It is fair to say that if you look hard enough every nook and cranny of the Cornish coast has some tale or other to tell. Whether it is shipwrecks, mermaids, ancient cliff castles, strange geology or wily smugglers, it’s really hard to find a cove or cliff without some story attached to it. While out walking recently I noticed that a particularly spectacular inlet was marked as ‘Ralph’s Cupboard’ on my map, so of course I needed to find out who this Ralph was!
“Not far from Portreath there exists a remarkable fissure”Robert Hunt, 1865
This ‘remarkable fissure’ can be found about a mile along the coast path from Portreath in the direction of Crane Castle and Basset’s Cove. Looking into it’s depths is a head-spinning experience (that should only be done with extreme caution). It is a long way down. The entrance to the cove is very narrow, a slim doorway to the open sea. Once inside the towering cliff walls taper out a little as they head towards the tiny white, sandy beach.
Ralph’s Cupboard is thought to have been a huge sea-cave, the roof of which collapsed some time in the distant past, leaving this tight zawn. My research has shown that there are a couple of fascinating explanations as to how the inlet came by its unusual name.
Wrath the Giant
Ralph’s Cupboard is sometimes know as the Giant’s Zawn and one suggestion is the Ralph is in fact a corruption of Wrath, referring to a massive and rather vicious giant who once dwelt in the ancient sea-cave. Wrath was the terror of the local fishermen, who would avoid passing the entrance to the chasm at all costs. Apparently there was a local saying about the tiny inlet:
“Nothing ever came out of it which was unfortunate enough to get into it!”
This was before the collapse of the cave roof and Wrath the giant was said to lie in wait in his dark ‘cupboard’, just watching for those who drifted too near to him on the currents or those who had been unfortunately driven in towards the coast by a storm. Once he spotted his prey he would wade out into the sea and tie the ill-fated boats to his belt. Wrath would then drag them back into his lair, wrecking the ships and making the crew his lunch! He particularly liked to eat the chubby sailors, apparently if you were to thin he would just let you drown. It is said that it was the fall of the roof of the cave that finally rid Portreath of this nasty, giant menace.
It seems likely that the legend of Wrath stems from the local seafarers natural and proper fears of straying too close to the treacherous stretch of coastline. For some, however, it held no such trepidation. Which brings us to the alternative legend connected to this cove.
Ralph the Smuggler
“Ralph was a famous smuggler, who would run his little vessel, even on the darkest nights, into the shelter afforded by this gorge and safely land his goods.”Robert Hunt, 1865
According to The Cornishman newspaper Ralph was a noted smuggler who on one occasion was running a cargo of brandy from the French coast when he was spotted by a revenue cutter. A chase ensued. It was a mizzly night with banks of thick fog which rolled across the water, rising and falling around the boats. Apparently the customs boat was gaining on Ralph’s small craft and taking pot shots at him. His capture seemed inevitable. But Ralph had one advantage on his side, local knowledge. The chase had brought them to his home waters.
“The coastline between Land’s End and Portreath would appear to offer few places where goods could be landed at night with a reasonable degree of safety; however, a considerable number of small coves, often backed by high cliffs, are found to present no great difficulties to those possessing an intimate knowledge of the area. The cliffs are also riddled with caves, mines adits and shafts, which were of great assistance in concealing contraband.”Cyril Noall, Smuggling in Cornwall, 1971
One of the final shots from the revenue ship was seen to damage the smuggler’s gear just as the bank on fog fell again, obscuring the view. When the cloud lifted the Ralph’s boat had completely vanished. After searching the water for any sign of him the customs men assumed that their quarry’s vessel had sunk to the bottom of the sea.
But Ralph was a wily man who knew his coastline well. At the most opportune moment, when he realised his boat couldn’t be seen, he had ducked into the narrow gap in the cliffs. Sailing straight into the chasm which now supposedly takes his name, the tapering walls of rock entire hide him from view. Once inside his pals were already waiting to bring him and the contraband ashore.
Ralph’s Wider Enterprise
“Runs were sometimes made at Hell’s Mouth and other risky landing places under the cliffs east of Godrevy . . . The kegs were landed from a ship on to a small beach at low tide and concealed in a cave, being rolled out after dark and hoisted up the cliff by pulley.”Cyril Noall, Smuggling in Cornwall, 1971
After the goods were unloaded on the tiny beach in Ralph’s Cupboard presumably they were hoisted up the cliff-face and hurried away. According to The Cornishman one of our smuggler’s favourite hiding places was at the nearby Tehidy Manor. Here, unbeknownst to the Basset family, Ralph would hide his contraband in their dairy.
The neighbouring farm of Trengrove was also a favourite place for secreting the smuggled wares. It is said that the hearth stone in the farm’s kitchen had a spacious hole beneath it, which could only be accessed by pushing the large stone out of the way. The cavity was further concealed by keeping a fire burning above it so any revenue men were unlikely to investigate further.
Final Thoughts – Who was Ralph?
Having searched the 1841/1851/1861 census returns for the parish of Illogan, of which Portreath is a part, I have found a number of Ralphs – both as a first name and as a surname. Sadly none of them jump out as a candidate for our smuggler. Ralph Knight, 25 years old at the time of the 1841 census, was a blacksmith living with his wife and children on Illogan Downs. Ralph Jennings, Ralph Harris and Edward Ralph were all miners, and although newspapers report that an Edward Ralph was charged at Camborne assizes for having ‘unjust weights in their possession’ in 1859, there is no evidence that he was involved with smuggling.
Unfortunately the true identity of our smuggler will have to remain a mystery. Unless. of course, there is someone out there who can tell me more?