard season and it will be for you to judge whether he has not also this Cellar for other purposes which we impute to him.

The boat of the Dolphin attempted to board this Brig but it happens that in that part of the Country the persons concerned in this illicit Trade take especial care to protect themselves in carrying it on and you will find that upon the shore a very considerable battery is raised I think mounting ten guns of some size too and which undoubtedly some measures must be taken effectually to remove and the Dolphins boat was driven off and prevented from boarding this Smuggler by the effect of this battery upon the shore in consequence of this intelligence was sent to the Collector of Customs at the ports of Penzance and Falmouth and they were requested to send such assistance as they could furnish.

Gentlemen two Witnesses will be called to you of the name of Richards and Julian who were accordingly sent for the purpose of giving assistance to this Revenue Cutter the Dolphin upon the 11th of June 1792 they went to the Cove from Penzance these places being about seven miles distance from each other from that high land at a small distance they will inform you that they saw the Smuggling Brig getting out of the Cove and the Dolphin pursuing her but the battery being at this time extremely well manned they durst not venture down to it and therefore were obliged to return home

Upon their way home they met with a Company of foot Soldiers who had been sent by the Collector of the Customs at Falmouth for the purpose of assisting them in the business that they themselves were upon – upon this 11th of June as soon as it was dark they went with this party of Soldiers and they kept guard upon all the roads that were about a quarter of a mile from this battery for the purpose of preventing the goods which they had reason to suppose had been landed out of this Vessel from being carried into the Country and they got at the same time a warrant from a Justice of the peace to search the Defendant’s premises about three in the morning the 12th of June 1792 these two parties of Soldiers for another party had come with Richards and Arscott as well as that party which were with Richards and Julian they met and they proceeded afterwards to the Cove in order to search it.

It was necessary for them first with the assistance of this Military force to take possession of the battery which they accordingly did and at the time that they got possession of this battery where were none of the persons left there except two young men one of the name of Blewet the other Champion the one of whom is a Nephew the other a Nephew in law of the Defendant – Blewet one of these young men had been a Servant with Charles Carter till a very few months before this time he had then left him and he had gone as Clerk to a person who ought to have taught him more respect to the law as Attorney at Helstone five miles from this place but it will be proved he was frequently and forwards at Carters house and in his service some other Revenue boats having been sent for to aid this search you will find that Julian one of the officers asked Blewet the young man who was in possession of the battery where his uncle Charles Carter was and he was shewn to the house of Charles – Carter however was gone to a place called __ forty miles distance as they said at the time, and they proceeded without him upon the search

They broke open the door of one of his Cellars a Cellar which it will be proved to you was used by this Charles Carter for curing pilchards and there was the appearance of pilchards having been lately cured there by there being a quantity of returned salt in the Cellar in the middle of this Cellar they found a floor of boards some were loose they pulled up the boards the earth had the appearance of being recently moved they dug up the earth and they found under it a trap door which covered the mouth of a Cave in which there were 146 ankers of Brandy and Geneva they seized these articles – They then went to a second Cellar where they observed that one of the stones of the floor was somewhat higher than the rest and there was likewise the appearance of fresh earth about the joints of that stone – Under the protection of a party of Soldiers they removed this stone which was got up with a good deal of difficulty and after clearing away the earth they found a trap door leading into another Cave – in this Cave they found 290 ankers which contained of Brandy 512 gallons of Rum 40 gallons Geneva 1760 gallons the total number of gallons were 23123

Whilst they were taking these 290 ankers out of the Cave the Defendant Charles Carter came down he attempted to get through the Soldiers who were placed at the Cellar door they refused to let him pass however he said he wanted to go in for the purpose only of taking away his books and papers which he kept in these places and he brought a bag along with him for that purpose. He then went together with some of the persons who will be called to you through an outward room which you will find was very well furnished with articles which cannot well be wanted for the cure of Pilchards namely blunderbusses pistols horns of powder quantities of grape shot and other articles of that kind and after going into the place as the search had now been completed he did not think proper to take away these books for the purpose of taking which away he had expressly come to the place

I shall prove distinctly that this man has acknowledged and upon very important occasions too that these premises were his. I shall likewise prove that this is the place where he cures his Pilchards that he receives the bounty for the Pilchards which are cured in this place that the Officers have frequently examined the articles there to see if they are well cured and merchantable in order to entitle him to the bounty and that all the fish that come up there are burnt on the barrel with his name that therefore he acts as the Owner of these premises and not only acts as such but that he has acknowledged himself to be the Owner of these premises

You will find after this that upon one of the Captains of one of the Cutters going out again they hooked up several casks of liquor which had been sunk and which probably were part of the Cargo of the Vessel which had been chased into this cove the quantity is 37 gallons of Brandy 107 Geneva and 247 of port Wine

After these circumstances had passed you will likewise find that young Blewet the person who kept possession of the Battery for Charles Carter was sent to one of the Witnesses to ask him whether his Uncle might now lock up the stores where they had finished the business

Gentlemen this is the general outline of the Case which I am instructed to say I shall be able very effectively to prove to you and really what is the nature of the Defence I am totally at a loss at present to conjecture it is impossible therefore for me to offer you any observation upon that Case which at present I cannot know you will hear it with the Attention which you always give to every Case that a Defendant lays before you and then you will decide upon between the public and the Defendant as the justice of the Case requires.

The prosecution certainly had a strong case, though the quality of some of the evidence seems questionable, and the facts were pretty loose. Charles, the defendant, as was quite common, did not take the stand. The main thrust of the defence – after Rous’s usual tirade about the iniquity of trying a man from Cornwall out of his county and away from his peers – fell to trying to prove that Charles Carter was not in ‘possession’ of the cellars concerned, and that the leases had been transferred to one Williams some time previously. The evidence as to who was actually in possession of the Farmer’s Cellar at the time, was essentially hearsay, and was not supported in any way by written leases or deeds. Rous’s argument was rejected and the jury found for the King in the single value of £489 17s 4d. Which being trebled under the statute amounted to Charles Carter being liable to pay the Crown £1,469 12s in default.

Charles could not pay, and presumably was imprisoned for the debt. In 1793, shortly after we went to war with Revolutionary France, the King issued his usual Order in Council offering free pardons to smugglers entering the Royal Navy as volunteers. Under the proclamation a substitute or substitutes were acceptable in lieu of the principal party concerned, and as with prize money there was a sliding scale of ‘substitutes’ against the seriousness of the offence committed.

To the Honorable the Lords Commifsioners of his Majesty’s Treasury. –

The Humble Petition of Charles Carter Yeoman of the Parish of Breage in Cornwall.

Sheweth. That in the Year 1793 an Information was exhibited against your Petitioner for a Breach of the Excise Laws in concealing foreign Spirituous Liquors & in Easter Term a Judgement was entered up against him for the treble Penalties under the Act of Parliament.

That Your Petitioner has a Wife and several Children, and many Nephews & Nieces all of whom are entirely dependant on him for Support, that being utterly unable to satisfy the Judgement, he has been compelled to quit his Family; & the greater Part of his Property has been since expended in the Maintenance of himself & Family thus separated. –

Wherefore Your Petitioner humbly prays your Lordships to accept in Lieu of the said Judgement Twenty able Seamen for the Service of his Majesty’s Navy to be raised as soon as your Lordships will be pleased to appoint, together with such Costs and Charges as the Crown may have been put to in the said prosecution. –

And Your Petitioner as in Duty bound shall ever pray & so forth.
Dated 5th February 1794.

Attorney Wallis was in London at this time, advising Charles about his petition [amongst other matters for a number of other clients], noting in his journal – ‘July 18th About 12 o’clock at night, returned from London to Truro – having been wanting from home [since] 24th January last.’ For some reason there are no entries in his journal between those dates. Perhaps he was had left his journal at home, and recorded details of this period in London in another note book – now missing.

Charles’s petition was duly referred to the Excise Commissioners, who were strongly opposed to his release, endorsing on the back –

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

May it please your Lordships, In obedience to your Lordships Order of Reference on the annexed Petition of Charles Carter of Breage in the County of Cornwall.

We humbly report that the Petitioner has been for many years one of the most notorious Smugglers, and has carried on his unlawful practice under the Protection of a Battery of ten Guns erected in a Creek called The King of Prussia’s Cove in Mount’s Bay; That he stands convicted in the Penalty of £1,469. 12. being treble the value of a large quantity of Foreign Spirituous Liquors which was found concealed there in June 1792, and that the Vessel from which the Goods were landed was covered by that Battery from the Pursuit of a Cutter belonging to the Customs; and his House could not be searched without the Assistance of a considerable Military Force.

We therefore submit that he is not in the least degree whatever deserving of your Lordships Favor.

We are, Your Lordships Most obedient and Most humble Servants
Excise Office, London
7th March 1794

While his release under these conditions was opposed by the Excise Commissioners, the final outcome of Charles Carter’s petition has not been discovered. But the fact he felt that he could raise twenty able-seamen to serve in the Navy, as substitutes for his release, speaks volumes as to the family’s influence in West Cornwall.

Charles, now 37 years of age, was still in debtors prison in May 1795. A married man with five children, his wife Catherinda was frequently consulting with Christopher Wallis relative to Charles ‘taking the benefit of the late Act of Parliament as a smuggler.’

Not having discovered which prison Charles was confined in, I have not been able to trace his eventual release. But he was released at some later date, as he was back in Cornwall in September 1799, when he was in consultation with his brothers Francis and Henry, and attorney Wallis about the family accounts. There being a dispute with Charles over money matters and Mortgage payments.

But to return to the battery. While the final act in Charles’s smuggling career was being played out, John took command of business back at home, and a nephew, Robert Carter (of Ruan Minor), took command of their main smuggling vessel, the inoffensive sounding Phillis.

Read on …

  1. National Archives: CUST 103/28 pp 559-672 – Attorney General vs Charles Carter, copies from Mr Gurney’s Shorthand Notes of the proceedings on the Trial of this information in the Court of Exchequer by a Special Jury before the honourable Mr Baron Hotham (‘Baron’ was an honorary term for a judge in the Court of Exchequer). February 21st 1793
  2. A pipe was a butt which held 126 gallons
  3. The probable location of these cellars is covered in another article