Today the small fishing port of St Ives is best known for its beaches, its vibrant art scene and its ice cream but in the 18th and 19th centuries it was something of a smuggler’s paradise. And as was so often the case in Cornwall it seems the whole community was in on the enterprise in one way or another. Even one of the town’s mayors, John Knill, who ironically was also the Collector of Customs for several years, is thought to have participated in ‘considerable smuggling activities’.
St Ives – Privateering and smuggling added to the excitements of this busy little port town which took part with enthusiasm in both of these profitable exertions . . . the prizes and their cargoes were sold cheaply to the townspeople.”Richard Pearse, The Ports and Habours of Cornwall, 1963
However, sometimes it can feel that Cornwall’s status as a smuggling haven has been so enthusiastically mythologised that it is hard to separate the real history from the hype. It can be difficult to find the real characters behind an oft-romanticised swashbuckling fantasy.
Honour amongst . . .
Over the years I have written about a few Cornish smugglers or Free Traders as they liked to be called – Willy Wilcox, Thomas James, Silas Finn and Amram Hooper to name a few. And one thing I think is clear, most of these men (and women) didn’t think of themselves as criminals. There was an honour, a pride, in what they were doing. They often saw themselves as providing a service for their communities, as well as making a living for their families, in tough times.
“Smuggling among Cornishmen of old was not the outcome of a mere love of adventure or a desire to cheat the revenue authorities. Rather, it was something which was vital to the existence of the people. the extreme poverty of the working classes, especially of those engaged in the precarious occupations of fishing and mining, created a condition which was favourable to the development of this form of Free Trade.”A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, Cornish Seafarers, 1932
And unlike most other law-breakers smugglers had the support, goodwill, even the gratitude of the general population they lived amongst. This meant that the Free Traders often conducted themselves with a certain kind of confidence, perhaps nonchalance, that must have infuriated and frustrated the authorities. Indeed, this boldness and self-assurance, as well as the community’s willingness to support Free Trade, is perfectly illustrated by a series of events that took place in St Ives in 1851.
Catching Captain James Williams
It is fair to say that Captain James Williams was once a name known to many in St Ives. He was born in the town in 1834, the son of James Williams, also a mariner, and Elizabeth Jennings. In October 1855 he married Jane Hollow, a local girl whose father Edward was a tin miner. The couple had five children – James, Jane, Valletta, Lorena and Edith.
It isn’t clear when Capt. Williams’ career as a Free Trader began, perhaps he inherited the ‘business’ from his father, but by the 1850s he was a “noted smuggler”. He appears to have been a clever and audacious man who was not afraid of standing up to authority. It also appears that his crew displayed many of these same traits as well as a fierce loyalty to their captain, and these were all attributes that seem to have kept them and their ship, St George, out of trouble and beyond the reach of the law.
Hidden in Plain Sight
On the night of 31st May 1851 the St George arrived at St Ives carrying a cargo of Irish whisky, it is perhaps unnecessary for me to add that the customs authorities were unaware of the little ship’s arrival. Capt. Williams landed the barrels by the Old Breakwater and instructed his crew to hide it in some fishing boats that were pulled up on the shore. (Some was also stowed in some nearby pig sties.) Again, I probably don’t need to point out that this all relied on the knowledge and cooperation of the owners of the beached boats and the pigs.
The captain and his men then waited until a sufficiently late hour before loaded the whisky into wagons and driving it through the streets of St Ives. Anyone who saw the little convoy would have known exactly what they were up to and chose to look the other way.
Unfortunately one person did not. Coastguard Cock was partaking of a late glass of beer (or two) in the George and Dragon Inn.
Cock heard the sound of the waggon’s wheels on the cobbles outside and decided to investigate. Apparently he quickly finished his drink and stepped outside into the street and right into the path of the waggons. What exactly happened next is up for debate. Cock would claim that he was set upon by the smugglers and left bound and gagged in the gutter, Capt. Williams told the story differently, as will be explained later . . .
The smugglers and their contraband made their way through the town without any further incident and at Skidden Hill they were met by extra horses so set off at speed in the direction of Redruth. In the meantime, Cock had managed to get himself free and wake up his superior officer who lived in the Warren. The two men galloped after the smugglers but when they reached the Toll House on the Hayle Causeway the keeper there claimed he hadn’t seen any waggons passing that night.
Not realising that the man had almost certainly been bribed the Coastguards assumed the smuggler’s convoy must have been heading for Penzance instead so turned their horses and rode off in hot pursuit.
Meanwhile Williams and most of his crew were on their merry way towards Pool. However, one seaman, Robert Schmidt, had stayed behind on the St George to keep watch and ultimately it was his steadfastness and obstinance, as well as his Captain’s nerve, that was to save them all.
Meet Robert Schmidt
Robert Schmidt was born in Memel, East Prussia (once part of Germany, now part of Lithuania) in 1831. He ran away to sea aged just 12 and after spending years as a cabin boy on other ships somehow fell in with James Williams and became part of his crew in St Ives.
Schmidt was the only member of the crew to stay behind, left to watch over the St George, that night in 1851. So when the very frustrated coastguard officers got to Penzance and realised that they had been tricked they returned to St Ives determined to find answers. Storming onto the St George which was anchored just offshore what they found was the young Prussian alone on the ship and Schmidt played his part to perfection.
To each question the customs officers put to him Robert would simply reply in his thick accent “I don’t know.” When they tried threats and bribery, he would only shake his head, pretend not to understand, “jabber” in Prussian and repeat again and again “I don’t know, I don’t know” as if these were the only words of English that he knew.
In the end they had to let him be. But the authorities, despite having no real evidence of wrongdoing, were not happy to just let this blatant act of criminality go unchallenged. The harbour authorities impounded the St George under the pretext that her name on her stern had been partially hidden – all ships are required by law to have their name clearly displayed. And then a notice appeared in the newspapers a few days later, it read:
“Smuggling: On the night of Saturday last about eleven o’clock, two or three waggon loads of contraband goods were landed near St Ives breakwater and carried through the town eastward. One of the coastguard officers in attempting to stop one of the waggons was knocked down and held by two men until the waggon was gone beyond reach . . . The smack called the St George of Bristol which was lying in the bay at anchor has been stopped by the officers of customs in consequence of the name on her stern being partially hid and the boat having neither name of captain or vessel.”West Briton, 6th June 1851
It speaks to Captain James Williams’ strong character and chutzpah that he was not willing to take what was almost certainly a bit of an over-reach by the customs officials lying down.
Letter to the Editor
“It is clear that such men regarded themselves not so much as smugglers as ‘fair traders’, a term which they often applied to the enterprise in which they were engaged. They knew the law and, had it been in their power to do so, they would no doubt have changed the law and legalised their position, but this being impossible they set themselves above such a man-made institution.”A.K. Hamilton Jenkin
About a week after the article accusing the St George and her captain of smuggling appeared in the West Briton Williams wrote a letter to the editor of the Royal Cornwall Gazette defending himself and cleverly undermining the authorities position. It is clear that he had no compunction in defending his ‘profession’ and pointedly implied that Coastguard Cock had been drunk when the incident in St Ives had occurred. Williams also cleverly intimates the support and good opinion he has in his local community, hinting of course that authorities will have difficulty finding witnesses who would speak out against him.
The letter shows Captain Williams’ boldness, his confidence that they can prove nothing. After all, it could have been argued that his name had been slandered by the customs officials without any actual evidence of a crime or any previous criminal conviction . . . all on the word of a man who had been in the pub that night.
The publication of this letter in the local papers gives us rare access to a first-hand account of events from a smuggler in his own words.
Captain Williams’ letter reads as follows:
To the Editor of the Royal Cornwall Gazette.
A paragraph appeared in the West Briton newspaper of last week headed ‘Smuggling’ and also that a vessel, names the St George of Bristol as be detained at the port of St Ives by the Customs inconsequence of the name on her stern not being sufficiently plain. I beg to acquaint you that I am the master of the above smack, and that I brought her to anchor in St Ives Bay on Saturday morning, the 31st of May last, for the purpose of taking in some baskets of fish, being at the time bound up the channel. To my surprise on Monday she was brought into the port by the Customs house officers and the coastguard.
The general belief in this town and neighbourhood is, that as one of the coastguards, named Cock, was rambling from a public house late on Saturday night, he fancied he met a waggon loaded with contraband goods and in his attempt to stop the waggon was either knocked down or from some other cause fell under the waggon. This circumstance has caused the detention of my vessel as at that time she was the only one in the bay. The vessel is still under arrest, and I very much doubt whether I shall not lose the confidence of my employers unless this business is thoroughly explained; how far they have s right to detain the ship I am at a loss to conceive. Had this occurred in any other port I should with my crew be in a state of very great distress. I am a native of this port and am in consequence thrown upon my friends for my daily bread.
If you will favour me by inserting the above in your next week’s column, I shall ever feel very grateful.
I am, Sir, your ever obedient humble servant, JAMES WILLIAMS
10th June 1851, St IvesRoyal Cornwall Gazette, 13th June 1851
On the 16th June 1851, three days after the letter appeared in the paper, the St George was released from the custody of H.M. Customs.
The Court Case
The officers were not happy to let the whole matter pass however. It must have been infuriating for them because they knew that Williams was up to something but they just couldn’t prove it. So when on the 20th June a quantity of contraband spirits was discovered hidden beneath the water, just off St Ives, in a method known as ‘sinking or ‘creeping”, they saw their chance.
Sinking was a method of hiding smuggled goods, once used throughout Cornwall, which involved lines of weighted kegs roped or chained together and sunk beneath the surface of the sea just offshore. The north coast around St Ives was not the ideal stretch of water for this particular trick as the rough seas would often set the kegs adrift. In the spring of 1817 for example some thirty-six barrels of spirits, roped together, were found floating near Padstow and seized by customs. In this instance the Custom House officers found a number of barrels on a piece of chain and on searching the St George they claimed to have found a matching chain on board the ship. Capt. James Williams was charged with smuggling and brought to trial.
However, the case soon turned into a farce because no witnesses could be found and apparently Robert Schmidt again did an excellent job of feigning complete ignorance of any wrongdoing. The trial collapsed and James Williams was released.
After the embarrassing chaos of the court case, it appears that Robert Schmidt was more committed than ever to his new life in Cornwall. He settled in St Ives, became a British Citizen and changed his name to Robert Smith. In June 1854 he married a St Ives woman, Mary Ann Woolcock, and together the couple had eight children, while living at various addresses around the town including Norway, Bunker’s Hill and Fore Street.
Robert, who remained a mariner for most of his life, became known locally as ‘Prussian Bob’ and it is said that even today there are many people in St Ives who can trace their ancestry back to that ever so discrete smuggler Robert Schmidt!
The Old Worm
James Williams was known locally by the nickname “The Old Worm” perhaps because of his amazing ability to wriggle his way out of trouble!
And for his staunch loyalty to his master and his sly act of ignorance, which ultimately saved the day, Robert Schmidt became known as “The Old Worm’s Fool”. In 1971 in his book on smuggling in Cornwall Cyril Noall writes that since this episode “a St Ives person suspected of pretending ignorance of some matter for an ulterior reason” was ever after known as an Old Worm’s Fool.
I wonder if this term is still in use today . . .?