Smugglers retained a certain mystique, a measure of respect and acclaim, within the Cornish community throughout the 18th century and beyond. And perhaps none more so than John Carter, the King of Prussia Cove, who remains one of the eras best known characters to this day. It was said that no jury in Cornwall would ever convict a smuggler because so many saw them as courageous and ‘honest men’. Heroes of the people who were resourceful and enterprising rather than criminal. The truth of course lies somewhere in between.
The stories of the daring deeds of these so called “freetraders” are still told and retold with no little admiration; and the small coastal villages and hidden coves which were the setting for such adventures are part of what attracts visitors to our region. Smuggling is as much part of our cultural heritage as fishing, farming and mining.
John Carter’s early life
Francis Carter, John’s father, was a miner born in 1712. He had a smallholding at Pengersick, a couple of miles down the coast from Prussia Cove, and it is thought that it was here that he and his wife Annice (sometimes called Agnes) raised their large family. Francis had married Annice Williams at Breage in 1736 and the couple went on to have six sons and two daughters – John, the eldest was born in March 1738.
In those days Prussia Cove was known as Porthleah and it is one of a series of small secluded inlets including Piskies Cove, Bessie’s Cove, Pestreath Cove and King’s Cove between Hoe Point and Cudden Point. The story goes that when John was a boy playing soldiers with his friends for fun he chose to be known as the ‘King of Prussia’. During the 18th century the monarch, Frederick the Great of Prussia, was thought of as a hero by many across Europe. John Carter kept the nickname the King of Prussia throughout his time as a smuggler, and the cove which became his home and the base for his operations was renamed in his honour.
The Carter boys were brought up as honest, hard-working and god-fearing Methodists and at first they followed their father into the mines. But by the early 1770s John and his two brothers Charles and Harry were spending all of their time at Porthleah either fishing or smuggling.
The King of Prussia
“John Carter was the prince of smugglers, daring and imaginative, a man of his word.”S. H. Burton, 1955
Folliott-Stokes wrote in 1928 that if circumstances had been different, if the Carter boy’s parents had been wealthly, then John would have been send to Parliament and Harry to the navy. He concluded: “England would have doubtless gained a subtle diplomatist and a distinguished admiral.”, such was the Carter’s reputation for scrupulous fair dealing and quick wittedness.
As it was John Carter and his brother Harry, who became known as Captain Harry, excelled at their new black-market profession. They had soon made enough money from smuggling goods to the Cornish coast from France to purchase their own ships. The first was a 160 ton cutter, a boat built for speed and manoeuvrability, which they kitted out with 19 guns and they also had a lugger with 20 guns. The Carters employed a band of local men, known as the Cove Boys, and together they cut a new road down to Prussia Cove and adapted the caves there as store houses for their trade.
It may seem ironic to us now but John Carter was considered an “honest man” by all that knew him, including the Penzance Customs Officers. On one occasion while John was at sea the excise officers arrived at the cove in their boats and confiscated a large haul of goods that had recently arrived from France. When John learnt what had happened he was very upset, not because of the loss of the contraband but because he didn’t want to let down his customers and feared loosing his good name. A plan was hatched. In the dead of night John and a number of his armed comrades broke into the Custom House stores and took the goods back, being careful to only carry away what was actually his. When the break in was discovered the officers made a note of what was missing and it was reported:
“John Carter had been there, and they knew it, because he was an honest man who would not take anything that did not belong to him.”John B. Cornish, The cornish Magazine, 1898
The relationship with the authorities was not always an easy one however, it seems like an endless game of cat and mouse, although for the most part it appears that John was the victor. On another occasion, while being chased in his cutter by the Revenue John took the risky move of sailing his boat through a narrow passage in a reef. Carter also fired at the other boat which understandably decided not follow him and when darkness fell he made his escape along the coast.
A Family Business
John and his brother Harry’s reputation and wealth continued to grow until the early 19th century. Captain Harry even wrote an autobiography of his exciting exploits. Then in 1803 an advert was placed in the Sherborne Mercury newspaper announced the sale of the lease of Prussia Cove. It is thought that the advert was a ruse to try and convince the excise men that the Carters were giving up their smuggling ways, but it does give us an amazing glimpse into the extent of the enterprise.
“All those large and commodious Cellars, Lofts, Salthouses, Fish Presses, Boat Bed, Capstan, good Dwelling House, and other conveniences and premises, situated at Porthlea Cove, otherwise Prussia Cove, in Mount’s Bay and in the parish of St Hillary . . . together with the said Cove and the Landing Places therein. The above premises are exceedingly well adapted and situated for carrying on any kind of trade or merchandise, as well as of the fisheries in Mount’s Bay, and the fish of all kinds may be landed tythe-free. There is a mine adjoining, now working, for copper ore and a steam engine erected there on. The coals and other materials for the consumption of the said mine may be imported at the said cove. The said premises are now let to the under-tenants of Messrs John and Francis Carter, at the clear yearly rent of £87.”Sherborne Mercury, 24th May 1803
It appears however that the Carters had no intention of winding up their business at Prussia Cove. They were already making plans for the next generation.
In September 1765 John Carter had married Joan Richards at Breage Church and, as far as I can gather, they only had one daughter, Eliza in 1767. In 1770 the couple moved into a house which John had built above the cove. The photograph below shows the house, which was demolished in 1906, and supposedly the entrance to the secret tunnel which led from the cove to their cellars.
The Battle of Bessie’s Cove
Bessie’s Cove, directly beside Prussia Cove, is a perfect natural harbour that seems to have been designed for smugglers. Old cart tracks can still be seen carved into the surface of the rocks between the two coves. The little inlet is named after Bessie Bussow who ran the Kiddleywink Inn above the cove which was, of course, amply supplied with rum. Local legend has it that tunnels led from the inn to the beach below, and Bessie was well known and trusted by Carter and his crew.
As well as his cottage John also built a range of defences on the small point between Bessie’s Cove and Prussia Cove which he armed with a number of guns. Sometime around 1807, when John was nearly 70 years old, the Carters’ lugger was making for home with the Revenue men giving chase (another version says it was a navy ship called the HMS Fairy in pursuit). Whatever the case, the ‘King of Prussia’ felt that they were coming to close to his kingdom and opened fire! The enemy was driven back and held off for the night. The next morning however the smugglers found themselves fired upon from the hedge at the top of the hill by a number of men on horses. They quickly took refuge in Bessie Bussow’s Kiddleywink, perhaps escaping into the tunnels. The landing party then destroyed Carter’s guns and, although there is no record of him being arrested, this it appears was the end of John’s smuggling career.
The Next Generation
The family business was passed on to William Richards, John Carter’s son-in-law, presumably Eliza’s husband, and it is thought that things continued on much the same as before for several more years. William and Eliza’s son, Harry, was still well known in the area in the late 19th century and would tell colourful stories to keep the legend of his infamous grandfather alive. In 1898 John Cornish wrote of Harry:
“Long may he flourish, to light and delight this decadent age with the tales of his grandfather’s glory and his father’s fame!”
How and when John Carter died is a mystery. After the incident with the navy he pretty much disappeared, perhaps to avoid arrest, and I can find no burial record for him at Breage or in any of the surrounding parishes. But in March 1822 the death of his wife, Annice Carter, was reported in the local papers. She was recorded as his ‘relict’ implying that John is already dead.
“On Monday last at Kings Cove, in Breage, of Mrs Carter, aged 84, relict of Mr Carter, who during the time smuggling was at its height was famed for his expoits and well known by the title of the King of Prussia.”9th March 1822
A visit to Prussia Cove and Bessie’s Cove cannot fail but inspire your imagination. It is in these places, standing where men such as John Carter once stood, that those stories truly come alive! And it is easy to see why they were so admired and mythologised, and why their legends live on to this day.