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Polperro and Smuggling

1782 poster
  Generations of Polperro seafarers have brought contraband goods ashore, but smuggling reached its peak in the latter half of the 18th century, largely due to the presence of Zephaniah Job who acted as the smugglers' banker for many years.

High taxes on a wide range of luxury goods as well as basic commodities such as salt, imposed to finance the wars with America and France between 1775 and 1815, encouraged the fishermen to supplement their meagre livelihood by engaging in the 'trade' as smuggling was known.

Much of the brandy, gin, tea and tobacco shipped across the Channel came from Guernsey where they were readily available at much lower prices than in England where they attracted heavy duty.

Smuggled goods were often landed at secluded coves along the coast near Polperro. Once on the beach, the illicit goods would quickly disappear, hidden in caves or taken by well-trodden paths inland to secret hiding-places.


Polperro's isolated position made it particularly difficult for the authorities to catch smugglers in possession of contraband. Repeated efforts by Excise officers were often frustrated despite the fact that a Customs Officer, Thomas Pinsent, was resident there for many years from 1766.

William Quiller's jug

The Revenue cutters at sea had more success. One Revenue vessel, the Hind, came to be feared by the Polperro smugglers more than any other. Her commander, Lieutenant Gabriel Bray, led a raid by land and sea in 1797 resulting in the arrest of four Polperro men for armed assault and obstruction. The Hind was later responsible for capturing a Polperro boat called the Lottery and her crew, wanted in connection with the murder of a Customs Officer in 1798.

One Polperro family actively involved in the 'trade' were the Quillers. John Quiller and his three sons owned and commanded several boats, including the Swallow, engaged in both privateering and smuggling. The sea took a terrible toll of the Quillers, claiming the lives of many male members of the family.

The end of the wars with France at the beginning of the 19th century was followed by Government measures to stop the traffic in smuggled goods into Britain. Heavy penalties were imposed for a wide variety of offences, and the presence of riding officer or coastguards made it difficult for goods to be landed ashore.

To read more about Polperro's remarkable smuggling stories, click here

© Jeremy Johns, Polperro Heritage Museum 1999


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