The Liberty 1780-93

Penzance 1817

Little is known about the 25 ton sloop Liberty prior to the first official Registration of British Shipping in August/September 1786. Built at Topsham in Devon some six years earlier, when registered at Penzance on September 25th 1786, she was jointly owned by John and James Dunkin, and John Ellis, all merchants of Penzance.

During her period of registration as a British vessel she officially had four masters:

  • George Branwell 25 September 1786
  • Francis Love 15 Jaunary 1788
  • Robert Charleton 10 November 1788
  • John Love 30 May 1789

She was mentioned in the spring on 1787, concerning a cargo of the Three Friends, of Scilly, detained by the Revenue lugger Lurcher in May 1784 – permission having at last been given for it to be re-shipped for export.

No 28.
Honble Sirs, Annexed we beg leave to transmit your Honble Board a List of the Cargo of the Three Friends Simon Sanderson M:r from Scilly agreeable to your orders of the 15 Sep.r last N.o61, which was Shipped for Exportation on board the Liberty George Branwell M.r for Port L’Orient
We are &c.a JS, EH
Custom h:o Penzance, 4th April 1787 

While on this occasion the shipping of the cargo was a legitimate trading voyage, the origin of the ‘goods’ being re-shipped was clearly questionable. According to a return of Coasting vessels belonging to the port of Penzance, the Liberty was engaged in the Coasting Trade from Hence to Bristol, making about five voyages a year – hardly a full time employment.

The Liberty was involved in another suspect re-shipment of cargo in the following year, concerning barrels of tar from the ship George, when a number of barrels of tar were alleged to have been fraudulently misappropriated, and her master and crew were alleged to have been working hand in glove with all the others concerned.

Comms. Customs 24th Jany. 1788
Hon Sirs, Herewith we beg to transmit two Affidavits of William Parker Tidesman & Boatman, also an Affidavit of Mr. Tho. Andrews Landwaiter. Your Honrs: will please to observe that examining: the Landwaiter’s Account with William Parker’s and with Stephen Hodge’s whose Affidavit we also send, there Appears to have been a Fraud committed by this Master of the Sloop Liberty of Twenty Barrels of Tar which said Sloop cleared yesterday for Ireland. We pray your Honors. directions should she return here again, which is probable she will, as belonging to this Port, how far we may have a just cause to detain her.

Your Honrs. will please to notice in the Affidavit of the said Mr. Andrews respecting his shipping 242 Brls of Tar onboard the Brig Friendship, Geo. Branwell Mr. for the Ship George, comparing his Acct. with Charles McLean’s an Extra Man boarded on the Brig whose Affidavit accompanies this, as also with Stephen Hodge’s Boarded on the Ship George; We flatter ourselves there will appear to have been Smuggled 110 Barrells of Tar, which was brought back under pretence of Ballast – By the Landwaiter’s Account for Brig should have on 167 exclusive of the 110 Barrells which is considerably more than she can carry.

As a fraud from the first was intended the owners of the Ship George, the Brig Friendship, and Sloop Liberty are known Smugglers; We humbly Pray that the Brig with the Cargo now under Stop may be prosecuted in the Exchr. at the Crown’s Expence, and beg leave to refer yr. Honrs: to our Letter of the 20th No.5 and to the Affidavits then sent respecting the Weather when the ship George sail’d.

We have has an acct. of her being in Torbay which information together with Copy of her Manifest w sent the Collr. & Comptr. of Dartmouth. To save the post time would not allow copying the Inclos’d therefore yr. Honrs will be pleased to send them back to be sworn in the Exchr. should it meet your approbation.

Despite the highly coloured nature of these transactions, this matter was never completely resolved. The main events concerning the George are told in the account of that vessel. There is no further mention of the Liberty at this time, and the Custom House correspondence on this particular episode then closed.

The masters of the Liberty were a questionable lot. George Branwell went on the command Dunkins’ brigantine Friendship, later vanishing under a cloud of suspicion, while Robert Charleton went on to command the Penzance brigantine Nancy & Betsy. Francis Love seems to have retired from the sea on relinquishing his command, and John Love disappears from the records after 1791. Even so, Captain Richard John of the Revenue cutter Dolphin, asserted to the Collector at Penzance in September 1791, that Love had ‘… long since quitted her and is now Master of another Vessel belonging to your Port.’ Despite this claim, John Love was not endorsed as master of any other registered vessel at Penzance, though he might have been in charge of an un-registered fishing boat.

Her owners, James and John Dunkin, and James Ellis, were wine and provisions merchants at Penzance, and the Liberty was outwardly engaged in regular Penzance trade. During 1789 she was reported several times in the shipping intelligence reports, as published in the columns of the New Exeter Journal, and/or the Lloyd’s Lists:

  • 10th March, Charleton, master, sailed from Penzance, for Rotterdam
  • 15th May, Charleton, master, arrived at Penzance, from Rotterdam
  • 25th May, Charleton, master, arrived at Penzance, from Plymouth

On the May 30th, while still at Penzance, command of the Liberty was transferred from Robert Charleton to Thomas Love.

  • 29th June, Love, master, arrived at Penzance, from Lyme
  • 6th July, Love, master, sailed from Penzance for Anglesea (with miners)
  • 14th Sept. Love, master, sailed from Penzance, for Holland
  • 1st Nov. Love, master, arrived at Penzance, from Rotterdam – very leaky
  • 15th Nov. Love, master, sailed from Penzance, for Gibraltar

Her trading seems to have consisted of a combination of regular and illicit voyages, as the commercial need and opportunity arose. Whereas in July 1789 the Liberty had taken a party of 40 or 50 Cornish miners from Penzance to Anglesea, to work on Parry’s mountain, on her return from the coast of Wales she proceeded on a suspect voyage.

At Rotterdam, in October 1789 she loaded a full cargo of Geneva. Ostensibly destined for Gibraltar, it was probably purchased for the Cornish free trade market. On her supposed passage to Gibraltar she was allegedly forced to put into Penzance in a very leaky condition – a very familiar ruse. Her arrival under such circumstances naturally aroused the suspicions of the Penzance Custom House officers, but lacking any proof they could only tip off the commander of the St. Ives revenue cutter. With her leaks repaired she duly resumed her voyage to Gibraltar. Despite the published sailing notice above, dated November 15th, she clearly set out from Penzance on the evening of November 8th.

Dolphin, Mount 9th Nov.r 1789
Gentlemen, 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.

The gun battery at Prussia (or Trenowles) Cove, apparently reported here for the first time, had effectively prevented the revenue officers from making a seizure, and allowed the Liberty and her crew to remain at large. As usual, the Penzance Officers [John Scobel, Collector, & Joseph Webb, Comptroller] submitted a covering report, this time emphasising their inability to act against such a well armed base, manned by such ‘a daring set of fellows.’

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 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 em. 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. JS, JW

This private coastal battery had been set up by the notorious Carter Brothers, on the point above their stronghold at Prussia’s Cove. Although only seven miles from Penzance, the Cove and its activities were completely obscured from view from Penzance by the long finger of land forming Cudden Point. Despite this and subsequent reports, little was done about it for many years, and this small battery of guns featured in a number of subsequent smuggling incidents. Lacking any substantiated evidence against the Liberty, the little sloop was permitted to continue trading.

Nearly two years later, the Dunkin brothers’ Liberty was suspected of having been working in company with the Friendship, when the Customs officers in the boat off Tresco were killed by musket fire. Shortly afterwards the Revenue Cutter Dolphin Revenue again fell in with the Liberty, off Mount’s Bay:

Collector and Comptroller Penzance
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.

As usual, Captain John’s report was forwarded to the Board of Customs in London along with the following cover note from the Collector and Comptroller at Penzance.

CustomHo. Penzance, 26th Sept.r 1791
Honble Sirs, Inclosed we leave beg to trans.t your Honble Board a Letter which We this day rec.d from Captain Richard John of the Dolphin Revenue Cutter, in the Service of the Customs, respecting the Sloop Liberty & her Cargo, which we beg leave to confirm in every respect so far as relates to this Port, the whole of which is with the greatest deference most humbly Submitted to your Honors Consideration & Directions. 
We are &c. JS, JM

The sloop Liberty was held under arrest in the Mount Pier, off Marazion, and her suspect cargo was landed and placed in the King’s warehouse under the joint locks of Captain John, and the Collector and the Comptroller of Penzance. The Board were particularly interested to learn how any of her current crew stood relative to the Friendship incident, and the murder of Oliver and Millett, the previous month.

Gentlemen, Custom house London, 30th September 1791
Having read your Letter of the 26th Inst. No.79 transmitting one from the Commander of the Dolphin Cutter in the Service at St. Ives respecting his having detained the Sloop Liberty & a Cargo of Spirits in large Casks which Vessel proves to have been in company with the Brig Friendship and the Crews of that Vessel fired upon & killed two of the Boatmen at Scilly in the Execution of their Duty.

We direct you to prosecute in the Exchequer the said Vessel & her Cargo & in so doing to correspond with our Solicitor & the Registrar of Seizures; Observing to return the same in your next printed Account of Seizures & to refer therein to the dates of this Order for the Prosecution.

And We direct you to cause Enquiry to be made of any of the Persons who were on board at the time of the firing are now on Board or to be met with; & for the better enabling You to do which a List of the persons said to have been then on Board is expressed on the following side.
Wm. Hey | Edw.d Hooper | R. Frewin | Wm. Stiles

On Board the Friendship
John Williams, George Branwell, William Nines & a Boy name unknown together with James Dunkin of Penzance,

On Board the Liberty
John Morris, Richard Fourd, & a Boy name unknown

As Capt. John had reported on the 26th Sept. there was no sign of John Love, her registered master, neither was there any sign of John Morris or the un-named boy. Of those alleged to have been on board at the time of the murders, only Richard Ford was on board when he seized the sloop. Ford was duly brought before the magistrates at St. Erth, but, as Capt. John was reluctantly forced to admit, they found that Ford had no case to answer and ordered his release.

Dolphin Cutter 4 Oct.r 1791
Gentlemen, In consequence of the Honble Boards directions in a Letter to you date 30th Sept.r last, I have to acquaint you for their Honors Information that the Crew of the Sloop Liberty when I detained her consisted of John Tremethack (nominal Master) Thomas Bawden, and Richard Ford. On a Suspicion that Ford was amongst the number on board the Friendship at the time the Boatmen were Killed at Scilly, I caused him to be secured on board the Dolphin from the 25. to the 28th Sept.r both days inclusive, till I had personally applied to Mr. Price & Mr. Giddy two of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace, who took the affidavits of the Evidence respecting that Murder, but the Justices not finding ground sufficient to commit Ford on, they ordered him to be liberated, as it appeared (and I believe true) that he was not on board the Friendship, but on board the Liberty, alone, when that horrid Act was comitted by firing from the Friendship. Should it be deemed right to have Ford apprehended, it may be done, as he is now in Penzance and walks in public, refering to any further intelligence from your worthy the Honble Boards notice.
I remain Gentlemen, &c. Richard John.
Collector & Comp.r, Customs Penzance.

Which report was accompanied by the usual covering letter from the Penzance Officers:

CustomHo. Penzance, 5th Octo.r 1791
Honble Sirs, In obedience to your Honors orders of the 30th Sept.r last, No.41, directing us to cause enquiry to be made if any of the persons who were on board, at the time of the firing from the Brig Friendship, We beg leave to acquaint your Honble Board, that we have made every possible inquiry in our power & the only intelligence we can gain respecting that transaction is from the inclosed Letter which we have rec.d from Capt.n John, the whole of which is most humbly Submitted for your Honors Consideration. –
We are &c. JS, JM

Already the Exchequer prosecution of the sloop Liberty and her cargo, seems to have lost any immediacy, and Captain John’s only recourse seems to have been to hold the vessel and cargo for a misdemeanour – the irregularity of the current master’s name, John Tremethack, not being endorsed on the Register. Meanwhile the Officers at Penzance were asked to report further on the battery at Prussia’s Cove.

CustomHo. Penzance, 5th Octo.r 1791
Honble Sirs, In obedience to your Honors Command Signified to us in Mr Hume’s Letter of the 28th Ult.o No.40, We beg leave to acquaint your Honble Board that we have a particular enquiry respecting the Battery at Prufsias Cove within the Limits of this Port, and find there is one Errected mounting nine, 6 pounders, and which the smugglers have frequently made use of by firing on the revenue Cruisers and their Boats and driving them off the Coast, particularly on the 9th Nov.r 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, No.134, which enclosed one from Capt.n John Setting forth that transaction.
We are &c. JS, JN

It seems that the Liberty was then left to rot in the Mount pier, virtually forgotten for some considerable time, while she and her cargo remained impounded. In April 1793, John Ellis petitioned the Board of Customs for the restoration of both sloop and cargo.

To the Honble the of His Majesty’s Customs
The Humble Petition of John Ellis of Penzance Merch.t
That your Petitioner being the owner of a Sloop called the Liberty sent her to Roscoff in the Country of France for a Cargo of Geneva for North Bergen –

That whilst the said Vefsel lay at Roscoff the Master of her left her and another person took the Command of her, and it being necefsary that the name of such new Master should be indorsed on the Certificate of Registry he thought it should be done before he proceeded to North Bergen, and therefore Sailed for the Port of Penzance where the said Vefsel was Registered in order to have his name indorsed on the said Certificate.

That about six Leagues from the Coast of this Kingdom and about six Oclock in the Morning, the said Sloop fell in with the Dolphin Cutter Capt.n John where the Master of her informed Capt.n John that he was bound to North Bergen but was first going with the said Sloop to Penzance and accordingly Capt.n John and he came into Mounts Bay together where Capt.n John seized the said Sloop and Cargo because the Sloop was not navigated by the Master whose Name was indorsed on the Certificate of the Registry.

That the Name of the Master navigating the Sloop at the time she was seized could not have been indorsed on the Certificate of the Registry for the reason before mentioned Viz./ his having taken the Command of her whilst she was at Roscoff, And as the Master was proceeding to Penzance for the purpose of having his name indorsed on the Certificate being the only means he could pursue in order to have his name indorsed, Your Petitioner Humbly Submits to your Honors that the Masters name not being indorsed on the Certificate cannot be deemed a cause of Forfeiture nor is it so made by the Act respecting Registry nor can it be supposed that the Master of the said Sloop would come into Mounts Bay with any design to smuggle the Cargo in Company with a Revenue Cutter and in the Day time. –

That for the truth of the facts above stated as to the distance the said Sloop was from the Coast of this Kingdom at the time she first fell in with Capt.n John and as to the Conversation that pafsed between the Master of the said Sloop and Capt.n John, Your Petitioner begs to refer your Honors to Capt.n John and in case he will say that the said Sloop was not upwards of Four Leagues from the Coast of this Kingdom at the time he fell in with her as aforesaid and that she did not come into Mounts Bay in Company with him your Petitioner will withdraw his claim and suffer the said Sloop & Cargo to be condemned. But in case Capt.n John shall admit the facts to be as above stated your Petitioner humbly hopes your Honors will order the said Vefsel and Cargo to be delivered to Him.
And your petitioner shall ever pray &c. – W Gatty, Agent for the Pet:r
24 April 1793 

To the Collector & Compt.r of Penzance for their Observations and report
By order of the, H Hutson

To which the Collector and Comptroller of Penzance invited Captain John to candidly respond:

Gentl.n, I have perused John Ellis’s petition to the Honble Board respecting the Sloop Liberty wherein he refers to me for the truth of the facts Stated, dwelling chiefly on the distance the Liberty was from the Land on being first discovered. She was not within the distance of four Leagues when first seen from the Dolphin but soon after she was within the limits of four Leagues, and not before, the examination took place. And it appears as the petitioner sets forth the Liberty was detained for the Masters name not being endorsed on the Register. Notwithstanding there might be an intention to run the Cargo, 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. But sho’d the Honble Board think it right to bring on the Tryal the Witnefses will be ready to prove such facts as hath already been reported. On the contrary & the Honble 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 otherwise which their Honors I hope will cause to be done. –
I am Gentl.n Your most Ob.t Hum.ble Serv.t, Rich:d John
Penzance, 27th April 1793 

To which report the Collector and Comptroller of Penzance added their covering note:

We beg leave to report to your Honble Board that the Sloop Liberty withinmentioned is the property of the Petitioner and John & James Dunkin of this Town, as appears by the Certificate of Registry granted at this port, the Master who commanded the Liberty at the time of the Capture was John Tremethack [Tremethick], whereas it should have been John Love whose name was the last endorsed on the Certificate of Registry. Inclosed We beg leave to transmit your Honble Board Capt.n John’s answer to the annexed Petition. The Whole of which is humbly Submitted, JS Coll.r, JN DCom.r
27 April 1793

As with so many similar cases at Penzance, the final outcome is obscure, and no satisfactory answer has yet been found in the extensive Court of Exchequer files. There is no indication of registry being cancelled, and the last endorsement on the certificate of registry was the appointment of John Love as master in the room of Robert Charlton, at Penzance on May 30th 1789.

The shipment of cargoes of spirits at Guernsey, or Roscoff, for North Bergen seems to have been a common subterfuge, providing apparently legitimate bills of lading for such cargoes – as long as the vessels carrying them were not caught within the prescribed distance of the shore.

By a return to the Board of Customs, of vessels entering the Port of Penzance with provisions from Ireland, we learn that in addition to any other activities, clandestine or otherwise, during the winter of 1796-97 the Liberty, under the command of John Tremethick, was also employed in legitimate trade. Making three voyages from Cork to Penzance, where she made entry of November 7th, 1769; December 12th, 1796; and March 23rd, 1797, respectively.

The ultimate fate of the Liberty remains unknown. Her register was never cancelled.

Tony Pawlyn (C) September 2nd, 2019.