Smuggling in Cornwall was once regarded as an honourable profession and the men who practiced it were known euphemistically as ‘fair traders’. In fact, a fair trader in Falmouth, Isaac Cocart, was actually mayor of the town twice, as well as being a respected magistrate.
Cornwall’s extensive coastline, with so many tiny coves, offers ample opportunity for clandestine deeds. Often the excise men weren’t local, didn’t know the coast very well, which kept them at a permanent disadvantage.
Silas Finn, or Finny as he was often called, was known for regularly landed smuggled goods at the small sandy bay of Portwrinkle. Portwrinkle was actually pretty busy at the time with the legal pilchard trade but Silas Finn had other ideas. He was a popular local character, providing his community with a regular supply of contraband goods. Silas was said to have organised smuggling routes all along the coast, from Looe to Cawsand, even right in to Devon.
Looe Island, not far from Portwrinkle, was a haven for smuggled goods in the 18th and 19th century. During that time two families are recorded as having lived on the island. The Finns since the 1780s (sometimes spelt Fynns) and later the Hoopers. The two families were, quite literally, thick as thieves.
The Notorious Silas Finn
Not many details are known about Silas Finn but he did have an interesting way of keeping the excise men off his back. He dressed himself up as a woman! He would disguise himself by wearing a dress and a woman’s bonnet, using the wide brim to hide his face. Silas Finn was known to have had a clever partner too. A woman of colour known as Joan Finn. Some say she was his wife, others just a savvy business acquaintance. Whatever the case Joan was considered an honourable character by all and was a successful smuggler in her own right.
Then one fateful night the worst happened. Silas Finn was caught red handed. By chance it seems the excise men came upon him with a large amount of smuggled goods. He panicked and did something said to have been completely out of character. He struck a deal with the authorities. To secure his own freedom Finn agreed to turn in some other local smugglers.
A devious plan was hatched. Finn lit a lantern and signalled from the cliffs at Portwrinkle. The smugglers’ boat recognised what they thought was the ‘safe’ signal and landed on the beach. Then the customs men swooped and they were arrested with a cargo of brandy, lace, tea and tobacco. The captured smugglers were Finn’s friends Amram Hooper and his sister Jochabed. Finn had betrayed a man that he had probably known all his life.
Who was Amram Hooper?
Amram Hooper, born in 1795, was one of the Looe Island Hoppers and a famous free trader. He was living at the time of his arrest in Looe with his wife Philippa and their six children. Although his mother, Grace, was still living on Looe Island. On his marriage certificate Hooper records his profession as fisherman. But the house where he had once lived on the island is still known as Smugglers Cottage. Intrigingly the cottage was discovered to have a number of secret stores beneath it’s floor. Most likely where Hooper hid the contraband.
Hooper was said to be a well liked and quiet man. When asked to describe him, a local fisherman said ‘his words were few but pure silver every one of ’em.’
Amram was also described as ‘most remarkable and evidently educated far beyond his surroundings. He had a great personality and charm, clever, resourceful, a born leader and his associates revered him.’
Interestingly, there is a painting hanging in Looe’s Guildhall called ‘Arrest of the Smuggler in East Looe, 1820’. Painted by John Robertson Reid it shows Amram Hooper and Jochabed, and in the background there is a mysterious dark figure watching. This is thought this could be Joan Finn. As far as I know there is no painting of Silas Finn.
What happened to Finn after he betrayed his friends isn’t clear but the cove at Portwrinkle still remembers it’s infamous son. The beach is known as Finnygook beach and there is a pub at the village of Crafthole nearby called the Finnygook Inn.
Legend has it that the ghost of Silas Finn haunts the cliffs above the beach on wild, dark nights. His spirit unable to rest because of his cruel betrayal of his friends.
Amram, on the other hand, lived to be 84 years old, and was buried in Looe in 1879.
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