The Vulnerability of the Cornish Peninsular

Why, apart from unlawful and nefarious purposes, would the few inhabitants of a small Cornish cove mount a battery of cannon to command its seaward approaches?

The unlawful and nefarious purposes of a notorious band of smugglers would now seem the obvious answer, but in this era there were also legitimate reasons why an individual might want to protect his property with a battery of cannon.

The inhabitants of the Cornish peninsular were then almost totally dependant on coastal trade for supplying their material needs. Most inland roads were still track ways, and inland trade was restricted to what could be conveyed by pack-horses and mule-trains. Exposed, and out on a limb, the trade of the Cornish was particularly vulnerable to the depredations of privateers and enemy raiders, and their coastal shipping was frequently at the mercy of petty pirates. The fears of the more vulnerable and populous coastal communities were only partially mollified by the placement of officially sanctioned and subsidised coastal batteries. These static emplacements had a very limited range of fire and were usually mounted in defence of harbours and anchorages. From time to time, when other circumstances permitted, Naval warships were sent down to give a more effective protection on the coastline and to shipping and trade; the commission of HM Sloop Fairy being an example. Mere existence for the inhabitants of the remoter parts of the far-flung West Country was precarious at best, and had in the past been described as ‘Life on the Edge. ‘.

On top of the constant threat from the French, there was the historical tradition of the white slave trade, with a lingering perceived threat from the Corsairs of the Barbary Coast. Still fresh in the collective folk memory was the story of Thomas Pellow of Flushing. He had been taken off the Francis, returning from Genoa after delivering a cargo of Cornish salted pilchards in 1715, was carried into Morocco and enslaved by the Moslems. He survived this ordeal and returned to Cornwall after 23 years in captivity to tell his story. A story that was still being told and re-told in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

The Myth of the Pirates of Penzance also had a real and related origin. Barely 20 years previously, during September 1760, a Moorish ship (an Algerine Xebec) had been wrecked in Gwavas Lake. A large number of surviving Arab seamen (or Barbary Turks) had landed safely on the Western Green of Penzance, and while they caused no trouble at all on that occasion, their mere presence caused great anxiety and public consternation. It appears that the inhabitants were then more apprehensive of being struck down by the plague than any feared act of piracy. On this occasion these pirates were quickly provided with transport and returned to their homes in the Mediterranean.

Smugglers were a different matter. In the main they were local seamen, and while there was certainly a degree of intimidation related to their clandestine activities, the only Englishmen who feared them were the Revenue men and some of the civil authorities.

The following letter from the Penzance Custom House officers vividly describes their angst. Customs

Honble Sirs
We beg leave to Inform your hon.ble Board to what a great and Daring heighth Smugling is Carried at, on this Coast Yesterday afternoon was drove in this Bay and taken off the Prince Ernest Shallop Capt.n Jane Employed in the service of your at the Port of St. Ives By a large Smugling Cutter of 200 Tons Burthen having 14 Carriage Guns Mounted besides Swivels with 50 or 60 Men. On the above Cutter Coming up with the Shallop (which she Did at the Distance of about 100 yards or from the Quay head in this Town), A man from on board said Cutter Hail’d Captn Jane and ordered him to hawl up his Boat and Come on board of him or he would immediately sink him, which was comply’d with. On Capt.n Jane going on board he was there Detained and the Shallop Commanded to Follow which it did. The Smugler then Satt Sail out of the Bay and Carried her off in Triumph. To all of which Transactions the Collr  Together with [a] No of other Gentlemen were both eye and ear Witnefses but co.d give ’em no Afsistance having no force to attack such a Powerful Vefsel. We have been informed this morning that Capt.Jane had some Goods on board which he had Seized which the smuglers took from him but cannot say with any Certainty what is become of the Shallop.
We are …

J. S. J. H. Custom Ho., Penzance,  29th Nov.r 1777.1

National Archives CUST 69/10

Of course by no means all of the smugglers working on the Cornish coast were themselves Cornish. Large numbers of the Irish were active during this time and the fine lines between smuggling, privateering and piracy, were frequently crossed. The revenue cruiser that was taken in the first instance above was a shallop – an Irish Sea wherry, of a type commonly used by the smugglers. She had shortly before taken up some contraband goods, but all the goods on board of her were rescued and carried off, and the shallop was later turned adrift. This incident with the Prince Ernest highlights one of the more constant complaints of the Collector of Customs at Penzance, that he did not have a Revenue vessel under his direct control to cruise against the smugglers. The following letter to the Customs Commissioners, is typical of many, and underlines the desperate cry for help from an apparently abandoned outpost of the revenue service – the Customs Officers at Penzance.

Dear Sirs …
We are fully of the Opinion that a Shallop of about 40 or 50 tons manned with 10 to 12 able-bodied Men stationed at this port will be of the greatest Utility, as smugling is carried on here to a great degree in a most audacious manner, and as we are situated in an Open Bay, open boats cannot endure the sea there, nor are they of force sufficient to board Smuglers.
We are Y.’ Most Obed.t and Hmble Serv.

The Board’s answer to this request was in the negative, pointing out that it would divert the Officers from their duties on shore.

Why Penzance should have been singled out in such a way is uncertain. The Collectors of Customs at St. Ives, Mr. John Knill and his immediate successor William Stephens, were under no such constraints. They regularly had revenue cruisers at their disposal, and occasionally two were on station at the same time – Prince Ernest, c.1772-1777: Greyhound, c.1778-1781; Brilliant, 1778-1782; & Dolphin, 1782-1803+. Of course, the first three named of these were contract hire craft, supplied by Mr. John Knill himself.

What precisely happened to Captain Jane on this occasion is not revealed in the correspondence, but he cannot have been greatly abused as he retained command of her when she was re-named Brilliant, serving at times as a privateer and revenue cruiser.

Whatever his zeal for catching smugglers, the chief reason why the Collector of Customs at Penzance was so put-out at not being allowed to have a revenue cruiser attached to his port, must have been the loss of potential seizure awards. In this era, Brilliant and Dolphin made a great number of seizures in Mount’s Bay, and most of these were carried into St. Ives, where Collector Knill enjoyed a significant share financially.

  1. JS and JH are the initials of John Scobel, Collector, and James Hodge, Comptroller, of HM Customs at Penzance