When Wales was a smugglers' haven

Wednesday 10 March 2010, 08:18

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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There is hardly a beach or cove on the Welsh coast that does not have at least one legend or story about smugglers and, always, the smuggler is the hero, the excise man the villain.

Nash Point - photograph by Tim Wood

Nash Point on the Glamorgan Heritage Coast. Photograph by Tim Wood.

The truth, of course, is much more prosaic. Smugglers were hard, vicious men who, if necessary, would kill rather than risk capture. Smuggling was a capital offence for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and captured smugglers could look forward to long imprisonment or hanging.

William Owen was a classic example. For years he operated along the Welsh coast, running contraband brandy and salt from his base on the Isle of Man and landing it at various places along Cardigan Bay and the Llyn Peninsula. While in gaol he wrote his autobiography, in which he openly boasted about killing at least half a dozen men, before he was convicted of murdering an accomplice during a botched robbery and executed at Carmarthen Gaol in 1747.

Morfa Bychan sands, between Criccieth and Porthmadog was a favourite haunt for smugglers who would unload their goods at low tide and then store them in caves at the northern end of the beach. When the tide is out you can still venture inside these echoing and atmospheric hiding places where, in the eighteenth century, casks of brandy and bags of salt sat waiting for the distributors to come and spirit them away.

Even now many places retain smuggling connections through their names. The wonderfully named Brandy Cove on Gower was the favourite location of William Arthur and his gang until the early 1800s. A lane on the cliff above is still known as Smugglers' Lane. Sully Island in the Vale of Glamorgan was another smugglers' hideout.

In 1733 William Roberts, Customs Officer at nearby Aberthaw, refused to go near the island after the smugglers who used it as their base broke into his warehouse to reclaim six casks of brandy that Roberts had confiscated.

Barry Island, when it was still an island, was another smuggling centre. In 1782 excise men were reporting that a large cutter armed with 24 guns and a crew of nearly 40 men was lying off the island, openly running contraband goods. Everybody connected with the island, they declared, had to be involved in smuggling.

Barry Island continued to be a problem for the excise men until 1798 when the collector of customs led a party of excise men onto the island while the smugglers were in Ireland. They seized nearly 300 casks of brandy and three chests of tea. It meant the end of Barry Island as a smuggling base.

These days Barry Island is connected to the mainland by a causeway and is a major tourist centre but it is interesting to note its colourful and relatively recent history as the haunt of smuggling gangs.

Do you have a favourite place in Wales that you used to be the haunt of smugglers? We'd love to hear from you.

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