The Smugglers of Sennen

By Sandra Pritchard (nee Vingoe) 


There is no doubt that William Bottrell of St Levan had relatives who were engaged in both piracy and smuggling, and he relates a number  of stories about pirates and smugglers in his three volumes. Many people think that these relate to events in the 15th and 16th centuries as it is generally not known that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the fast sailing Cornish luggers were very profitably employed, during peace time in smuggling. However, at the end of the 18th century the Government had put a lot of effort into bringing the trade to an end. 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. 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 9 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 one thousand gallons of brandy, one thousand gallons of rum, one thousand gallons of Geneva, [gin] and five hundred 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 and ‘of using other violent and improper language’. The counsel for the defense 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 of Nancothnan, named Pool. The latter 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 us ‘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.

 The noted Cornish historian A. K. Hamilton Jenkin in his book “Cornwall and its People” tells the story :

“The principle witness for the prosecution was a certain Anne George. This woman, it appears, was a person of notorious character. At the time of the trial she is described as being the wife of Joseph George who up to a short time before, had been the keeper of the Sennen inn – a place which had the reputation of being 'the resort of all the idle blackguards in the county'. During the time in which he had kept the inn, Joseph George had acted as smuggling agent, for his landlord, a well to do farmer of the parish names Dionysius Williams. Presuming on the secret hold, which they possessed over their landlord, through the knowledge of his illicit transactions, the Georges had for some time refused to pay any rent for the inn, and at length the owner, very unwisely, had decided to eject them. Infuriated by this, the innkeeper’s wife had thereupon turned king’s evidence against Williams, and reaped her revenge in seeing the latter served with a long term of imprisonment.”


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Sandra and George Pritchard are the authors of the original work on this site.