The smuggling of contraband has been a way of life for many people living close to the sea and shipping routes. The height of smuggling on the Gower peninsula was at its peak during the 18th and 19th centuries. Taxes were high and there was a shortage of many common commodities especially during the Napoleonic wars. It was more lucrative for farm workers to become full-time Gower Smugglers than working the land. This resulted in a shortage of farm labourers and lead to an increase in farm labourers’ wages.
The plethora of secluded bays and sandy inlets along the sparsely populated southern coast of the Gower peninsula was the ideal area for unloading contraband away from prying eyes and the revenue men. At the height of the industrial revolution Swansea was the third largest coal exporting port in Britain and it attracted shipping from all over the world. The crew of the coal ships returning from Ireland, Europe and further afield could supplement their income by loading up with comestibles in foreign ports and offload the goods to the smugglers before docking in Swansea.
The boat of choice for the smugglers was the Bristol Channel pilot cutter. A specialist design of the single-masted boat that was developed for the needs of speeding maritime pilots to large ships entering and leaving the Bristol Channel. The design has been described as the best sailing boat design ever, for being both high speed and highly manoeuvrable and yet easy to handle by just two crew. It has a flat bottom that makes it ideal for sailing close to the shore to unload the contraband loaded, further offshore, from the ships returning to Swansea.
The extent of the smuggling operations and the activities of the smugglers are well documented in the revenue collector’s archives. It appears that the government’s failure to adequately fund the local revenue service lead to an escalation of smuggling activities and the smugglers could operate with impunity. In the 1720s Swansea smugglers were so influential that they had the port’s customs officers summoned for jury service on a day when they landed a large cargo in the harbour.
The activities of smugglers in the Pwll Du area are well documented and it is claimed that more contraband was landed here than anywhere else in the Bristol Channel. The headland at the sheltered bay is 300 feet high and provides an ideal vantage point for guiding the smugglers in and observing the activities of the revenue men. The trail inland from the beach is through the wooded Bishopston valley that provided plenty of cover for the smuggling activities.
The house that now stands behind the shingle bank at Pwll Du was the Beaufort Inn and it, together with the farms at Highway, were the used as staging posts by the smuggling gangs. Most of these gangs were controlled by William Arthur of Great Highway Farm and John Griffiths of Little Highway.
Another infamous smuggling centre was Port Eynon where the Lucas family ran operations from the Salt House. The Lucas family has a long and distinguished history — Sir Charles Lucas fought for the King in the Civil War and was executed on the orders of Oliver Cromwell. John, the black sheep of the family, who after a spell abroad, fortified the Salt House and started his smuggling dynasty. He had a reputation for violence but it is reported that he used the spoils of smuggling to support the Gower poor. Culver hole, a medieval pigeon loft built into a cliffside cave at Port Eynon and Port Eynon church are both reputed to have been used to store contraband goods at the time of the battle of Trafalgar.
It is said Rhossili Bay was ideal for smugglers due to its remote location; one well-known smuggler was William Stote, Innkeeper of Middleton, who imprisoned a revenue officer in his stable. Contraband was hidden all over western Gower and it is reported that especially dug cellars were located on Rhossili Down, Landimore and elsewhere. Some smugglers resorted to deliberately wrecking ships as the booty gained from shipwrecks was a great ‘prize’. The wreckers of Rhossili may have been responsible for some of the shipwrecked in and around the bay. False lanterns set along the coast lured ships to their fate. The infamous ‘Dollar Ship’ was wrecked in Rhossili Bay in the 17th century. Spanish silver dollars depicting Phillip IV dated to 1625 and 1639 were recovered from the wreck over a hundred years later in 1807. It is reported that further finds were made throughout the years, the last being in 1833. Other known shipwrecks in the bay include; City of Bristol 1840, Tocopilla 1878, Mary Stenhouse 1879, Verani 1894, Ann of Bridgewater 1899, Notre Dame de Lourdes 1910, Pansy 161 1941 and the Cleveland 1957. Remains of Helvetia wrecked in 1887 and of Vennerne wrecked in 1894, can still be seen in Rhossili Bay. Some of these ships may have been the victims of the wreckers of Rhossili.
Customs interventions were common and on one occasion 101 casks of brandy, rum and wine were left stranded on Rhossili beach. There are many accounts of clashes between smugglers and revenue men at Pwll Du, Oxwich Port Eynon and Rhossili. At the beginning of the 19th century the revenue men were gaining the upper hand over the smugglers but smaller scale smuggling operations continued.
Two notable appropriately named landmarks are a testament to the smuggling heritage of the Gower coast. These are;
Brandy cove, a small secluded sand inlet between Caswell bay ad Pwll Du.
It is claimed that the Brandy house at Landimore was specifically built for smuggling purposes.