history of polperro
the harbour
cornish lads


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.

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.

The Smugglers Poem

IF you wake at midnight, and hear a horse's feet,
Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that ask no questions isn't told a lie.
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don't you shout to come and look, nor use 'em for your play.
Put the brishwood back again - and they'll be gone next day !

If you see the stable-door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
If the lining's wet and warm - don't you ask no more !

If you meet King George's men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you " pretty maid," and chuck you 'neath the chin,
Don't you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one's been !

Knocks and footsteps round the house - whistles after dark -
You've no call for running out till the house-dogs bark.
Trusty's here, and Pincher's here, and see how dumb they lie
They don't fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by !

'If You do as you've been told, 'likely there's a chance,
You'll be give a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood -
A present from the Gentlemen, along 'o being good !

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie -
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by !

Rudyard Kipling