The Fairy – Myth or Fact?

So, is the tradition that the Fairy was fired on by the Carters’ battery at Prussia’s Cove founded on fact or is it, like a tale that has grown in the repeating?

The Admiralty, Foreign Office and the Home Office often found their commitments at variance, not only with each other but even within the departments of their own authority. It was a source of conflict for example that the Revenue Officers and the revenue cutters answered to two different Boards of Commissioners – the Customs, and the Excise.

The Admiralty had the secondary duty to appoint HM Sloops when available to assist to stamp-out smuggling, yet they were also, in certain instances under an obligation to smugglers who had perhaps obtained secret information concerning enemy dispositions across the Channel. And in turn – for example – when the Carter brothers were imprisoned in France, arranged their exchange for a French citizen imprisoned over here.

The aristocracy and established Cornish families whose estates possessed the mining rights, together with the adventurers (funders) had a common interest in the profitability of the mines and knew very well that the hardships under which their miners worked were made the more tolerable if low priced liquor were readily available, so they were more than tolerant of the smuggling.

Samuel Pellew, who served as Collector of Customs Falmouth from 1775 to 1836,1 all too often spoke with a double voice. As owner of the Lark and Hawke, hired revenue cruisers-cum­-privateers, he was making good money from prizes and seizure rewards, while making powerful criticism of other Customs Officers as conniving with the Smugglers and failing in many cases to take decisive action. Yet he himself was for a time suspended from his post of office, presumably on suspicion of corruption, and other sources show him to have been as venal as his contemporaries. His biographical note, written by Edward Osler (1798-1863), and published in 1835, is surely one of the earliest and most picturesque descriptions of the myth in the public genre:

A man named Carter carried on a wholesale smuggling business at a cove on the eastern side of the Mount’s Bay, where he had a range, nominally of fish cellars, but well known to be wine and spirit stores. As a blind, he kept a public-house, with the head of the King of Prussia for a sign; and from this sign he became known as the King of Prussia. He had nothing to fear from the revenue officers in the neighbourhood, who were either directly in league with him, or deterred from attempting seizure, by knowing what a force he could assemble to the rescue. To guard the coast he constructed a battery, which he mounted with long six-pounders. The Fairy sloop of war was fired upon when she stood to examine it; and as she could not safely approach near enough to bear her broadside with effect, she was obliged to send her boats on shore to destroy it. The remains of the battery are still visible, and the spot retains the name of the King of Prussia’s Cove.2

Picturesque prose though it may be, no supporting evidence has been discovered for this part of the myth. Captain William Thomas of the Fairy, might well have claimed the six or so dangerous rocks and shallows along the eastern shore of Mount’s Bay as an alibi to excuse him from taking the Fairy close in shore to face Prussia’s Cove. But having previously boasted to the Admiralty that he knew many of the smugglers personally, in practice did not show himself very forward, only bringing himself to make a raid directly on the most notorious smugglers, the Carters, during the very last days of his three year command. During that period his sloop stood by the people of Penzance as a visible symbol of protection, and his list of prizes parallels well enough with the more powerful frigate Druid which was based on Plymouth with like duties, but the poor sailing qualities of their ships, particularly in respect of speed and their draft of water, prevented them from achieving a more significant suppression of smuggling activity on this station.

There were however, over the years, other references to Carter’s Battery. A letter from the Excise Office, London, to the Right Honourable Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury, dated 4th January 1782, alludes to a report from their Officers in the West of England. This refers to a specific raid on Porth Knowles ‘lately undertaken by 40 soldiers and two Excise Officers’ – this must have taken place in 1781 if not earlier. But it so closely resembles the phrasing of a portion of a report on smuggling made to William Earl of Shelburne by the Excise Commissioners to the Treasury Lords in February 1783, that they must relate to the same incident. Shelburne, who was Prime Minister in 1782-83, was in an authoritative position to have been informed first hand. This report, amongst other of his papers, was acquired in the 1920s and published in 1928. The Carters’ Cove and smuggling business together with the Battery of cannon is described very much in the same terms as Samuel Pellew’s and then continues:

… 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.3

These then are most likely the route sources for the stories given out in the 19th Century by members of the establishment, the Anglican clergy, John Cornish in his Biography of a Cornish Smuggler and Captain Halton Stirling Lecky R.N, in his Kings Ships 1913.

Two myth elements can be traced in these reports:

  • An actual firing by the Carter Battery on a Warship or possibly a Revenue vessel on the one hand, and
  • The claim that the Battery was destroyed by a troop of 40 soldiers and two Excise Officers. The Fairy’s raid with 50 armed men would seem to have become melded with this incident, but it cannot be so because it took place in 1786, several years after the above reports. But at least it stood as documented in connection with the Fairy in the Captain’s Log Book for the future embellishment of the myth4

Further documentary evidence includes one or both these elements, in relation to subsequent incidents at Carter’s battery and its final reduction.

On the 8th November 1789 the Porth Knowles cannon fired on a Revenue Vessel’s boat. ‘Acting on an Information‘, and suspecting that the Smuggling craft Liberty, loaded with liquor, had sailed from Penzance in the direction of Prussia’s Cove to run her cargo. Richard John Commander of the Dolphin, H.M. Customs vessel based at St. Michael’s Mount, took the initiative. He sent off the Dolphin‘s Mate, Mr Hopkins, in their six oar’d boat to Prussia’s Cove, but:

… on arrival near the place he was suddenly fired 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

The National Archives CUST 68/14 – report of Capt Richard John, 9th Nov 1789

Three years later, on the 11th and 12th June 1792, the Dolphin was again facing cannon fire from Carter’s Battery, and was thereby – ‘… prevented from seizing the Lord Hood a noted smuggling Brigg then in the act of running her cargo’.5

Richard John sent messages to Scobell, Collector of Customs at Penzance for help and to Mr Samuel Pellew, Scobell’s counterpart at Falmouth, for reinforcements. As a consequence the Revenue cutters Fox, Kinsman (Excise cruiser), and the Speedwell, Hopkins (Customs cruiser) were ordered out and a party of soldiers dispatched by land:

… but the smugglers being apprised of their coming set sail, cut the Lord Hood‘s hawsers that were fastened to the shore and passed by the Dolphin, nor was she overtaken till five hours pursuit & a run of sixteen leagues.

The National Archives CUST 68/16 – Richard John’s rejoinder to petition of John Tomson for a share in seizure rewards – 28th Dec 1792

Alerted by Richard John, Customs, and Excise Officers, accompanied by soldiers and Officers from His Majesty’s 25th Regiment, then billeted in Helston, raided Carter’s ‘Farmers Cellar’ at Porthlea on the 12th June. There they found 146 ankers of illicit Spirituous Liquors, (Geneva), stored in a vault hidden two feet under temporary wooden floors of the fish-cellars. As was the practise in such incidents, the seizures made that day were carried off by the two branches of the revenue. Nothing further is heard of a Customs case arising therefrom, but an Excise case was successfully brought against Charles Carter in London in 1794. Found guilty he was heavily fined, and was not permitted on this occasion to take advantage of the alternative means of avoiding payment of his fine by providing the requisite number of Able Seamen and Landsmen substitutes for Naval Service.

The end of the Battery

On Thursday the 5th February 1794 ‘Acting on an information’, Penzance Custom House Officers, accompanied by thirty Rank and File of Mounts Bay Volunteers from Penzance with their Officers, raided King’s Cove on Thursday the 5th February where a Smuggling vessel was in the process of being unloaded of her contraband Ankers of Spirits by a crowd of 500 persons. The volunteers were faced by the Battery of cannon, when –

John Carter repeatedly fired shot from the said guns at the said Volunteer Company who then rushed into the said Battery and carried the same by assault 

The guns were then dismounted and destroyed and the carriages broke. But, despite the claim that John Carter had ‘repeatedly fired shot from the said guns at the attackers, their injuries were few. In truth there was hardly any fighting beyond the throwing of stones by the angry populous who, by the time the Militia had reached the cove, had turned to breaking open the Ankers and flooding the shore with liquor so that the Officers would not be able to take them away as prize to their profit. There was no mention of casualties amongst the smugglers, but one man in the Custom House party had his jaw smashed by shot.

Two Smugglers were taken and impressed into a warship then anchored off Penzance, H M Sloop L’Espion. But, for some inexplicable reason, the subsequent warrants to arrest and subpoena John Carter were never served. Neighbouring magistrate, Mr Edward Giddy ‘s plea for help to the army unit then at Helston, was refused on the grounds that they had to have specific orders from the War Office, i.e. Mr Dundas, which were not forthcoming till days after the event.

Giddy two years later with annoying diligence, wrote to the Attorney General hoping that the Subpoena could yet be served, but received the reply that it was now too late to gather evidence and make the case. Once again evidence that John Carter was under protection.

Take your choice in divining how the Myth was forged – but the elements are all there. Was it through the Customs records; was it the Admiralty; the Treasury; the Excise Officers; the Militia Battalions; the Revenue Vessels’ crews; or by word of mouth through John Cornish who as a boy talked personally to the descendants and successors of the Carter fraternity in the King of Prussia’s Cove? Each and every one of them is in competition for their right to representation with their contribution in tracing the sources.

  1. Samuel Pellew having reached his 80th year … retired to private life, meaning his retirement as Collector of Customs at Falmouth. This 1836 retirement date is supported by the fact that little or no pre-1836 Custom House correspondence for Falmouth has survived (certainly not in Cust 67/ at the National Archives). The implication being that Pellew destroyed it all on his retirement. Did he had a lot to hide?
  2. Brit Lib X 22/9122: Appendix B to Edward Osler’s Life of Admiral Exmouth. Although Samuel Pellew read and passed everything in this biographical note in 1835 as authentic, he insisted on the exclusion of every thing which was not strictly of a public nature. Edward Osler puts no date to this event, though it sits before a description of the 1786 run-in with the Happy-go-Lucky. The final destruction of the Battery occurred in 1794, while the biography was not published till 1835
  3. William, Earl of Shelburne who served as Pres: of the Board of Trade in 1768, Home Sec: in 1782 and Prime Mi: 1782-83 – see Royal Forests, Sheriffs and Smuggling William Clements Library 1928
  4. The National Archives ADM 51/333 Captain’s Log
  5. CUST 68/16 – Richard John’s rejoinder to petition of John Tomson for a share in seizure rewards – 28th Dec 1792, The National Archives