The Autobiography of a Cornish Smuggler (Captain Harry Carter, of Prussia Cove) 1749-1809

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The Autobiography of a Cornish Smuggler (Captain Harry Carter, of Prussia Cove) 1749-1809
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Harry Carter

The Autobiography of a Cornish Smuggler (Captain Harry Carter, of Prussia Cove) 1749-1809

Published by Good Press, 2022

EAN 4057664562326

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Table of Contents

The existence of the Autobiography which is published in the following pages came to my knowledge in the course of a chance conversation with a distant relative of the writer's family. The original manuscript has been carefully preserved, and has been for many years in the possession of Mr. G. H. Carter, of Helston. He received it from his father, the G. Carter mentioned on page 1, who was a nephew of Harry Carter himself. The memoir of the writer, which will be found in the "Wesleyan Methodist Magazine" for October, 1831, was based upon information supplied by G. Carter, partly from the manuscript and partly from his own knowledge. It is now printed from the manuscript which was kindly lent to me for the purpose by Mr. G. H. Carter.

The part of Cornwall to which the autobiography chiefly relates is the district lying between the two small towns of Marazion and Helston, a distance of about ten miles on the north-eastern shores of Mounts Bay, comprising the parishes of Breage, Germoe, St. Hilary, and Perranuthnoe. The bay is practically divided into two parts by Cuddan Point, a sharp small headland about two miles east from St. Michael's Mount. The western part runs into the land in a roughly semicircular shape, and is so well sheltered that it has almost the appearance of a lake, in fact, the extreme north-western corner is called Gwavas Lake. From the hills which surround it the land everywhere slopes gently to the sea, and is thickly inhabited. The towns of Penzance and Marazion and the important fishing village of Newlyn occupy a large portion of the shore, and around them are woody valleys and well cultivated fields. To the eastward of Cuddan is a marked contrast. There, steep and rocky cliffs are only broken by two long stretches of beach, Pra Sand and the Looe Bar, on which the great seas which come always from the Atlantic make landing impossible except on a few rare summer days. With the exception of the little fishing station of Porthleven there is not a place all along the coast from Cuddan Point to the Lizard large enough to be called a village. Inland the country is in keeping with the character of the coast. Trees are very scarce, and the stone hedges, so characteristic of all the wild parts of West Cornwall, the patches of moorland, and the scattered cottages, make the whole appearance bare and exposed.

Porth Leah, or the King's Cove, now more usually known as Prussia Cove,[1] around which so much of the interest of the narrative centres, lies a little to the eastward of Cuddan Point. There are really two coves divided from one another by a point and a small island called the "Enez." The western cove, generally called "Bessie's Cove," is a most sheltered and secluded place. It is so well hidden from the land that it is impossible to see what boats are lying in the little harbour until one comes down to the very edge of the cliff. The eastern side of the point, where there is another small harbour called the "King's Cove," is more open, but the whole place is thoroughly out of the world even now.

The high road from Helston through Marazion to Penzance now passes about a mile from the sea, but at the time of which Harry Carter was writing this district must have been unknown and almost inaccessible. From all accounts West Cornwall at that time was very little more than half civilised. The mother of Sir Humphry Davy (born at Penzance, 1778) has left us a record that when she was a girl "West Cornwall was without roads, there was only one cart in the town of Penzance, and packhorses were in use in all the country districts" (Bottrell, iii. 150). This is confirmed by a writer in the "Gentleman's Magazine," who says that in 1754 there were no roads in this district, the ways that served the purpose were merely bridle paths "remaining as the deluge left them and dangerous to travel over" ("Gentleman's Magazine," October, 1754); and by the official records of the town of Penzance, which show that in 1760 the Corporation went to some expense in opposing the extension of the turnpike beyond Marazion, to which place it was then first carried from Penryn (Millett's "Penzance, Past and Present").

The places of which the names are mentioned in the autobiography, but which are not shown in the map, such as Rudgeon, Trevean, Caerlean, Pengersick, Kenneggey, and Rinsey, are all in the immediate neighbourhood of Prussia Cove. They are merely little hamlets of four or five cottages each, and there is no reason to suppose that they were any larger one hundred years ago. Helston, the market town of the district, is about six miles off, and had then a population of some two thousand people.

The chief interest in the autobiography is probably that which it attracts as the most authentic account of the smuggling which was carried on in the neighbourhood in the latter portion of the last century. Cornwall has long enjoyed a certain reputation for pre-eminence in this particular form of trade, and apparently not without some reason. A series of letters of the years 1750-1753 were published some years ago in the journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall (vol. vi. pt. xxii. p. 374, "The Lanisley Letters") to a Lieutenant-General Onslow, from George Borlase, his agent at Penzance, asking that soldiers might be stationed in the district, because "the coasts here swarm with smugglers," and mentioning that a detachment ought to be stationed at Helston, as "just on that neighbourhood lye the smugglers and wreckers more than about us, tho' there are too many in all parts of this country." In his "Natural History of Cornwall," published in 1758, Dr. Borlase regrets (p. 312) that "the people of the sea coast are, it must be owned, too much addicted to carry off our bullion to France and to bring back nothing but brandy, tea, and other luxuries." This is delicate, but there can be no doubt of his meaning; and he goes on to complain that "there is not the poorest family in any parish which has not its tea, its snuff, and tobacco, and (when they have money or credit) brandy," all, we may presume, duty free. The will of Philip Hawkins, M.P. for Grampound, who died on September 6, 1738, is perhaps the most striking record, for he actually bequeathed £600 to the king to compensate for the amount of which his tenants had defrauded the Customs.

That the smuggling prevailed to such an extent is not to be wondered at, for the law must have had but a very slight hold on such a rough and scattered population, living so far away from any of the large centres of England. In such a narrow country too, where no one lives very far from the sea, the miners took to smuggling as readily as the fishermen. A trip to Roscoff or Guernsey formed a pleasant change after a spell on tribute underground or working stamps. A rough, reckless, and drunken lot were these tinners, and if riots and bloodshed were more scarce in West Cornwall than in some parts, it must have been due to the judicious absence of the Custom House officials, and not to any qualities in the smugglers. George Borlase says ("Lanisley Letters") that in December 1750 a Dutch ship laden with claret was wrecked near Helston, and "in twenty-four hours the tinners cleared all," the authorities apparently not daring to interfere; and that just before this date a man who went to the assistance of the revenue officers had been killed near the same place.

Beyond these I have mentioned, the literary records are very meagre, but the whole county, and especially the western part, abounds with legends. The smuggling was so universal, that every cove, and fishing village on the coast has its own stories, and everywhere the curious visitor is still shown the place where the smugglers landed their cargoes, the secret caves where they stored them, and sometimes, but not often, the places where the "officers" found them. Prussia Cove, beyond all others, has the richest store of such history. Here are little harbours cut out of the solid rock, which are now occupied by innocent fishing boats. The visitor can see a roadway partly cut and partly worn crossing the rocks below high water mark, and caves of which the mouths have been built up, and which are reputed to be connected with the house on the cliff above by secret passages.

In the legends of the Cove the personality of John Carter looms so large that his associates are almost if not entirely forgotten, and everything centres around him alone. It was he who cut the harbours and the road, it was he who adapted the caves, and he is the hero of most of the tales which are told of the good old days. One of these stories is worth recording. On one occasion, during his absence from home, the excise officers from Penzance came around in their boats and took a cargo, which had lately arrived from France, to Penzance, where it was secured in the Custom House store. In due course John Carter returned to the Cove, and learned the news. What was he to do? He explained to his comrades that he had agreed to deliver that cargo to the customers by a certain day, and his reputation as an honest man was at stake. He must keep his word. That night a number of armed men broke open the stores at Penzance, and the "King of Prussia" took his own again, returning to the Cove without being discovered. In the morning the officers found that the place had been broken open during the night. They examined the contents, and when they noted what particular things were gone, they said to one another that John Carter had been there, and they knew it, because he was an honest man who would not take anything that did not belong to him. And John Carter kept his word to his customers. The story that he once opened fire on a revenue cutter from a small battery which he had made at the Cove is well known along the coast.


It is characteristic of the history of the smugglers everywhere that they enjoyed the support of popular sympathy. This was certainly the case in West Cornwall, where the farmers, the merchants, and, it is rumoured, the local magistrates, used to find the money with which the business was carried on, investing small sums in each voyage. Harry Carter finding shelter at Marazion when the Government were offering a reward for his capture (p. 26), and the action of the unnamed "great man of the neighbourhood" on his return from America (p. 90), are perhaps the reverse of the picture which George Borlase drew for General Onslow ("Lanisley Letters"); "the countenance given to the smugglers by those whose business it is to restrain these pernicious practices, hath bro't 'em so bold and daring that nobody can venture to come near them with safety whilst they are at their work." It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that there must have been some powerful influence exerted in his favour to obtain his exchange from prison in France in 1778, and what else can we make of the commission to go privateering against the Americans. The Government had then recently passed a measure[2] to encourage privateering by authorising the Admiralty to grant commissions, and apparently English sailors were everywhere readily taking advantage of the opportunity so afforded for their enterprise.[3] But to obtain such a commission the applicant had to find the security of sureties, of whose "sufficiency" the commissioners were to satisfy themselves, and also to send in a written application specifying the ship for which the commission was asked, with full details as to the number of her guns and other matters. He surely could not have ventured to place himself in the hands of the Government in this way without a friend at Court. It certainly seems a fair inference from their popularity, their fame, and from the fact that they both rose to leading positions amongst the smugglers while still comparatively young, that Harry Carter and his brother John were superior men to the rough material of which their crews were probably composed.

The accounts of the actual smuggling in the following pages are not very elaborate, but we must remember that at the time when Harry Carter was writing (1809), John Carter and the "Cove boys" were still at it, and Prussia Cove had not yet ceased to be a great centre of smugglers. This would also explain the absence of any more particular reference to any of his companions. This reticence, which we must respect, although we may regret it, is quite compensated by the variety of his later experiences. To have been a prisoner in France during the Reign of Terror, and at a time when the Convention had decreed that no quarter should be given to an Englishman,[4] is of itself no small claim on the attention of his countrymen. From his account, which is, I believe, unique in English literature, and especially when it is compared with those of French writers, it would seem that the English, who were, of course, prisoners of war, were placed on the same footing as the "aristocrats" and "suspects," the great number of whom made it necessary to utilise the convents and even private houses as prisons. Alexandrine des Echerolles tells us ("Private life in Public Calamities") that "Bread was distributed daily to the prisoners, and their pitchers were filled every morning with fresh water. Those who could not pay the turnkeys for their trouble got none, so the rich used to bestow alms upon the poor in this form.... Once a fortnight, I think, they were supplied with fresh straw, or what was called such, each person receiving an armful." She mentions that by degrees the prisoners managed to make themselves more comfortable by introducing tables, and chairs, and mattresses, which they were compelled to leave behind on their removal to other prisons. All this coincides very closely with Harry Carter's account, and he seems to have shared their anxiety as to the fate of his friends and the common anticipation of the guillotine.

Even this does not exhaust the interest of his life. The very first lines of his writing show the object with which he wrote. In no part of England did the teaching and influence of John Wesley obtain such a hold as in Cornwall. At the time of his first visit he speaks of the natives of this distant country as "those who neither feared God nor regarded man" ("Diary," May 17, 1743); he accuses them of wrecking and of murdering those who were washed ashore, and describes their pastimes as "hurling, at which limbs were often broken, fighting, drinking, and all other manner of wickedness." The "Lanisley Letters" contain similar charges of wrecking and murder, and Dr. Borlase confirms the statement as to their drunken habits. In 1750 Wesley mentions how greatly all these things were changed. They were, perhaps, not as much changed as he thought, but undoubtedly they were greatly improved, for it is plain fact that the whole of the moral reformation of the Cornish folk is due to him. He gained followers so rapidly in the west that at the first Methodist Conference in 1744, St. Ives is classed with London, Bristol, and Newcastle; "from this it is evident," says Dr. Smith ("Hist. of Methodism," i. 213), "that London, Bristol, St. Ives, and Newcastle were regarded as the great centres of Methodism in England at this period." At the third Conference (1746) Cornwall forms one district out of seven, while the others included in some cases four and in one case six English counties. In 1750 John Wesley ("Diary," August 18) says of St. Just, "There is still the largest society in Cornwall, and so great a proportion of believers I have not found in all the nation beside." Similar societies or classes sprang up in the most remote places, such as Rugan, or Rudgeon as it is more usually spelt now, where the society met at which Charles Carter was converted; at Trevean and Caerlean, where Harry Carter preached.

That especial characteristic of Wesley's organisation, "the local preacher," took root firmly in Cornwall from the very first. To those who are not acquainted with the county it may be necessary to explain that these laymen, earnest men of all classes, who preach, are so common in every village that they constitute a distinguishing feature in the local life. The services in the small wayside chapels which are so numerous are usually conducted by a local preacher in the intervals between the visits of the regular ministers. Those who do know Cornwall also know the importance of the local preacher in the history of the Methodist movement. John Wesley's preaching was received by the poor and uneducated, the miner, the fisherman, and the labourer, and the persecution of the clergy and the magistrates only strengthened the enthusiasm of the people for their great teacher. From such men sprang the first local preachers; preaching and exhorting not with the dull formality of men who had to do it, but with the earnestness of men who really felt that they had a message to deliver, and labouring under uncontrollable excitement they greatly impressed their hearers: while the familiarity of their persons led their audience to look upon this new teaching as a thing of their own to which they could all attain. It is impossible to doubt that the hold which the movement gained was greatly due to these men, and Harry Carter was one of them. John Wesley had set himself from the first against the smuggling which he found so prevalent; he had preached against it at several places, and had even published a pamphlet against it. We may therefore fairly suppose that Harry Carter, the great smuggler, was regarded as a most important accession to the ranks of his followers.

The autobiography ends abruptly in the year 1795, but the writer lived until April 19, 1829. The last thirty years of his life he spent at Rinsey. He lived quietly, keeping himself occupied with a small farm, and occasionally preaching in the neighbourhood. From the memoir of him in the "Wesleyan Methodist Magazine," to which I have already referred, I cull the two further facts that he retained the intensity of his religious feelings up to his death, and that he never failed in grateful recollections of James Macculloch—the Mr. M. of his French prison experiences. Of his family I can learn but little. It is said that originally they came from Shropshire, and certainly the name does not show a Cornish origin. His father, who was called Francis, was born in 1712, and died on February 28, 1774; his mother, Agnes, was born in 1714, and died in 1784. Of the eight sons and two daughters of whom he speaks, I can only trace four of the sons besides himself. Thomas, whom he does not mention, was born in 1737, and died in 1818; and John, whom he refers to as the eldest, Francis, born in 1745, and Charles, born in 1757, and died in 1803, are all mentioned in the autobiography. His daughter, Elizabeth, as far as I can learn, died while young.

In preparing the manuscript for publication I have taken the liberty of omitting some passages here and there which were simply repetitions, and which did not throw any additional light either on the narrative or his character. I have corrected all the wrong spellings which could be classed as simple mistakes, but I have carefully preserved all spellings which appeared of interest, as showing the pronunciation of the words, and especially those which illustrate the local dialect. For instance, the general preference for "a" over the other vowels, and especially in final syllables, is distinctly characteristic of West Cornwall.

In some places, particularly towards the end, the manuscript is somewhat damaged, and many of the pages have lost a portion of the lower corner. The gaps so caused I have endeavoured to fill with the words which he probably used, and such words are printed in italics. Where I have been unable to suggest the missing words, I have left blanks.


Penzance, 1900.

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