Smuggling is part of Devon’s romantic and intriguing history. In this month’s talk, Robert Hesketh described the bravery and recklessness of the smugglers – often ordinary people trying to escape a life of poverty.
Britain was at war with France. To pay for that war, excise duty was raised on all manner of goods and none more so than alcohol and tobacco. Avoiding this duty was very profitable indeed. Fishermen risked their lives on the high seas and landlubbers risked capital punishment for dealing in smuggled goods. On a dark night, fishing smacks would become smugglers’ vessels and would easily outrun the naval patrols with their speed and the fishermen’s intimate knowledge of the coast. The Devon beach of Beer Head was a typical good landing place and the Beer Quarry Caves provided adequate storage for smuggled brandy barrels and casks of tobacco. Further inland, the church bell towers offered further safe storage. A man could earn more in one night of smuggling than he would in a month at his normal hard work.
Robert told many amusing smugglers’ tales. In one, the preventive men visited a certain Bob Elliot of Brixham only to be told that he had died that evening. The coastguards met the funeral procession, noting not only an exceptionally large and heavy coffin but also the “ghost” of Bob walking behind it. They fled in terror. Other stories told of housewives using their washing lines as signals and of revenue officers profiting from aiding the smugglers.
David Wixon proposed the vote of thanks congratulating Robert on his fantastic presentation. The subject of our next talk in February is “New Zealand North Island”. Tavistock Probus Club is always pleased to welcome new members.
If you would like to join the Tavistock Probus Club, please have a word with our secretary on 01822 615669.