The smuggling of contraband was 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 smugglers domain was the sparsely.populated southern coast of the Gower peninsula. The plethora of remote, secluded bays and sandy inlets provided ideal locations for unloading contraband. It was relatively easy for the smugglers to avoid the prying eyes of the revenue men. At the height of the industrial revolution Swansea was the third largest coal exporting port in Britain. It’s status as the worlds largest copper producing area attracted shipping from all over the world. The crew’s of the coal exporting ships would buy comestibles in foreign ports. On returning to Swansea, and before docking, the smugglers wold meet the ships and offload the contraband. Both sailors and smugglers profited through these activities.
Smugglers at Pwll Du and Port Eynon
The activities of smugglers in the Pwll Du area are well documented. 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. Smuggling gangs used this inn and the farms at Highway as staging posts 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.
The Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter
The boat of choice for smugglers was the Bristol Channel pilot cutter. A specialist design of the single-masted boat that was developed for speeding maritime pilots to large ships in the Bristol Channel. The design has been described as the best sailing boat design ever, for being both high speed and highly manoeuvrable. An added benefit was that could easily be 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.
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.
Two notable appropriately named landmarks are a testament to the smuggling heritage of the Gower coast.
Firstly, Brandy cove, a small secluded sand inlet between Caswell bay ad Pwll Du Secondly
Secondly, it is claimed that the Brandy house at Landimore was specifically built for smuggling purposes.
The Revenue Men
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 failed to adequately fund the local revenue service. This lead to an escalation of smuggling activities and the smugglers could operate with impunity. In the 1720s the Swansea smugglers were very influential in the port. On one occasion they had the port’s customs officers summoned for jury service on a day when they landed a large cargo in the harbour.
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.