For many years smuggling in Cornwall was regarded as an honourable profession and the men who practiced it were euphemistically called as ‘free traders’. In fact, these men and women were often ‘upstanding’ members of the community. A known smuggler 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 or had to patrol a large area, 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 on Cornwall’s south coast, not far from Looe.
Portwrinkle was actually pretty busy at this time, a centre for the legal pilchard trade but Silas Finn found other ideas to supplement his income. He was a popular local character, providing his community with a regular supply of contraband goods and is said to have organised smuggling routes all along the coast, from Looe to Cawsand, even right into Devon.
Looe Island, not far from Portwrinkle, was a haven for smugglers in the 18th and 19th century and during that time two families are recorded living on the island. The Finns, since the 1780s (sometimes spelt Fynns), and later the Hoopers. These two families were, quite literally, thick as thieves.
The Notorious Silas Finn
Not many details are known about Silas Finn and his life but one local legend claims that he had 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 and avoid being recognised. And Silas Finn was known to have had a clever partner too.
Joan Finn was a woman of colour and some say she was his wife, while others claim that she was just a savvy business acquaintance. Whatever the case, Joan, like Silas, was widely considered an honourable character by the community and was a successful smuggler in her own right.
But then one fateful night the worse happened. Silas Finn was caught red handed. Simply by chance it seems the excise men came upon him with a large amount of smuggled goods. Silas 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 of the other local smugglers.
A devious plan was hatched. Finn agreed to light a lantern and use it to signal from the cliffs at Portwrinkle. At sea his friends in their boat loaded with contraband recognised what they thought was the ‘safe’ signal and landed on the beach. No sooner had they hit the sand than 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 Hooper, was still living on Looe Island.
On his marriage record Hooper notes his profession as fisherman. But it is clear he also made money in other ways, to this day the house where he had once lived Looe island is known as Smugglers Cottage. Intrigingly in recent years the little 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. It 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 still haunts the cliffs above the beach on wild, dark nights. His spirit is said to be unable to rest because of his cruel betrayal of his friends.
Amram, on the other hand, served his time and lived to be 84 years old. He was buried in Looe in 1879.