Posted in Kafevend Blog

Cornish smugglers

Today on the Kafevend blog we are turning to riveting tales of dastardly doings and betrayals, all in the name of tea (and a few other goodies, besides). Join us as we meander around the Cornish coast and delve into the history of smuggling!


Anyone who has ever had the chance to drive over Bodmin Moor and on down the A30 towards the end of the British Isles will no doubt have been struck by the remoteness of Cornwall- and probably wished for a bigger road! Hundreds of years ago, the only roads available were little more than cart tracks, meaning that, by overland routes at least, Cornwall was very isolated. The main way to move around was by sailing vessel, though even this could prove dangerous thanks to Cornwall's rugged coast. Many ships were lost, dashed against storm swept rocks along the shore.

A common myth is that some Cornishmen were wreckers- that is, that they lured ships onto the rocks by using false beacons and lighthouses. This isn't actually thought to have happened much, if at all, but they certainly used to enjoy retrieving any goods from these ships! What is definitely known is that there was a very strong business in smuggling within Cornwall, and one of the top items brought into the country in this way was tea.

Secret tea

By the 18th century, tea had spread beyond the confines of the nobility and the rich and into wider society. Whilst demand was there, the tea being brought in by official means was often far too expensive for the common folk, the price hugely inflated by a ridiculously high tax on it. This made it a prime target for smugglers who could buy it cheaply on the continent and spirit it back home aboard fast ships, capable of navigating the tricky waters and hidden coves around the Cornish coast. Unloaded from these hidden berths, the goods were then moved inland. Such was the value in smuggling that it was often a community wide effort, with everyone from sailors and farmhands to priests and estate owners dipping their toes in the illicit trading.

The smuggling wasn't always such a secret endeavour. At times, they were brazen enough to use larger ports such as Falmouth and Penzance in defiance of the impotent customs officials who stared on, fuming, at the crime going on right under their noses. Sometimes the lure was too much and even they joined in.

The Empire strikes back

Eventually, the tide began to turn against the smugglers. The struggling customs officials were reinforced over time and were better able to perform their jobs. Public opinion in the wider country begun to turn at the moral iniquity of the widespread nature of the smuggling. The British East India Company, who were the official channel for tea, were annoyed at the loss of profit. The biggest change to come- for tea at least- was in 1784 when the new Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, slashed the tax on tea by an almighty 116.5%. The trade in smuggling tea practically died out overnight, and purchases of official tea took its place.

With that little history lesson over, join us later this week when we take a look at some modern Cornish tea companies!


Smuggler's Britain
Cornish links

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