In Polperro at the end of the 18th century, as in so many of Cornwall’s coastal villages, fishing and farming were the mainstays. However, while both industries could be reasonably profitable or at the very least support a family, they were also unreliable and seasonal. Many men chose to supplement their income with a little ‘freetrading’ as it was euphemistically known . . . what we would now call smuggling. And, if the rumours are to be believed, a Polperro man called Willy Wilcox was very much involved in this clandestine activity.
“Our town was probably a stronghold of the contraband trade in early times . . . The place was especially adapted to its successful prosecution. A commodious creek led into a deep and secluded valley, of very difficult approach by land, where lived a race of hardy and reckless sailors and amphibious artisans for whom a life of adventure and great, though precarious, profits had many charms.”Jonathan Couch, History of Polperro, 1871
Polperro was and still is renowned for its smugglers, there is even a museum dedicated to it in the village.
The many hidden coves and the isolation of the community made the clandestine trade possible, as well as what seems to have been an almost universal willingness to support or at least turn a blind eye to the illegal activities amongst the local population.
“In the night of Saturday the 29th ultimo, James Sturgess, Chief officer, James Farrow and George Kingston, boatmen all belonging to the preventive boat in the service of the Customs stationed in Polperro were out on duty for the prevention of smuggling and saw near Trelawney Gate . . . five or six horse laden with small casks and guarded by several smugglers . . . the boatman immediately made towards them and [one] was struck a violent blow on the head with a stick . . . but succeeded in seizing from them two casks of foreign rum spirits . . . the said smugglers galloped off and made their escape.”West Briton, 2 July 1824
Polperro characters such as Zephaniah Job, the smuggler’s banker, and smuggler Tom Potter have pretty much become folk heroes in the area.
The newspapers to the early 19th century are full of exciting battles between the customs men and the freetraders, and sometimes the authorities had unexpected victories . . .
“On Tuesday last as a man of Polperro was fishing near the Cannis Rock, on hauling in his line found a keg of spirits attached to it, continuing his new sort of fishery, he took on board upwards of forty kegs and carried them to Fowey Custom-house, for which he will be handsomely rewarded.”Royal Cornwall Gazette, 30 April 1825
One smuggler’s name, Willy Wilcox, is still closely associated with Polperro’s past but despite his fame little is known about his exploits.
Willy Wilcox’s Cave
Just beyond Polperro’s harbour wall on the small western beach is a gapping cavern known as Willy Wilcox’s cave.
During the 18th century it is said that a smuggler called William Wilcox (or Wilcocks) lived in the cottage above the natural hole in the rock and conveniently used it to store his contraband.
The ancient fishing ports of Cawsand, Polperro, Looe, Portwrinkle and Mevagissey are all said to be riddled with secret hiding places like this one and tales of underground passageways abound.
“Cornish smugglers certainly did use natural caves in the cliffs as well as man-made adits which are horizontal drainage passages from the clifftop mines, and even prehistoric fogous underground chambers [to hide contraband].Paul White, The Cornish Smuggling Industry, 1997.
Wilcox is said to have dug a secret tunnel connecting his cottage to the cave so that he could move his illegal goods unobserved.
There are several stories about how the old smuggler met his end. One is that Willy was moving his contraband and somehow became trapped inside and was drowned. Another is that he was actually using the cave to hide from the customs officials that were pursuing him and couldn’t escape the incoming tide.
By far the strangest tale about Wilcox is that he entered his cave and somehow became hopelessly lost in a labyrinth of passages that he had dug. He never found his way out and his restless spirit can still be heard moaning inside the dark cavern.
And that is the one thing that all the stories seem to agree on, that the ghost of Willy Wilcox haunts his cave in Polperro.
Note: Willy Wilcox’s cottage is now a holiday let and one article suggested that the now blocked entrance to the tunnel is still visible in the living room floor, though I haven’t been able to verify this.
Who was William Wilcocks?
Who exactly Willy Wilcox was has never really been established. However, I have found a record of a William Wilcocks who was buried in Lansallos in September 1848 within the time that was still known as the ‘Golden Age’ of smuggling in Cornwall (1700 – 1850). He is recorded as a resident of Polperro aged 77 years, making his birth year 1771.
I cannot be sure that this man is the same Willy Wilcox that the legends record but it seems very possible.
The End of Polperro’s Smuggling Trade
“All joined in it, the smith left his forge and the husbandman his plough, even women and children turned out to assist in the unlawful traffic and receive their share of the proceeds.”Jonathan Couch, History of Polperro
The history of smuggling in Polperro was a long and illustrious one, some might say. It is no coincidence that the first Preventive boat in Cornwall, in fact in the whole of England, was established here in 1801.
But by the time William Wilcocks was buried at Lansallos freetrading had been on the decline since a tragic incident involving a Polperro man in 1798. A Polperro man called Tom Potter had been tried at the Old Bailey and found guilty of murder after shooting a customs officer near Plymouth.
It was a shocking episode, perhaps especially so for the people of this little port since Potter was actually convicted because of the testimony of another Polperro smuggler, Robert Toms. After this betrayal Toms’ life was threatened and he was banished from the village forever. The smuggling trade that had flourished for decades because of the trust between those living in this isolated rural community was never the same again.
Old tales of ghosts and evil spirits were often created, told and retold, to keep nosey folks indoors at night or away from smuggler’s routes and hiding places. It is possible that the story of Willy Wilcox’s ghost is just one of these stories meant to keep us out of his cave. But these days, rather than scaring people away, it has become another evokative legend that only helps to draw us to picturesque Polperro.