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The Historical Cornish Environment—a land of Smugglers and Secrets …


A separate people. Throughout the early modern period, many Cornish people continued to regard Cornwall, not as an English county, but as a British country, called Kernow. … ‘

‘Physical isolation provides the key to Cornish history. A rocky peninsula, jutting out some 90 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, Cornwall stands at the extreme south-western corner of the British Isles. Surrounded by waves on all sides but one, it is practically severed from the adjoining lands to the east by the River Tamar, which runs almost from sea to sea. Although mediaeval Cornwall was – technically speaking – an English county just like any other, the culture of the ordinary Cornish people remained entirely different from that of their English neighbours. They still spoke in the Cornish tongue: a language, closely allied with Welsh. They still prided themselves on being descended from British ancestors, rather than Saxon ones. And, as late as the mid-16th century, they still possessed their own styles of dress, their own folklore, their own naming-customs, their own agricultural practices and their own games and pastimes.’

So the past economy of Cornwall might have been based on a range of industries, including metal mining, fishing, china clay production, wool cloth manufacture, quarrying and ship building. Indeed Cornwall’s rich mineral resources may certainly have been exploited on a large scale since medieval times and rows may rage today between surfers, environmentalists and those bent on lifting the tin tailings sitting on the sea bed to be used in gadgets like phones and computers, Cornwall is also known, historically for another ‘industry’. A sort of ‘cottage’ one in that rather a large number of its inhabitants were involved. And one that the landscape and environment lent itself to naturally. Smuggling.

But the location as described above, the fact the people saw themselves as different weren’t the only things to lend themselves to the trade. Parts of the actual coastline were very nicely placed for trips to France and the Scillies. Then there was the nature of the terrain, vast empty beaches, rocky caves, jutting headlands, little better than cart tracks for roads—and, as a quick glance at any map of Cornwall will show, quite a big expanse of moor sitting smack in the middle, while the inhabited bits cluster round the coast. It was nicely private all right.


At its peak, an estimated 500,000 gallons of French brandy per year were smuggled into Cornish coves. Smuggling has many stereotypes and these images often include a small group of men unloading barrels in the night. However, until the early 1800s it was a highly organized, well financed business that was run on very efficient lines.

Of course the reason for all this unhindered smuggling wasn’t just the highly organized locals, it was the weakness of the excisemen, although in their defence, the level of local support, the sheer organizational skills of those involved, which frequently included the clergy, the landowners, in fact, you name it, and the overwhelming numbers of those involved, made it quite impossible, even for the most dedicated exciseman, to police. So a lot went right on under their noses, in broad daylight.

“They were told that if they persisted in trying to make an arrest they would have their brains blown out. As the law now stands, I fear a criminal prosecution would have been useless for the reason, which it shocks me to mention, that a Cornish jury would certainly acquit the smugglers….These, my lord, are the facts.”

Did the tramp, tramp of smugglers’ feet, the alleged digging of tunnels from houses, damage the rock, the wild flowers, the beach grasses, the environment? I have no idea. But, since reading books set there and further along the south coast, I felt the ruggedness, the isolation, the sometimes crumbling decay of their own lives, that drove people into this world, might lend itself to a book someday. And it has. Finally. Set not only in Cornwall but at a point when the government was beginning to fight back and seriously crackdown by every means at their disposal.  I hope this book trailer roughly explains it.