Smuggling and Piracy in Pembrokeshire

By Simon Hancock ‘Black Bart.’ This Pembrokeshire-born pirate had a very successful career in which he captured around 400 prizes from the Americas to West Africa.

The coastline and inlets of Pembrokeshire are full of contrasts from the rugged limestone cliffs of the south coast to the wide expanses of sandy beaches like Newgale and the wooded and mysterious Daugleddau estuary appropriately known as the ‘secret waterway.’ Being on the south western tip of Wales, Pembrokeshire was far away from the eyes of national government which meant that the opportunities to import goods without paying tax, smuggling, were very great. Even from early medieval times there was a great deal of commerce going to and from Pembrokeshire thanks to the three main ports at Tenby, Pembroke and Haverfordwest. Early smuggling actually involved the export of illicit goods like corn and leather to Spain from Pembrokeshire which was illegal since a state of war existed between England and Spain.

The heyday of smuggling in Pembrokeshire occurred during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when continual wars against France saw a great increase in taxation not only on luxuries but also everyday items upon which people depended. Many of these items became out of reach and this explains why people were so keen to take advantage of smuggled goods. There were numerous locations around the Pembrokeshire coast where smugglers could land their cargoes in relative peace. Tobacco and brandy were especially prominent as smuggled goods. A smuggler’s passage led up from the beach into Manorbier Castle where the medieval building was honeycombed with places where casks could be stashed.  Boxes of spirits were sometimes said to be seen floating deep down in the castle well. In 1804 the tide surveyor of Tenby, a customs officer, found 47 ankers (an old–style measurement which roughly equates to modern gallons) of brandy at Manorbier. There was a smuggler’s cave at Lydstep Haven while near Llanunwas in the north there is a cave still known today as Ogof Tobacco.’

Norman castle was founded by the de Barri family but by the eighteenth century had been abandoned.

All sections of the community were often implicated in smuggling including the local gentry or clergy although the latter’s names never appeared before local justices on charges of receiving smuggled goods. Indeed Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous poem about smugglers which contained the line ‘brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk.’ Smuggling often involved violence since they were armed and those trying to track them down had to be similarly armed with pistols and sabres. In November 1801, John Campbell, Lord Cawdor, engaged a smuggling gang who had landed 100 casks of brandy on the beach at Freshwater East. He was knocked unconscious in the melee and could easily have been killed. A small fleet of Royal Navy revenue cutters were based at Milford Haven and these undertook regular patrols around the coast and up the River Cleddau. These ships were fast and well-armed so that they could easily outpace the luggers used by would-be smugglers. The cutters included the Diligence, Bat, Speedwell, Cheerful and Sea Gull. In 1804 the last-named vessel captured a large smuggling lugger called the Hope of Fowey which had 700 ankers of spirits on board.  Some years later, in 1815, the Bat captured a smuggler’s cutter named the Mary in Caldey Roads after a tremendous run.  Those who engaged in smuggling did so at great risk. In 1832 a well-known smuggler, William Truscott, was captured near St. Govan’s but he escaped. He was tracked down near the village of Hundleton at Bentlass and was shot and drowned in the river. 

This was a very popular after-dinner drink which was obtained by the distillation of wine.

Smugglers used the islands of Skomer and Skokholm to hide their contraband as well as ruined buildings near the coast. Solva was a known centre for smuggling where even the local Baptist chapel was lit using candles made of smuggled tallow. Some of the smuggled cargoes could be very large. In 1844 one local man was charged with importing 3,500 pounds of unmanufactured tobacco. Five years later 213 bags of tobacco were found hidden in a roof near the town of Fishguard. Salt, tea and malt, the latter used in brewing were also extensively smuggled in Pembrokeshire. Despite the harsh penalties for those caught, hanging, imprisonment or transportation to New South Wales, little seemed to deter smuggling since the financial rewards could be so great.

Pembrokeshire has also a rich history associated with piracy, especially given how two of the most famous pirates in history, Howell Davies and Bartholomew Roberts were born here in the late seventeenth century. Piracy was especially rampant during the Elizabethan period, so much so that the Queen appointed Commissioners to suppress it. In 1566 they compiled lists of all the harbours, creeks and settlements in the county, information which is priceless to later generations of historians. Dating from this time we also have largely complete port registers listing the names of ships, their owners, masters what cargoes they contained and their places of destination. Much of this inward and outward bound commerce would be very appealing to pirates who haunted the coast. One of the most notorious was John Callice who raided ships from the coast of Wales across the Mediterranean to the Barbary Coast of North Africa. Callice would brazenly sell his stolen cargo at Haverfordwest where he stayed at the one of one Roger Marcroft, an innkeeper.  He also stayed at the Old Point Hose inn at Angle kept by one George Clerk who was at the centre of a web of smuggling and piracy. Even local mayors were implicated in buying the illicit goods while Sir John Perrot of Carew Castle, a Vice-Admiral of south Wales was heavily involved, even resorting to abducting captains in order to receive a ‘reward’ of part of their cargoes.

Without doubt Pembrokeshire’s greatest connection to piracy rests with two only-too successful men who were born in the county before embarking on criminal careers which were conspicuous by their success. Howell Davies (c. 1690-1719) was born at Milford Haven and began his seafaring career on board a slave ship which was captured by pirates.  He joined them and soon became their captain, gaining a reputation for trickery and deception. He captured a total of 15 English and French ships and he grew rich in the process. He was killed in an ambush on the Portuguese island of Principe after a career which had lasted barely eleven months. 

Much more famous was the other Pembrokeshire-born pirate named Bartholomew Roberts or ‘Black Bart’. He was born at the village of Little Newcastle on 17 May 1682 and was second mate on the slave ship Princess which was captured by pirates led by Howell Davies. After the latter’s death Roberts took over command and his career in piracy took him all over the Caribbean and West Africa. Roberts eventually fell in battle against HMS Swallow in February 1722. His ship, the Royal Fortune and her crew were captured and the captain was buried at sea as he requested. Very few pirates died peacefully in their beds. Roberts is one of four actual pirate captains named in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) and he has come down to us as an image of the typical pirate captain dressed in extravagant clothing adorned with gold chains and precious stones.

 ‘Black Bart.’ This Pembrokeshire-born pirate had a very successful career in which he captured around 400 prizes from the Americas to West Africa.

There are numerous tales of smuggling and piracy around Pembrokeshire with the certainty that most of the stories will never be known.  Very occasionally an artifact or chance discovery gives us an insight into this largely hidden past.  Several years ago a solid chunk of pirate silver, one of the famous Pieces of Eight was found in a field near the village of Angle.It must have been dropped by a member of the crew of a ship which called into the Haven for water or provisions. We will always think about who lost it and of how this irregular shaped coin instantly transports us back to these dangerous if colourful times.

Piece of Eight


Categories:Pembrokeshire, History


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