The smugglers of Prussia Cove

Prussia Cove a famous smugglers cove in West CornwallOne of our guests favourite walks from Ednovean farm is eastwards towards Cudden Point and as they walk the coastal paths around the bay towards Prussia Cove they follow the paths the smugglers have trodden in past centuries.

The sheltered waters of Mount’s Bay and the hidden coves that are tucked along its edges have a rich dark history and today I thought I’d tell you a little bit more about the smugglers and shipwrecks in our part of the bay. As I researched for today’s post I came across a rich dramatic history in the lives that moved between Cornwall, Guernsey, France and over to the Americas; a history that touched the turbulent times of France in the shadow of the guillotine and mingled with the lives of the negro slaves in the New world; that found a kind of respectability as with ships of marque; were arrested for piracy but had mysterious friends in high place at the admiralty; murders and sea battles; and final betrayal and return to poverty.

The smugglers Coves – a little background history

Cornwall remained a wild and almost lawless place, inaccessible and mainly governed by the local will and customs. The nation of seafarers plied between Cornwall and Roscoff and Guernsey with poor miners only to happy to take a berth on a trip to Guernsey to bring back contraband in return for a little extra pay to feed their families.

The Collector and his staff at the Custom House above the quay in Penzance were responsible for 35 miles of coastline a difficult task made harder by the virtual lack of roads – the first major road to be built was the main turnpike road from Truro which did not reach Marazion until 1760 but further development westwards was opposed by the Penzance Corporation.

A local squire berates the Lord Chief Justice in 1778

By 1778 a letter to the Lord Chief Justice from a Justice of the peace “……….In the western part of the County smuggling since the soldiers have been drawn off has been carried on almost with out control. Irish Wherries carrying 14, 16 or more guns and well manned, frequently land huge quantities of goods in defiance of the officers of the Customs and Excise and their crews armed with swords and pistols escort smugglers a considerable distance from the sea…….”

“…A large Wherry landed according to the best information I can obtain from 1,500 to 2,000 ankers of spirits, about 29 tons of tea and other kinds of smuggled goods on a sandy beach in Mount’s bay, between Penzance and Marazion, near the public road, whilst the goods were discharging was filled with armed men. A few days after two officers got information that a very considerable quantity was concealed in the house and the premises of a well known smuggler, obtained from me a search warrant, and were forcibly hindered from searching by four men…….I fear criminal prosecution would be useless at least for the reason it shocks me to mention, that a Cornish Jury would certainly acquit the smugglers…These my Lord are the facts….”

Smuggling was a way of life with every part of society being complicit or involved to a certain extent with even the town mayor of Penzance being bound over from smuggling in 1769. It was within this strange distant society that the Carter brothers of Prussia Cove rose to prominence with lives that would have given a Hollywood producer a blockbuster plot as they plied their dangerous trade between Cornwall and France.

The Carters of Prussia Cove

The Carters grew up in what Harry Carte described as “decent poverty” – a family of seven children, of which five survived childhood, they went to work in the mines from the age of nine or ten and much of the detail you’ll read here were made possible by Harry’s effort to educate himself. At first to prudently keep the books recording their trade but later he wrote his autobiography………… which may have omitted a couple of dead soldiers and sailors.

It was John Carter though, the self styled King of Prussia, who was the leader of the gang. He rented a Cove known then as Porth Leah but it is more familiar to us today as King’s Cove or Prussia Cove of course . There are in fact three small coves :- the south facing coves of Piskies cove to the west, Bessie Cove* in the shelter of of Cudden point with King’s Cove facing East. When establishing his family “firm” John Carter built a substantial House (now demolished) above a large cave at King’s Cove and constructed a harbour and roadway. The caves were used for storage and for protection? He established a battery (of guns) on the headland.

*Bessy’s Cove named after Bessey Bussow who kept and Ale House there of a “wink” (A wink an unlicensed Ale House) A secret passage ran from the back of the cave in the cove to the ale house above. Part of the alehouse is now included in Cliff Cottage and the grooves cut by the wheels can still be seen on the stone of the cove today.

Whilst John Carter was the undisputed King of Prussia Cove it was his brothers Harry’s story that I found the most fascinating. The extraordinary times in which a simple, self educated and it must be admitted, not particularly honest man was touched by a profound period of history and was tossed to a through by the turbulent tide of time.

The smugglers life of Harry Carter

Harry joined the family “firm” in 1766 and later sailed with experienced crews from Folkestone and Ireland. With his quick wits he soon had his own vessel by the time he was 25 – soon to be replaced by a larger one, of about 50 tons crewed by ten men. By the time he was 28, Harry commanded a large cutter. The prosperous times came to an abrupt end when Harry Carter took his new cutter to St Malo for repairs and his ships papers were not found in to be in order and he was imprisoned for suspected piracy. His brother John Carter, the self styled “King of Prussia” , went to petition his release and he too was also imprisoned. The Carter’s had friends in high places however and they were eventually exchanged for two Frenchman, after an intervention by the Admiralty no less but alas without the new cutter.

After their prolonged absence they returned to find their family business failing badly but John Carters reputation was such, that he quickly obtaining credit from the Guernsey Merchantmen and started to rebuild the fortunes of the cove boys.

The dangerous life they led was never far from disaster though and Harry was arrested once more at the end of a smuggling trip to Mumbles in South Wales – after an incident that saw him left behind when his crew were arrested yet once again the Admiralty negotiated his release.

We must look to the American war of independence for the increase of the fortunes of the Carter family and for the tenuous respectability awarded to the Carter brothers (sometimes known as “the cove boys.”) by obtaining *Letters of Marque for at least five vessels and were thus able to combine “legitimated” privateering with smuggling.

The Carters evidently had their uses to the powers that “be” and one story tells how by a curious twist of fate in 1782 when Harry came ashore for Christmas in Newquay after sailing with two of the family privateers:- The Shaftsbury, that he commanded and the Phoenix commanded by Raph Dewen. He received a request from John Nill the Collector of Taxes of St Ives (and incidentally commemorated by Knill’s steeple above the town) to attack the enemy privateer the Black Prince from Dunkirk who had been harassing the shipping in the Bristol Channel. The fight continued into Padstow where the captain abandoned his sinking ship and Harry Carter managed to rescue 17 of the 31men on board.

Harry married Elizabeth Flindell from Helford in 1786 and they had a daughter, Betsy the following year. Elizabeth was never robust and as we will see later succumbed to consumption and died at a poignant part of the story.

Harry’s luck ran out in 1778 when he wasn’t warned of a naval Man-of-war in the area and his boat was caught by stealth. He was tricked as he waited with his hatches open, realising too late that the approaching open boats had not come for his cargo but were from a naval frigate. Harry’s brother Charles, was already ashore with a landing party and the rest of his crew fled, leaving Harry to put up a desperate single handed fight. He sustained horrible wounds to his face and skull and was left for dead on the deck. Later, unnoticed, with a last desperate effort, he managed to stealthily lower himself into the shallows and reach the beach where he was rescued by his brother Charles and the landing party .

Despite his horrible wounds, the following night, they slipped away in a chase, accompanied by a Doctor as far as Lostwithiel. He was at first hidden by his brother at Kennegy but after a reward of £300 was offered he was moved on to a “gentleman’s house” in Marazion and then later moved on, to hide in the newly built Acton Castle.

The connection with Acton Castle is interesting as John Stackhouse could surely have not realised the type of the business of his tenant John Carter conducted and yet still appointed him a caretaker and key holder. To this day local legend has it that a tunnel exists from the castle down to Stackhouse Cove.Acton castle It was here that a Doctor was brought, always, blindfolded to attend to Harry’s wounds. Slowly he recovered and after three months, was able to cross Cudden Point, under cover of darkness, to meet his brothers. Eventually it was thought prudent, despite some very powerful friends, to send Harry to America, leaving his wife Elizabeth who was now dying of consumption.

Once in America the family sent money to help to maintain him and he also took some casual farm work – a far cry from the sea he knew so well – working on farms amongst the negro slaves. It was during this hard time, that Harry became a Methodist and remained in America until 1790. He finally decided to take a passage back to Dunkirk in a ship flying American colours.

He soon resumed his smuggling career but now combined it with preaching as an important convert, until warned by a “a great man of the neighbourhood” to disappear before others betrayed him. And disappear he did – this time in an open boat to Roscoff which took fifteen hours from Prussia Cove. Once in France, Harry again established himself, preaching to the English Community until a further twist of fate saw war break out between Britain and France and the British community were placed under house arrest – Harry in the company of Carmelite nuns.

In Harry’s absence, the authorities made great effort to destroy the Carters stronghold at Prussia Cove – yet in 1792 the stores held 40 gallons of rum, 739 of brandy and 2,778 of gin – protected by eight six-pounder guns. In 1794 a direct assault by the Penzance Collector assisted by the Helston and Penzance Volunteer battalion succeeded in dismounting the guns. The Carters were warned by a Marazion doctor and mounted a spirited defence and eventually the battalion withdrew, with one officer shot. They had seized a mere eight casks of brandy and five of gin. Warrants were issued for the Carters arrest but no constable would enter the cove without the military and the officer of the troops stationed at Helston refused to go in without direct orders from the War Office.

Harry did managed eventually to return from France and took (perhaps buoyed by his religious zeal) no further part in smuggling but lived out his days in quiet poverty in Rinsey – a document at the Cornwall records office dated 1799 sadly shows a bond between

“Henry (Harry) Carter of Penhale, Breague, yeoman undertaking to repay £326.19.8 (with interest) to James Macculloch of Gulval, on or before 18th April 1800. He lived quietly on his smallholding and continued as a Methodist Lay preacher and died aged 80 leaving all of his possession to his friend, James Macculloch to whom he was still in debt.

John Carter Died in 1803 and in May the lease of Prussia Cove was offered for sale the particulars describe:-

“All those large and commodious Cellars, Lofts, Salt Houses, Fish-Presses, Boat-beds, Capstan, ..Together with the said Cove and Landing Places therein. The above premises are extremely well adapted and situate for carrying on any form of trade….”

Strangely the smuggling business continued at Prussia Cove until a preventive boat was based there and by 1825 the row of coastguard cottages that can still be seen today, were built above the cove.


 

* Letters of Marque:- Awarded to ship owners if a ship papers were in order, with its armament registered and the owners could provide a bond. An armed privateer was then entitled to seize enemy shipping and the crew could not be pressed into the navy.

The boats of Prussia Cove licensed as privateers at the time of the American War of Independence

The two largest vessels were the 200 ton Swallow owned by John and captained in 1777 by Harry, with 16 big guns, 26 swivel guns and a crew of 60, and later in 1780 the Shaftesbury, also 200 tons armed with 16 big guns and 12 swivels, carrying a crew of 80 and again commanded by Harry. Additional boats owned or captained by the Carters were the Phoenix 60 tons 8 mounted guns and 10 swivels with 50 crew; the Friendship 30 tons, 10 swivels crew of 30; The Phoenix 150 tons, 20 mounted guns 16 swivels 50 crew (owned by John Carter jointly)

Ship wrecks

Five minutes walk across the fields to Perranuthnoe and the first part of my smugglers and wreckers walk is Perranuthnoe beach.

Early customs records record the Vigilante from Hamburg driven ashore near Perran Uthnoe in 1738 and despite help to the crew from soldiers quartered nearby, the wreckers took not only the cargo but the sails and rigging.

In recent times the Warspite came aground on the rocky ledges near Cudden Point in 1947 on her way to the breakers yard. Perhaps it was the last act of defiance from the ship with a long and gallant service history Her crew were rescued by the Penlee lifeboat. She refloated herself, only to get firmly stuck aground at Prussia Cove where she remained fast until 1950. Eventually she was again refloated, only to go aground again near Long Rock and she was finally beached near St Michael’s Mount here efforts continued and she was finally moved 130 feet nearer to shore by using jet engines from a experimental aircraft there she remained before disappearing from view in 1955.

Further reading

Smuggling in Devon and Cornwall 1700-1850 by Mary Waugh

or for light reading about happy walks and picnics around Prussia Cove try my previous blog posts Giddy Kippers and along the coastal path  to Kennegy beach

Find us!!

Our luxury Bed and Breakfast at Ednovean Farm just above Perranuthnoe Near Penzance in west Cornwall is five minute drive by car to Prussia Cove or a wonderful one hours walk along the coastal path!

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About Christine Taylor

Charles and Christine Taylor have hosted Luxury Bed and Breakfast at Ednovean Farm Nr Penzance in West Cornwall since 1991 and live there with three cats and eight horses including a Spanish Stallion called Danni. Christine writes a weekly blog about life on the farm and garden with an occasional series about places of interest in West Cornwall

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