Lord Cawdor and the smugglers

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John Campbell, better known as Lord Cawdor, is renowned as the man who beat the French when they landed at Fishguard in 1797. But there is more, much more, to the life of this active and enthusiastic man who dominated society in south Pembrokeshire during the early part of the 19th century.

Campbell was born on 24 April 1755 at the family home, Cawdor Castle, near Nairn in Scotland. He inherited his estates at Stackpole in south Pembrokeshire from his father, Prys Campbell, in 1777.

It was an immense holding, covering some 16,000 acres, and what Campbell created on his land was widely recognized as the perfect agricultural system, run for the benefit of owner, tenants and farmers alike.

John Campbell had represented first Nairn, then Cardigan in parliament until he was created Baron Cawdor of Castlemartin in June 1796 in recognition of his support of Pitt's war policy. He may now have been Lord Cawdor but to the people of Pembrokeshire he would always be affectionately known as Squire Campbell.

Cawdor's moment of glory came in February 1797 when he quickly rounded up and imprisoned 1,400 members of the legion Noire who had landed at Fishguard. Truth be known, his opponents were a pretty desperate lot, something of a forlorn hope. Nevertheless, it required courage and initiative to gain the victory and these were qualities that Lord Cawdor had in abundance.

His courage had been amply displayed a year or so before the French landings. One evening, as he sat down to dinner, news reached Cawdor that a smuggling brig was putting in to the beach at nearby Freshwater East, about to discharge a cargo of illicit brandy.

Cawdor, accompanied by three friends, immediately set out for Freshwater East beach. They had no weapons and had little or no idea what they were likely to be facing. When they reached the beach they discovered the landing well in progress. Cawdor ordered the smugglers to stop. Alarmed, the men dropped the boxes and ran for their boat.

As Lord Cawdor and his comrades were gathering up the crates of brandy, two boatloads of smugglers pulled back into the beach. They were armed with metal staves and pokers.

The sensible option would have been to flee. Not Lord Cawdor. He resolutely stood his ground and although attacked by the smugglers, he managed to fight them off using just his fists.

Within a few minutes the smugglers were again in flight, this time leaving Cawdor in full and final command of the beach. He took the brandy to a nearby house for storage and went back to Stackpole Court to finish his dinner.

As it happened, the owners of the house were not made of the same stuff as Lord Cawdor and a day or so later the local representatives of the smuggling gang surrounded the house and demanded "their property." It was duly passed over.

Cawdor's colourful life continued. In the aftermath of the French landings at Fishguard, Lord Cawdor, along with several others, was highly critical of Lt Col Thomas Knox, commander of the Fishguard Fencibles.

By rank at least, Knox was the senior officer in the county but his actions in retreating from Fishguard when news came of the French landings was hardly in the best traditions of the British army – even if his soldiers were no more than part-time warriors.

Cawdor was scathing about Knox's conduct during the invasion scare. He refused to serve under him, writing to the commander of all British forces along the Severn Estuary to resign his commission, declaring that he, along with the other officers, would not "risk our characters by acting under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Knox whose ignorance of his Duty and want of judgement must be known to you."

It did not say it outright but there were clear implications of cowardice here. Typical of the age, Knox took exception to Cawdor's comments and challenged him to a duel.

As the challenged man, Cawdor had the right to choose the location for the duel and he opted for the Turnpike Road to the north of Milford Haven. At midday on 24 May 1797 he and Knox met but the outcome of the fight remains unclear.

Cawdor's Journal entry for the day reads simply: "A very fine day. After breakfast rode to the ferry. Met Jos (his second) there, and Mr Knox and Colonel Vaughan near the Williamston Road. Rode home, back by half past two."

Whether the duel was ever fought is not known. Perhaps there was a quick crossing of blades or exchange of pistol shots, perhaps a brief apology. Cawdor would not have been afraid but he was too sensible to risk life and limb unnecessarily. At this distance no-one will ever know.

Whatever happened, the duel was just one more episode in the amazing life of Lord Cawdor, one of the most interesting men ever to live in Wales.

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