Smuggling

...lonely coves, Cornish entrepreneurialism, French & Dutch merchantmen, wayward Vicars....

1. Smuggling's eighteenth century heyday
2. A twentieth century revival


1. Smuggling's eighteenth century heyday

Talland Bay has long been the source of ghost stories and tales of evil spirits. If there were any spirits to be found in the churchyard of the ancient church standing alone overlooking the waves on the shore below, they were almost certainly of an altogether different kind in times past. It would have been an easy matter to store kegs of brandy, rum or gin there before they were taken inland along well-trodden paths to secret hiding places or up Bridals Lane into Polperro itself, hidden in carts taking seaweed for manure to the fields.

The Reverend Richard Doidge, vicar of Talland during the early 18th century, was an eccentric clergyman reputed to have great skills as an exorcist. A contemporary account describes how he would often be seen in the churchyard 'at dead of night to the terror of passers-by, driving about the evil spirits; many of them were seen, in all sorts of shapes, flying and running before him, and he pursuing them with his whip in a most daring manner.' The likelihood was, however, that the 'shapes' were in reality local smugglers engaged in their highly profitable nocturnal business. To what extent such activity was carried on with the knowledge or approval of the legendary Parson Doidge can only be guessed.

Often the Talland smugglers had difficulty getting their contraband cargo inland. Laden horses were liable to be searched. Waggons were noisy. An 18th century Polperro smuggling legend tells of the time of a local smallpox epidemic when the dead were buried at night. The landlord of the Halfway House Inn, 'Battling Billy', hit on the idea of conveying his kegs in a hearse, knowing no Revenue officer would stop a hearse. This ruse worked well until one night, everything went wrong. A cargo of brandy had been landed at Talland Bay which had to be moved by daylight, and the hearse would not hold it all. When Billy turned up with a second hearse his men, growing nervous, were ready to run away, but under the lash of his tongue they got the second consignment aboard. As the last keg was being loaded, the Preventive men came riding into Talland.

'If they shoot me dead, my body'll drive the load to Polperro,' swore Billy, leaping on the box; and lashing his horses, he drove like a madman, shots flying around him. Fishermen in Polperro that night heard the hearse rattling over the cobbled street, and opening their doors, were horrified to see that 'Battling Billy' had been shot through the neck so that his head hung over one shoulder, but his arm still lashed the maddened horses on until hearse, horses and corpse plunged over the quay into the harbour. Afterwards, the fishermen said they knew when the ghost of 'Battling Billy' was coming, and until he had passed they kept their doors shut and their backs to the window lest they should see him and suffer the death he brought in his wake.

Ghosts or not, the coves and cliffs around Talland Bay were often frequented by folk engaged in running goods ashore under the cover of darkness, perhaps by moonlight.

Inside Talland church is the headstone of Robert Mark, a Polperro smuggler who was killed by a cannon ball fired from a Revenue cutter. The inscription reads:
 
    "ROBERT MARK late of Polperro, who Unfortunately was shot at Sea the 24th day of Jany in the year of our Lord GOD 1802, in the 40th Year of His AGE"

Jeremy Johns, Polperro Heritage Museum © 1999


2. A twentieth century revival

On 17 September 1979 Customs & Excise and police apprehended a converted fishing boat in Talland Bay and brought to an end what was thought then to be Britain's biggest drugs smuggling gang.

Over a period of 4 years the motor yacht Guiding Lights had undertaken 22 voyages from the Mediterranean and had shipped 30 tons of very good quality Moroccan Gold cannabis with a street value of £30 million (roughly £100 million at present day prices).

Initially this illicit cargo was landed in the Torbay area, but then the gang bought Rotterdam Cottage in Talland Bay. Roderick Eagleton, who lived in the cottage and ran the Talland Bay café, admitted his part in the smuggling and was jailed for 3 years. At the Old Bailey 12 men were jailed for a total of 55 years and fined over £675,000. The last to be brought to justice was Ronald Taylor in 1986 - he had jumped bail in 1981 - and he was jailed for six and a half years and fined £234,750.

When the authorities swooped on Rotterdam Cottage and Talland café, one and a half tons of cannabis was found, wrapped in Christmas paper in a specially built secret underground store behind the café's counter. After the discovery of keys at Taylor's Middlesex home, and the licence for Guiding Lights over two tons of cannabis was found in a garage in Penge, South London, as well as £250,000 in cash.

The main trial lasted two months in 1981 and the mastermind behind the gang, London bookmaker Robert Mills, was jailed for 10 years.

Thanks to June Slee, who, with her husband Ian, owns and runs the Talland Bay beach café and holiday cottages today - please see our "eating" and "staying pages" - and provided the material for this account - a fascinating episode which shows that some things have not changed as much as one might have thought....

As far as is known, there is no smuggling in Talland Bay these days (it all happens on the south-east ferry routes and Channel Tunnel now - so much easier!).

Please visit the Polperro Heritage Museum - see the museum's pages on our sister website (select Polperro on Talland Bay site main index on the left of this page). There is also a page about smuggling in Polperro on www.polperro.org

For further reading about smuggling and other local history visit the Polperro Heritage Press website

Latest update - 15 July 2009