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Episode
246

Cornish Smugglers

Mar 18, 2022
History
-
22
minutes

In the 18th century, a small region of southwest England was the national centre for the illegal importing of goods such as tea and rum.

In this episode, we'll discover how smuggling really worked, who was involved, and why it was so successful for such a long period of time.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories and learn weird and wonderful things about the world, at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I’m Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Cornish Smugglers

[00:00:28] Today’s story is one of my favourites, and involves crime, taxes, regional rivalries in the UK, pirates, the King of Prussia, and even murder.

[00:00:42] OK, then Cornish Smugglers.

[00:00:47] These two words, Cornish, and Smuggler, might be unfamiliar to you, so if you are wondering what this episode is going to be about, let me quickly enlighten you.

[00:01:02] Cornish means from the English county of Cornwall, the area to the very south west of the country, directly across from Brittany, in northwestern France.

[00:01:14] And a smuggler, if you didn’t know the word, is someone who brings in something to a country without declaring it to the authorities, typically because it is illegal, in the case of something like drugs, or because they simply don’t want to pay taxes on it.

[00:01:35] So, today we are going to be talking about the fascinating history of smuggling in Cornwall. First off we’ll talk about the reasons why this area of the country was such a hotbed for it, then how it actually worked, when it all happened, and we’ll have the chance to meet some of the colourful characters behind it all.

[00:02:03] Let’s start with a quick reminder about the place we’re talking about, Cornwall.

[00:02:09] Cornwall today is a large, rural, county famous for its beautiful beaches and even its surfing. 

[00:02:18] It's known for its idyllic villages, beautiful countryside, and delicious seafood, and it’s consistently one of the top tourist destinations in the country, especially for people planning a “staycation” - a slightly silly word for having a vacation while staying in the country.

[00:02:43] And if you were to go to Cornwall from London, from the capital, you would realise that it’s a very long way away, by UK standards at least. 

[00:02:55] It’s about 500km away, and would take you about 6 hours to drive there. It’s almost as far away from London as Scotland is.

[00:03:08] And this distance from the country’s capital has always meant that Cornwall has retained a lot of its sense of independence. 

[00:03:19] It has its own language, Cornish, which is similar to Breton, the Celtic language of Brittany, in northern France. 

[00:03:29] It has its own flag, and the Cornish people have a real sense of their own, Cornish, identity.

[00:03:39] And, understandably, people in a region with a strong sense of its own identity are not always so keen on taking orders from the central government. 

[00:03:52] This is, of course, not a uniquely British phenomenon. 

[00:03:57] There’s a saying in Mandarin Chinese which is “Tiān gāo, huángdì yuǎn”, which you would translate as “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away”, and there’s another in Russian that translates as something like "God is on high and the tsar is very far away". 

[00:04:20] Both of these phrases have similar meanings - the further a place is away from the central seat of government and power, the less likely that place is to abide by the law.

[00:04:36] Although we have no such saying in English, Cornwall would be a place where such a saying would be appropriate.

[00:04:45] And if you were to travel back in time, to the 18th century, such a saying would have practically been the official motto of Cornwall, due to the levels of smuggling going on in the region.

[00:05:00] Why, you might ask? Well, for smuggling to be attractive, there needs to be a big advantage to importing something to a country illegally instead of declaring it to the authorities.

[00:05:15] It just so happened that in Britain of the 18th century, there was a large advantage.

[00:05:24] Britain had spent much of the 18th century in military conflicts with its old foe, its old enemy, France. Wars are expensive, and to pay for them, governments need to generate money.

[00:05:40] How do governments raise money? Taxes, of course.

[00:05:44] And at this time the main source of tax revenue was on goods being brought into the country - an income tax, a tax on money you make, wasn’t introduced until 1789.

[00:06:00] Given the national reliance on import taxes, these taxes were pretty high.

[00:06:07] The tax on imported tea was as high as 110%, meaning that tea that cost, let’s say €1, would have another €1.10 added in tax, more than doubling the cost.

[00:06:26] Imported alcohol was even more highly taxed.

[00:06:31] There were 18 different taxes on brandy and gin, which would mean a €10 bottle would have €25 of tax added to it, taking the final cost to €35. 

[00:06:47] So, it will not surprise you to find out that people did everything they could to avoid paying these taxes, by smuggling goods into the country without declaring them to the authorities. 

[00:07:01] And Cornwall was the epicentre, the absolute center, of this activity. 

[00:07:08] We already know that Cornwall is far from London. It’s almost 6 hours driving on modern roads, and in the 18th century there were very limited roads, meaning it would have taken weeks to get there on a horse. 

[00:07:25] Cornwall also has a lot of coastline, and a lot of small, hidden bays, which can come in useful for bringing goods onto land without anyone noticing.

[00:07:38] The Cornish people also felt no real loyalty to the King, a man who was asking them to pay for wars against France, a country that many Cornish people would have felt more in common with than they did with Londoners.

[00:07:57] The result was a boom in smuggling, and at its peak the central British government, when asked to estimate the extent of smuggling in Cornwall, estimated that no less than the entire adult population was involved in smuggling, either as an importer of smuggled goods or as a consumer.

[00:08:22] So, how did it actually work in practice?

[00:08:26] There were gangs of smugglers, who would either work in collaboration with the traders, or who would steal from them.

[00:08:34] For those working in collaboration with the traders, in the dead of night the smugglers would go out silently on their boats, they would go up to the side of a ship full of rum or brandy, and the ship would offload a large part of its cargo to the smugglers.

[00:08:55] They would then return to the shore, and the goods would enter the local market, undeclared of course, meaning that they could be sold for significantly less than what the cost would have been if tax had been paid on them. 

[00:09:11] Alternatively, the smugglers would simply sail to mainland Europe, normally northern France, buy goods there, and return to Cornwall, and then import them without declaring it to the authorities. 

[00:09:26] By all reports, this type of smuggling was so tolerated by the Cornish people that it wasn’t really considered to be illegal or immoral at all. 

[00:09:39] The tax was unjust, it was wrong, and the smugglers were simply providing a service. The smugglers played an important part in the local economy, and they were able to pay large amounts of money to anyone who was involved.

[00:09:56] Indeed, it’s said that a normal farm labourer was able to earn more money in one night carrying a smuggled barrel of brandy up a cliff than he could earn during an entire month labouring in the fields. 

[00:10:12] So, it’s no surprise that so many people were happy to be involved. 

[00:10:18] There was a slightly darker side to smuggling, though, and this is where the line between an honest smuggler and a not-so-honest pirate becomes a little blurred.

[00:10:32] Smugglers would normally pay for the goods that they would import illegally. 

[00:10:37] They would make their money by selling on these goods for more than they paid for them.

[00:10:43] But what if they didn’t need to pay for them at all?

[00:10:48] There are reports of smugglers actually going out and attacking trade ships, killing the people on board and taking their goods. Of course, it goes without saying that these stolen goods were also not declared to the authorities.

[00:11:05] And there are other tales of things that the local population would do to get their hands on the goods that were being carried on these ships.

[00:11:16] Sometimes a ship would crash into the dangerous rocks in shallow water, its crew would drown, they would die, and the ship would be washed ashore.

[00:11:28] When this happened word would get out, people would find out, and would rush to the site of the shipwreck to see what they could take for themselves. 

[00:11:40] There are also reports of groups of Cornish people attaching a lantern, a light, to a horse and walking along a piece of coastline that was dangerous for boats, in order to trick the boat into thinking that the light was a lighthouse, so that the boat would come close, crash on the rocks, and the smugglers could take this precious cargo.

[00:12:08] And taking these goods was actually legal in some circumstances.

[00:12:15] There was a quirk, a slightly strange element, to the English law about what you could and couldn’t do if you found a shipwreck on a beach.

[00:12:27] It was illegal, it was not allowed, to take the goods of a shipwreck if there were any survivors, because those survivors still legally owned the goods, or at least were in charge of them.

[00:12:42] But if there were no survivors, then it was actually allowed by law for anyone who found the shipwreck to take the goods they found.

[00:12:54] So, surprise surprise, when a ship full of French brandy or Chinese tea was washed ashore, it was very rare for the people who found the ship to declare that they had found any survivors. 

[00:13:10] Or let me put it another way, you wouldn’t want to be the only survivor on a ship that was full of expensive brandy.

[00:13:19] And there was very little that the government authorities could do to stop smuggling.

[00:13:26] The punishment for smuggling was death, it was a capital offence. But this was only a deterrent if you were likely to get caught. 

[00:13:38] There were customs officers sent down from London, men whose role it was to ensure that imported goods were correctly taxed, but they were very unpopular, they were paid very little, and there weren’t very many of them.

[00:13:56] They were completely outnumbered by the smugglers, and many would turn a blind eye, they would pretend not to notice, often in exchange for a bribe, in exchange for money.

[00:14:11] The smugglers, too, were popular with the local population. They paid well, they were providing cheaper goods, and they cultivated a reputation as honest, fair men.

[00:14:25] One particular smuggler who has gone down in Cornish history is a man named John Carter, who had the nickname of The King of Prussia. He liked to be called the King of Prussia when he was a boy, and as he grew into a man, well, the name stuck.

[00:14:48] Today, there is a “Prussia Cove” in Cornwall, which is the small, secret bay where he would unload his smuggled goods.

[00:14:57] He was known as a highly moral man, fighting against an immoral tax.

[00:15:05] There’s a famous story of what happened when some of his smuggled goods were found by a customs official, and were taken into custody, essentially taken away from him. In the dead of night he broke into Customs House, the building in which all the captured goods had been stored.

[00:15:27] He and his men looked through all of the goods, but they only took what had been taken from him, leaving the rest of the goods.

[00:15:39] One of the customs officers was reported as saying “John Carter has been here. We know it because he has taken nothing away that was not his own.”

[00:15:52] John Carter, this King of Prussia, was no thief - he was simply taking back what was rightfully his.

[00:16:01] There is even a pub in the town of Fowey in Cornwall called “The King of Prussia”. 

[00:16:07] Visitors who don’t know the story of Cornwall’s smuggling past might think “how strange - why are they celebrating the King of Prussia here?” but it is, in fact, the celebration of the unofficial King of Prussia, the smuggler John Carter.

[00:16:26] Now, back to our story, smuggling continued pretty uninterrupted for the majority of the 18th century. 

[00:16:35] Import taxes remained high, which created the incentive to smuggle. There were far too few customs officers, far too few government officials in the area to stop it, which meant there was very little disincentive, there was no great reason to not do it.

[00:16:56] And for almost a hundred years, the going was good. Many smugglers became very wealthy, and the industry, if indeed we can call it an industry, was vital to the Cornish people. 

[00:17:10] There’s one quote I particularly liked about this that illustrates the extent of the riches that came from smuggling. The quote is, and I'm quoting directly:

[00:17:23] “When smuggling was in full swing, money became so plentiful that neighbours lent guineas to each other by the handful, not stopping to count, or being so particular as to reckon by ones and twos'.”

[00:17:40] To explain that, a guinea was quite a valuable coin - it’s like saying today that neighbours would lend each other piles of 50 Euro notes without bothering to count how many notes there were in the pile.

[00:17:57] But smuggling was costing the British taxpayer dearly

[00:18:01] It’s estimated that up to 25% of the entire British import trade during the 18th century consisted of smuggled goods, goods on which tax had not been paid.

[00:18:15] And for certain goods, the percentage was much higher. 

[00:18:21] Up to 500,000 gallons of brandy, which is 2.3 million litres, were smuggled into Britain every year. 

[00:18:31] And some estimates have as much as 80% of tea drunk in Britain being smuggled into the country.

[00:18:40] But the good times weren’t to last forever. In the late 18th century import taxes were lowered, and the number of customs officers employed to stop the smugglers increased.

[00:18:55] It was a double punch, a double whammy, a pincer movement.

[00:19:00] Now there was less of an incentive, less of a reason, to smuggle, because the taxes weren’t nearly as high as before. And you were much more likely to get caught.

[00:19:13] The glory days of the Cornish smuggler were over, and by the mid 19th century the amount of smuggling had drastically reduced. 

[00:19:23] Smuggling does live on in Cornish legends, though. 

[00:19:27] You can find it in pub names, like the King of Prussia or even the Bucket of Blood, a pub named after a landlord who went into his well one morning and pulled out the head of a customs officer who had presumably been getting too close to the smugglers.

[00:19:48] And if you go to Cornwall today, and I would certainly recommend a visit, you can visit the coastline, you can see the rocks where the ships might have got stuck, you can see the sandy beaches where the smugglers would have unloaded their cargo, and visit the caves where it would have been stored.

[00:20:10] It might have been illegal, it might have been punishable by death, and it might have technically been stealing money from the British taxpayer, but it’s hard to deny that there is something quite magical about the legend of the Cornish Smuggler.

[00:20:29] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Cornish Smugglers.

[00:20:34] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that you now know a little bit about this curious element of British history.

[00:20:44] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:48] Have you been to Cornwall? What do you think about Cornish Smugglers

[00:20:53] Were they real criminals, or simply people doing whatever they could to get by?

[00:20:59] And are there interesting stories of smugglers from your country?

[00:21:04] I would love to know.

[00:21:06] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:14] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:20] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories and learn weird and wonderful things about the world, at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I’m Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Cornish Smugglers

[00:00:28] Today’s story is one of my favourites, and involves crime, taxes, regional rivalries in the UK, pirates, the King of Prussia, and even murder.

[00:00:42] OK, then Cornish Smugglers.

[00:00:47] These two words, Cornish, and Smuggler, might be unfamiliar to you, so if you are wondering what this episode is going to be about, let me quickly enlighten you.

[00:01:02] Cornish means from the English county of Cornwall, the area to the very south west of the country, directly across from Brittany, in northwestern France.

[00:01:14] And a smuggler, if you didn’t know the word, is someone who brings in something to a country without declaring it to the authorities, typically because it is illegal, in the case of something like drugs, or because they simply don’t want to pay taxes on it.

[00:01:35] So, today we are going to be talking about the fascinating history of smuggling in Cornwall. First off we’ll talk about the reasons why this area of the country was such a hotbed for it, then how it actually worked, when it all happened, and we’ll have the chance to meet some of the colourful characters behind it all.

[00:02:03] Let’s start with a quick reminder about the place we’re talking about, Cornwall.

[00:02:09] Cornwall today is a large, rural, county famous for its beautiful beaches and even its surfing. 

[00:02:18] It's known for its idyllic villages, beautiful countryside, and delicious seafood, and it’s consistently one of the top tourist destinations in the country, especially for people planning a “staycation” - a slightly silly word for having a vacation while staying in the country.

[00:02:43] And if you were to go to Cornwall from London, from the capital, you would realise that it’s a very long way away, by UK standards at least. 

[00:02:55] It’s about 500km away, and would take you about 6 hours to drive there. It’s almost as far away from London as Scotland is.

[00:03:08] And this distance from the country’s capital has always meant that Cornwall has retained a lot of its sense of independence. 

[00:03:19] It has its own language, Cornish, which is similar to Breton, the Celtic language of Brittany, in northern France. 

[00:03:29] It has its own flag, and the Cornish people have a real sense of their own, Cornish, identity.

[00:03:39] And, understandably, people in a region with a strong sense of its own identity are not always so keen on taking orders from the central government. 

[00:03:52] This is, of course, not a uniquely British phenomenon. 

[00:03:57] There’s a saying in Mandarin Chinese which is “Tiān gāo, huángdì yuǎn”, which you would translate as “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away”, and there’s another in Russian that translates as something like "God is on high and the tsar is very far away". 

[00:04:20] Both of these phrases have similar meanings - the further a place is away from the central seat of government and power, the less likely that place is to abide by the law.

[00:04:36] Although we have no such saying in English, Cornwall would be a place where such a saying would be appropriate.

[00:04:45] And if you were to travel back in time, to the 18th century, such a saying would have practically been the official motto of Cornwall, due to the levels of smuggling going on in the region.

[00:05:00] Why, you might ask? Well, for smuggling to be attractive, there needs to be a big advantage to importing something to a country illegally instead of declaring it to the authorities.

[00:05:15] It just so happened that in Britain of the 18th century, there was a large advantage.

[00:05:24] Britain had spent much of the 18th century in military conflicts with its old foe, its old enemy, France. Wars are expensive, and to pay for them, governments need to generate money.

[00:05:40] How do governments raise money? Taxes, of course.

[00:05:44] And at this time the main source of tax revenue was on goods being brought into the country - an income tax, a tax on money you make, wasn’t introduced until 1789.

[00:06:00] Given the national reliance on import taxes, these taxes were pretty high.

[00:06:07] The tax on imported tea was as high as 110%, meaning that tea that cost, let’s say €1, would have another €1.10 added in tax, more than doubling the cost.

[00:06:26] Imported alcohol was even more highly taxed.

[00:06:31] There were 18 different taxes on brandy and gin, which would mean a €10 bottle would have €25 of tax added to it, taking the final cost to €35. 

[00:06:47] So, it will not surprise you to find out that people did everything they could to avoid paying these taxes, by smuggling goods into the country without declaring them to the authorities. 

[00:07:01] And Cornwall was the epicentre, the absolute center, of this activity. 

[00:07:08] We already know that Cornwall is far from London. It’s almost 6 hours driving on modern roads, and in the 18th century there were very limited roads, meaning it would have taken weeks to get there on a horse. 

[00:07:25] Cornwall also has a lot of coastline, and a lot of small, hidden bays, which can come in useful for bringing goods onto land without anyone noticing.

[00:07:38] The Cornish people also felt no real loyalty to the King, a man who was asking them to pay for wars against France, a country that many Cornish people would have felt more in common with than they did with Londoners.

[00:07:57] The result was a boom in smuggling, and at its peak the central British government, when asked to estimate the extent of smuggling in Cornwall, estimated that no less than the entire adult population was involved in smuggling, either as an importer of smuggled goods or as a consumer.

[00:08:22] So, how did it actually work in practice?

[00:08:26] There were gangs of smugglers, who would either work in collaboration with the traders, or who would steal from them.

[00:08:34] For those working in collaboration with the traders, in the dead of night the smugglers would go out silently on their boats, they would go up to the side of a ship full of rum or brandy, and the ship would offload a large part of its cargo to the smugglers.

[00:08:55] They would then return to the shore, and the goods would enter the local market, undeclared of course, meaning that they could be sold for significantly less than what the cost would have been if tax had been paid on them. 

[00:09:11] Alternatively, the smugglers would simply sail to mainland Europe, normally northern France, buy goods there, and return to Cornwall, and then import them without declaring it to the authorities. 

[00:09:26] By all reports, this type of smuggling was so tolerated by the Cornish people that it wasn’t really considered to be illegal or immoral at all. 

[00:09:39] The tax was unjust, it was wrong, and the smugglers were simply providing a service. The smugglers played an important part in the local economy, and they were able to pay large amounts of money to anyone who was involved.

[00:09:56] Indeed, it’s said that a normal farm labourer was able to earn more money in one night carrying a smuggled barrel of brandy up a cliff than he could earn during an entire month labouring in the fields. 

[00:10:12] So, it’s no surprise that so many people were happy to be involved. 

[00:10:18] There was a slightly darker side to smuggling, though, and this is where the line between an honest smuggler and a not-so-honest pirate becomes a little blurred.

[00:10:32] Smugglers would normally pay for the goods that they would import illegally. 

[00:10:37] They would make their money by selling on these goods for more than they paid for them.

[00:10:43] But what if they didn’t need to pay for them at all?

[00:10:48] There are reports of smugglers actually going out and attacking trade ships, killing the people on board and taking their goods. Of course, it goes without saying that these stolen goods were also not declared to the authorities.

[00:11:05] And there are other tales of things that the local population would do to get their hands on the goods that were being carried on these ships.

[00:11:16] Sometimes a ship would crash into the dangerous rocks in shallow water, its crew would drown, they would die, and the ship would be washed ashore.

[00:11:28] When this happened word would get out, people would find out, and would rush to the site of the shipwreck to see what they could take for themselves. 

[00:11:40] There are also reports of groups of Cornish people attaching a lantern, a light, to a horse and walking along a piece of coastline that was dangerous for boats, in order to trick the boat into thinking that the light was a lighthouse, so that the boat would come close, crash on the rocks, and the smugglers could take this precious cargo.

[00:12:08] And taking these goods was actually legal in some circumstances.

[00:12:15] There was a quirk, a slightly strange element, to the English law about what you could and couldn’t do if you found a shipwreck on a beach.

[00:12:27] It was illegal, it was not allowed, to take the goods of a shipwreck if there were any survivors, because those survivors still legally owned the goods, or at least were in charge of them.

[00:12:42] But if there were no survivors, then it was actually allowed by law for anyone who found the shipwreck to take the goods they found.

[00:12:54] So, surprise surprise, when a ship full of French brandy or Chinese tea was washed ashore, it was very rare for the people who found the ship to declare that they had found any survivors. 

[00:13:10] Or let me put it another way, you wouldn’t want to be the only survivor on a ship that was full of expensive brandy.

[00:13:19] And there was very little that the government authorities could do to stop smuggling.

[00:13:26] The punishment for smuggling was death, it was a capital offence. But this was only a deterrent if you were likely to get caught. 

[00:13:38] There were customs officers sent down from London, men whose role it was to ensure that imported goods were correctly taxed, but they were very unpopular, they were paid very little, and there weren’t very many of them.

[00:13:56] They were completely outnumbered by the smugglers, and many would turn a blind eye, they would pretend not to notice, often in exchange for a bribe, in exchange for money.

[00:14:11] The smugglers, too, were popular with the local population. They paid well, they were providing cheaper goods, and they cultivated a reputation as honest, fair men.

[00:14:25] One particular smuggler who has gone down in Cornish history is a man named John Carter, who had the nickname of The King of Prussia. He liked to be called the King of Prussia when he was a boy, and as he grew into a man, well, the name stuck.

[00:14:48] Today, there is a “Prussia Cove” in Cornwall, which is the small, secret bay where he would unload his smuggled goods.

[00:14:57] He was known as a highly moral man, fighting against an immoral tax.

[00:15:05] There’s a famous story of what happened when some of his smuggled goods were found by a customs official, and were taken into custody, essentially taken away from him. In the dead of night he broke into Customs House, the building in which all the captured goods had been stored.

[00:15:27] He and his men looked through all of the goods, but they only took what had been taken from him, leaving the rest of the goods.

[00:15:39] One of the customs officers was reported as saying “John Carter has been here. We know it because he has taken nothing away that was not his own.”

[00:15:52] John Carter, this King of Prussia, was no thief - he was simply taking back what was rightfully his.

[00:16:01] There is even a pub in the town of Fowey in Cornwall called “The King of Prussia”. 

[00:16:07] Visitors who don’t know the story of Cornwall’s smuggling past might think “how strange - why are they celebrating the King of Prussia here?” but it is, in fact, the celebration of the unofficial King of Prussia, the smuggler John Carter.

[00:16:26] Now, back to our story, smuggling continued pretty uninterrupted for the majority of the 18th century. 

[00:16:35] Import taxes remained high, which created the incentive to smuggle. There were far too few customs officers, far too few government officials in the area to stop it, which meant there was very little disincentive, there was no great reason to not do it.

[00:16:56] And for almost a hundred years, the going was good. Many smugglers became very wealthy, and the industry, if indeed we can call it an industry, was vital to the Cornish people. 

[00:17:10] There’s one quote I particularly liked about this that illustrates the extent of the riches that came from smuggling. The quote is, and I'm quoting directly:

[00:17:23] “When smuggling was in full swing, money became so plentiful that neighbours lent guineas to each other by the handful, not stopping to count, or being so particular as to reckon by ones and twos'.”

[00:17:40] To explain that, a guinea was quite a valuable coin - it’s like saying today that neighbours would lend each other piles of 50 Euro notes without bothering to count how many notes there were in the pile.

[00:17:57] But smuggling was costing the British taxpayer dearly

[00:18:01] It’s estimated that up to 25% of the entire British import trade during the 18th century consisted of smuggled goods, goods on which tax had not been paid.

[00:18:15] And for certain goods, the percentage was much higher. 

[00:18:21] Up to 500,000 gallons of brandy, which is 2.3 million litres, were smuggled into Britain every year. 

[00:18:31] And some estimates have as much as 80% of tea drunk in Britain being smuggled into the country.

[00:18:40] But the good times weren’t to last forever. In the late 18th century import taxes were lowered, and the number of customs officers employed to stop the smugglers increased.

[00:18:55] It was a double punch, a double whammy, a pincer movement.

[00:19:00] Now there was less of an incentive, less of a reason, to smuggle, because the taxes weren’t nearly as high as before. And you were much more likely to get caught.

[00:19:13] The glory days of the Cornish smuggler were over, and by the mid 19th century the amount of smuggling had drastically reduced. 

[00:19:23] Smuggling does live on in Cornish legends, though. 

[00:19:27] You can find it in pub names, like the King of Prussia or even the Bucket of Blood, a pub named after a landlord who went into his well one morning and pulled out the head of a customs officer who had presumably been getting too close to the smugglers.

[00:19:48] And if you go to Cornwall today, and I would certainly recommend a visit, you can visit the coastline, you can see the rocks where the ships might have got stuck, you can see the sandy beaches where the smugglers would have unloaded their cargo, and visit the caves where it would have been stored.

[00:20:10] It might have been illegal, it might have been punishable by death, and it might have technically been stealing money from the British taxpayer, but it’s hard to deny that there is something quite magical about the legend of the Cornish Smuggler.

[00:20:29] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Cornish Smugglers.

[00:20:34] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that you now know a little bit about this curious element of British history.

[00:20:44] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:48] Have you been to Cornwall? What do you think about Cornish Smugglers

[00:20:53] Were they real criminals, or simply people doing whatever they could to get by?

[00:20:59] And are there interesting stories of smugglers from your country?

[00:21:04] I would love to know.

[00:21:06] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:14] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:20] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories and learn weird and wonderful things about the world, at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I’m Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Cornish Smugglers

[00:00:28] Today’s story is one of my favourites, and involves crime, taxes, regional rivalries in the UK, pirates, the King of Prussia, and even murder.

[00:00:42] OK, then Cornish Smugglers.

[00:00:47] These two words, Cornish, and Smuggler, might be unfamiliar to you, so if you are wondering what this episode is going to be about, let me quickly enlighten you.

[00:01:02] Cornish means from the English county of Cornwall, the area to the very south west of the country, directly across from Brittany, in northwestern France.

[00:01:14] And a smuggler, if you didn’t know the word, is someone who brings in something to a country without declaring it to the authorities, typically because it is illegal, in the case of something like drugs, or because they simply don’t want to pay taxes on it.

[00:01:35] So, today we are going to be talking about the fascinating history of smuggling in Cornwall. First off we’ll talk about the reasons why this area of the country was such a hotbed for it, then how it actually worked, when it all happened, and we’ll have the chance to meet some of the colourful characters behind it all.

[00:02:03] Let’s start with a quick reminder about the place we’re talking about, Cornwall.

[00:02:09] Cornwall today is a large, rural, county famous for its beautiful beaches and even its surfing. 

[00:02:18] It's known for its idyllic villages, beautiful countryside, and delicious seafood, and it’s consistently one of the top tourist destinations in the country, especially for people planning a “staycation” - a slightly silly word for having a vacation while staying in the country.

[00:02:43] And if you were to go to Cornwall from London, from the capital, you would realise that it’s a very long way away, by UK standards at least. 

[00:02:55] It’s about 500km away, and would take you about 6 hours to drive there. It’s almost as far away from London as Scotland is.

[00:03:08] And this distance from the country’s capital has always meant that Cornwall has retained a lot of its sense of independence. 

[00:03:19] It has its own language, Cornish, which is similar to Breton, the Celtic language of Brittany, in northern France. 

[00:03:29] It has its own flag, and the Cornish people have a real sense of their own, Cornish, identity.

[00:03:39] And, understandably, people in a region with a strong sense of its own identity are not always so keen on taking orders from the central government. 

[00:03:52] This is, of course, not a uniquely British phenomenon. 

[00:03:57] There’s a saying in Mandarin Chinese which is “Tiān gāo, huángdì yuǎn”, which you would translate as “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away”, and there’s another in Russian that translates as something like "God is on high and the tsar is very far away". 

[00:04:20] Both of these phrases have similar meanings - the further a place is away from the central seat of government and power, the less likely that place is to abide by the law.

[00:04:36] Although we have no such saying in English, Cornwall would be a place where such a saying would be appropriate.

[00:04:45] And if you were to travel back in time, to the 18th century, such a saying would have practically been the official motto of Cornwall, due to the levels of smuggling going on in the region.

[00:05:00] Why, you might ask? Well, for smuggling to be attractive, there needs to be a big advantage to importing something to a country illegally instead of declaring it to the authorities.

[00:05:15] It just so happened that in Britain of the 18th century, there was a large advantage.

[00:05:24] Britain had spent much of the 18th century in military conflicts with its old foe, its old enemy, France. Wars are expensive, and to pay for them, governments need to generate money.

[00:05:40] How do governments raise money? Taxes, of course.

[00:05:44] And at this time the main source of tax revenue was on goods being brought into the country - an income tax, a tax on money you make, wasn’t introduced until 1789.

[00:06:00] Given the national reliance on import taxes, these taxes were pretty high.

[00:06:07] The tax on imported tea was as high as 110%, meaning that tea that cost, let’s say €1, would have another €1.10 added in tax, more than doubling the cost.

[00:06:26] Imported alcohol was even more highly taxed.

[00:06:31] There were 18 different taxes on brandy and gin, which would mean a €10 bottle would have €25 of tax added to it, taking the final cost to €35. 

[00:06:47] So, it will not surprise you to find out that people did everything they could to avoid paying these taxes, by smuggling goods into the country without declaring them to the authorities. 

[00:07:01] And Cornwall was the epicentre, the absolute center, of this activity. 

[00:07:08] We already know that Cornwall is far from London. It’s almost 6 hours driving on modern roads, and in the 18th century there were very limited roads, meaning it would have taken weeks to get there on a horse. 

[00:07:25] Cornwall also has a lot of coastline, and a lot of small, hidden bays, which can come in useful for bringing goods onto land without anyone noticing.

[00:07:38] The Cornish people also felt no real loyalty to the King, a man who was asking them to pay for wars against France, a country that many Cornish people would have felt more in common with than they did with Londoners.

[00:07:57] The result was a boom in smuggling, and at its peak the central British government, when asked to estimate the extent of smuggling in Cornwall, estimated that no less than the entire adult population was involved in smuggling, either as an importer of smuggled goods or as a consumer.

[00:08:22] So, how did it actually work in practice?

[00:08:26] There were gangs of smugglers, who would either work in collaboration with the traders, or who would steal from them.

[00:08:34] For those working in collaboration with the traders, in the dead of night the smugglers would go out silently on their boats, they would go up to the side of a ship full of rum or brandy, and the ship would offload a large part of its cargo to the smugglers.

[00:08:55] They would then return to the shore, and the goods would enter the local market, undeclared of course, meaning that they could be sold for significantly less than what the cost would have been if tax had been paid on them. 

[00:09:11] Alternatively, the smugglers would simply sail to mainland Europe, normally northern France, buy goods there, and return to Cornwall, and then import them without declaring it to the authorities. 

[00:09:26] By all reports, this type of smuggling was so tolerated by the Cornish people that it wasn’t really considered to be illegal or immoral at all. 

[00:09:39] The tax was unjust, it was wrong, and the smugglers were simply providing a service. The smugglers played an important part in the local economy, and they were able to pay large amounts of money to anyone who was involved.

[00:09:56] Indeed, it’s said that a normal farm labourer was able to earn more money in one night carrying a smuggled barrel of brandy up a cliff than he could earn during an entire month labouring in the fields. 

[00:10:12] So, it’s no surprise that so many people were happy to be involved. 

[00:10:18] There was a slightly darker side to smuggling, though, and this is where the line between an honest smuggler and a not-so-honest pirate becomes a little blurred.

[00:10:32] Smugglers would normally pay for the goods that they would import illegally. 

[00:10:37] They would make their money by selling on these goods for more than they paid for them.

[00:10:43] But what if they didn’t need to pay for them at all?

[00:10:48] There are reports of smugglers actually going out and attacking trade ships, killing the people on board and taking their goods. Of course, it goes without saying that these stolen goods were also not declared to the authorities.

[00:11:05] And there are other tales of things that the local population would do to get their hands on the goods that were being carried on these ships.

[00:11:16] Sometimes a ship would crash into the dangerous rocks in shallow water, its crew would drown, they would die, and the ship would be washed ashore.

[00:11:28] When this happened word would get out, people would find out, and would rush to the site of the shipwreck to see what they could take for themselves. 

[00:11:40] There are also reports of groups of Cornish people attaching a lantern, a light, to a horse and walking along a piece of coastline that was dangerous for boats, in order to trick the boat into thinking that the light was a lighthouse, so that the boat would come close, crash on the rocks, and the smugglers could take this precious cargo.

[00:12:08] And taking these goods was actually legal in some circumstances.

[00:12:15] There was a quirk, a slightly strange element, to the English law about what you could and couldn’t do if you found a shipwreck on a beach.

[00:12:27] It was illegal, it was not allowed, to take the goods of a shipwreck if there were any survivors, because those survivors still legally owned the goods, or at least were in charge of them.

[00:12:42] But if there were no survivors, then it was actually allowed by law for anyone who found the shipwreck to take the goods they found.

[00:12:54] So, surprise surprise, when a ship full of French brandy or Chinese tea was washed ashore, it was very rare for the people who found the ship to declare that they had found any survivors. 

[00:13:10] Or let me put it another way, you wouldn’t want to be the only survivor on a ship that was full of expensive brandy.

[00:13:19] And there was very little that the government authorities could do to stop smuggling.

[00:13:26] The punishment for smuggling was death, it was a capital offence. But this was only a deterrent if you were likely to get caught. 

[00:13:38] There were customs officers sent down from London, men whose role it was to ensure that imported goods were correctly taxed, but they were very unpopular, they were paid very little, and there weren’t very many of them.

[00:13:56] They were completely outnumbered by the smugglers, and many would turn a blind eye, they would pretend not to notice, often in exchange for a bribe, in exchange for money.

[00:14:11] The smugglers, too, were popular with the local population. They paid well, they were providing cheaper goods, and they cultivated a reputation as honest, fair men.

[00:14:25] One particular smuggler who has gone down in Cornish history is a man named John Carter, who had the nickname of The King of Prussia. He liked to be called the King of Prussia when he was a boy, and as he grew into a man, well, the name stuck.

[00:14:48] Today, there is a “Prussia Cove” in Cornwall, which is the small, secret bay where he would unload his smuggled goods.

[00:14:57] He was known as a highly moral man, fighting against an immoral tax.

[00:15:05] There’s a famous story of what happened when some of his smuggled goods were found by a customs official, and were taken into custody, essentially taken away from him. In the dead of night he broke into Customs House, the building in which all the captured goods had been stored.

[00:15:27] He and his men looked through all of the goods, but they only took what had been taken from him, leaving the rest of the goods.

[00:15:39] One of the customs officers was reported as saying “John Carter has been here. We know it because he has taken nothing away that was not his own.”

[00:15:52] John Carter, this King of Prussia, was no thief - he was simply taking back what was rightfully his.

[00:16:01] There is even a pub in the town of Fowey in Cornwall called “The King of Prussia”. 

[00:16:07] Visitors who don’t know the story of Cornwall’s smuggling past might think “how strange - why are they celebrating the King of Prussia here?” but it is, in fact, the celebration of the unofficial King of Prussia, the smuggler John Carter.

[00:16:26] Now, back to our story, smuggling continued pretty uninterrupted for the majority of the 18th century. 

[00:16:35] Import taxes remained high, which created the incentive to smuggle. There were far too few customs officers, far too few government officials in the area to stop it, which meant there was very little disincentive, there was no great reason to not do it.

[00:16:56] And for almost a hundred years, the going was good. Many smugglers became very wealthy, and the industry, if indeed we can call it an industry, was vital to the Cornish people. 

[00:17:10] There’s one quote I particularly liked about this that illustrates the extent of the riches that came from smuggling. The quote is, and I'm quoting directly:

[00:17:23] “When smuggling was in full swing, money became so plentiful that neighbours lent guineas to each other by the handful, not stopping to count, or being so particular as to reckon by ones and twos'.”

[00:17:40] To explain that, a guinea was quite a valuable coin - it’s like saying today that neighbours would lend each other piles of 50 Euro notes without bothering to count how many notes there were in the pile.

[00:17:57] But smuggling was costing the British taxpayer dearly

[00:18:01] It’s estimated that up to 25% of the entire British import trade during the 18th century consisted of smuggled goods, goods on which tax had not been paid.

[00:18:15] And for certain goods, the percentage was much higher. 

[00:18:21] Up to 500,000 gallons of brandy, which is 2.3 million litres, were smuggled into Britain every year. 

[00:18:31] And some estimates have as much as 80% of tea drunk in Britain being smuggled into the country.

[00:18:40] But the good times weren’t to last forever. In the late 18th century import taxes were lowered, and the number of customs officers employed to stop the smugglers increased.

[00:18:55] It was a double punch, a double whammy, a pincer movement.

[00:19:00] Now there was less of an incentive, less of a reason, to smuggle, because the taxes weren’t nearly as high as before. And you were much more likely to get caught.

[00:19:13] The glory days of the Cornish smuggler were over, and by the mid 19th century the amount of smuggling had drastically reduced. 

[00:19:23] Smuggling does live on in Cornish legends, though. 

[00:19:27] You can find it in pub names, like the King of Prussia or even the Bucket of Blood, a pub named after a landlord who went into his well one morning and pulled out the head of a customs officer who had presumably been getting too close to the smugglers.

[00:19:48] And if you go to Cornwall today, and I would certainly recommend a visit, you can visit the coastline, you can see the rocks where the ships might have got stuck, you can see the sandy beaches where the smugglers would have unloaded their cargo, and visit the caves where it would have been stored.

[00:20:10] It might have been illegal, it might have been punishable by death, and it might have technically been stealing money from the British taxpayer, but it’s hard to deny that there is something quite magical about the legend of the Cornish Smuggler.

[00:20:29] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Cornish Smugglers.

[00:20:34] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that you now know a little bit about this curious element of British history.

[00:20:44] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:48] Have you been to Cornwall? What do you think about Cornish Smugglers

[00:20:53] Were they real criminals, or simply people doing whatever they could to get by?

[00:20:59] And are there interesting stories of smugglers from your country?

[00:21:04] I would love to know.

[00:21:06] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:14] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:20] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]