The Carters – an introduction

The Carters of Prussia’s Cove [*]

As a lad growing up in Newlyn, tales of the exploits of the Carters of Prussia’s Cove, fascinated me. So much so that ever since I have been intrigued to find out what lay behind these tales, and was there any truth behind some of the more audacious acts attributed to them. In particular the yarns relating to a cliff-side battery of cannon blazing away at any vessels that dared to come within range unbidden.

In my quest, Cornish[*] and Pollard, were key primers, along with Harry Carter’s autobiography, which I found frustratingly skimpy as to smuggling, and dreary in the extreme in the lengthy passages relating to repentance and ‘seeing the light.’ But then, after reading a few of Cornish’s supporting notes in the Cornwall Record Office with abstracts from Penzance Custom House officers’ correspondence, I found the way.[*] I discovered the key prime source – in so far as smuggling in Mount’s Bay was concerned – the revelatory Custom House letter-books for the Port of Penzance, then held in the Public Records Office – more recently re-branded as the National Archives.[*]  These letter-books are the office-copies of the ‘Out-Letters,’ from the Penzance officers to the Board of Customs in London [1738-1878], with elements of related local correspondence, and the ‘In-Letters,’ from the Board to the Officers at Penzance [1722-1914]. The whole comprising 150 odd heavy manuscript volumes of the letters to and from the Board each year. Both sets were numbered throughout the year, and counter-checked at the end of the year to ensure due receipt and action.

In time the extensive content of these letters led to other ‘gems’ in the National Archives: Treasury papers, Admiralty archives, Privy Council, Home Office, and the key Exchequer trial reports, all proving that truth can be more engrossing than fiction.

The Carter Brothers

The Carter Brothers, possibly the most notorious of Cornish smugglers, were raised in the vicinity of Prussia’s Cove, in the second half of the eighteenth century. Legend has it that the cove acquired its colloquial name from the exploits of young John Carter – the second eldest brother. He allegedly became known as the King, when in the 1740s the King of Prussia became his boyhood hero, and he emulated him in his fashion, marching his brothers round the cove into mock battles.

In adulthood John  may well have been the managing director of the firm but he kept a pretty low profile in so far as officialdom was concerned. Legends about him abound, but there are no contemporary written references to John as being the ‘King’ of Prussia’s Cove, and only one or two references in the official papers actually name him. However, two of his younger brothers – Henry (als. Harry) and Charles – were each so called on different occasions in official correspondence, though these attributions may just reflect the reporting officers’ lack of personal knowledge of the individuals concerned. Whatever John Carter’s status and name in the locality, the Carter brothers were a force to be reckoned with.

The late 1700s were turbulent times. Bays and anchorages on the coast of England, remote from central government and naval bases, were the haunts of enemy privateers. Mount’s Bay was one such bay, with a history of coastal raids by pirates and enemy raiders. These coastal communities were all clamouring for some form of protection – especially wherever sea-born trade was concerned. As hostilities with the American Colonies, and then Revolutionary France, ran on, Governments of the day approved and equipped a number of small, coastal batteries to placate the populace. Many of these were manned by Volunteer Companies of Militia, and later by members of the Sea Fencibles.

Contemporary with this period are the first reliable charts delineating the shores of Mounts Bay. The earliest of these, surveyed by John Thomas, John Nancarrow and Dionysius Williams, and engraved by T. Kitchin, was ‘Published according to Act of Parliament,’ on January 30th 1751. It was dedicated – ‘To S.r John S.t Aubyn …. The Worthy Proprietor of Mount’s Bay.’ – a loose claim that was disputed by Lord Arundel, the Earl of Falmouth and others with coastal fiefdoms.

This chart was the basis of at least two reprints, with additions, and John Thomas is the key-link between the different versions. The second version, attributed to John Thomas & William Denys, was published by Robert Sayer, Map & Chart-seller of 53, Fleet Street, on June 10th 1786. While the third version by the same author-surveyors was published with minor additions to the notes by Laurie & Whittle, of the same Fleet-Street address in 1794.

The 1794 edition of the chart of Mount’s Bay (Courtesy HM Hydrographic Office, Taunton)

A full consideration of the whole subject of the smuggling trade is reserved for another occasion.

In the first article I am just concerned with the evidence for, and employment of, the legendary cliff-side battery of cannon guarding Prussia’s Cove. My good friend, Hilary Tunstall-Behrens, in Maritime South West No.26 [2013], touched on one aspect of this battery in his account of the yarns relating to HM Sloop Fairy having been fired upon by this battery of cannon. His story of how the myth might have gained foundation is intriguing enough but it left the full story of the battery itself still to be told.

Though it never actually fired on HM Sloop Fairy, Carters’ Battery certainly fired on boats belonging to HM Customs at least once and cannon from the battery were allegedly turned against ‘revenue officers’ and troops approaching the battery overland on several other occasions.

Read on …

Tony Pawlyn
Sept 2019