A tale of Cornish smuggling: Sennen, 1803

In the 18th and early 19th centuries the fast sailing Cornish luggers were very profitably employed, during peace time in smuggling. At the end of the 18th century the Government had put a lot of effort into bringing the trade to an end and many of the Sennen smugglers had fled to the Channel Isles in order to escape prosecution.

In 1803, the forces of the Crown were once again involved in fighting the Napoleonic War which meant that the smugglers of Cornwall took on a new lease of life: one might even say that the Government was in some measure responsible for stimulating it! In the early months of the war, owing to the need of men for the naval service, a Royal Proclamation was made. It declared that any smuggler who had fled the country should, provided he was not charged with murder, be permitted to return without fear of arrest. He had, however, to enter into bond refraining from smuggling practices for the future.

Smugglers unloading contraband by George Morland, 1793

Copies of this proclamation were posted in all Cornish villages, and it was not long before the news filtered through to those who were lying in exile overseas. Among the first to take advantage of the amnesty was a Christopher Pollard of Madron. He had been charged some nine years previously with obstructing and assaulting the revenue officers and had fled to Guernsey in order to escape the consequences of his crimes.

He now returned to Cornwall and signed the requisite bond, a Robert Parsons of Madron standing surety for the sum of £200. But soon the old allurements of the adventurous life were too strong and after little more than six months, Pollard was again concerned in a charge of smuggling.

The prosecution states that on this occasion the accused had assaulted the officers of H.M. Excise when occupied in their duty at Sennen, and had incited a crowd of three or four hundred persons to attack the excise men with a view to carrying off the smuggled goods which they had captured and were defending on the beach. This landing was a valuable one, consisting as it did of 1,000 gallons of brandy, 1,000 gallons of rum, 1,000 gallons of Geneva [gin], and 500 pounds of tobacco. In addition to the general charge of inciting the mob, Pollard was accused of having offered £100 for the rescue of a hundred ankers of the spirits (an anker being just over eight gallons), and ‘of using other violent and improper language’.

The counsel for the defence admitted that Pollard was part-owner of these goods, but stated that what had actually happened was that on going to Sennen he had found the cargo in the possession of the revenue authorities, and that, far from inciting the mob to a rescue, he had gone straight home, only calling in on the excise officer at Newlyn in order to advise him to go to Sennen at once ‘lest any unforeseen circumstances might ensue’.

It further appears that in the evening of the same day on which the cargo had been landed, Pollard was in a public-house at Penzance trying to sell a yoke of oxen to a farmer named Pool of Nancothnan. The farmer afterwards accompanied Pollard to Sennen and agreed to provide him with horses wherewith to remove the cargo in return for the promise of a cask of brandy for his own use, ‘he having a number of workmen and tradesmen about him at the time’. On arriving at the beach at about eleven o’clock at night and finding a huge crowd firing muskets and throwing stones at the excise men, ‘they decided that that was no place for them to stay for that they would be killed’, so both returned home.

Published with permission: Sandra Pritchard

The smugglers of Sennen