Smuggling – Lyme Regis and Cornish Pilot Gigs

A gig is a light, fast narrow boat adapted for rowing or sailing. Ideal for smuggling.

Between 1780 and 1830, while most residents of Lyme Regis slept at night, another age-old maritime industry thrived. Lyme was a Revenue Services’s headquarters for the netoriously ‘bad’ coast between Burton Bradstock and Beer. Their cutters (fast little sailing-ships armed with small cannon, nothing like the naval rowboats of more recent times) lay in The Cobb, while riding officers patrolled the cliffs, looking for all sail and rowing gigs out of the south and also contacting the informers on whom their knowledge of ‘runs’ so often depended.

The chief picking-up places (even in the height of the Napoleonic Wars) were Cherbourg and Gernsey, and the usual method was not to bring contraband tobacco, brandy and silk straight on land, but to sink it offshore in weighted and water tight barrels, for later collection – when the coast was literally clear. Charlton Bay, two miles west of Lyme Regis and still one of the loneliest beaches, was a favourite landing-place, so popular that the Revenue Service had finally to establish a look-out post there.

The most famous local man was John Rattenbury of Beer, who married a Lyme girl in 1800 and often worked out of the town – and sometimes ran through it, chased by the press-gang! He was later nicknamed ‘The Rob Roy of the West’ and was almost universally admired for his daring and seamanship… and altruistic courage. He also worked as a pilot, and several times saved, in those days before a lifeboat service, ships in distress. On one occasion he was summoned to the House of Lords to give technical evidence about the coast before an inquiry. Their lordships greatly liked his profound practical knowledge and bluff humour. But old leopards do not change heir spots. A week or two after this moment of respectable glory, Rattendury was back on the Cherbourg run. His Memoirs, ghosted at the end of his life, remain a classic of smuggling literature.

Professional smuggling continued until at least 1867, when Coastguard Confidential Orders Book demands a sharp watch be kept for the ketch Your Name of Lyme. The master, Abraham Cox, is called ‘a notorious smuggler’. The Your Name collected many stories. On one occasion she turned up at Plymouth Docks with only half a cargo of limestone that she was supposed to be carrying. The crew duly weighed out half the load on the quayside; returning in the middle of the night and loaded it all back in the hold; then weighed it all out again the next morning…and so satisfied the manifest. Her crew were not always volunteers; a favourite trick was to make innocents very drunk in The Cobb Arms. When they woke up, they would find themselves far out to sea, and with no choice about their work for the next few days or weeks.

During the early 1800’s there was an extensive crack down on smuggling in the South West. More controband was thought to be landing in Cornwall than in London! As well as in Lyme, hundreds of coastguard ships and men were stationed along the coast and anyone caught smuggling risked fines, their boats destroyed or eviction from their homes. All the letters and documents of smuggling offences of Scilly have mysteriously disappeared from the customs records but for a few accounts. In 1828 the gig Jolly of St Mary’s and Venus of Bryher are recorded as being ‘forbidden to put to sea’ due to repeated smuggling offences. In 1831 a coastguard’s report reads ‘We believe that smuggling on these coasts are carried out by very small boats…the method being to fasten the kegs of spirit to rope to which stones are attached that they may readily sunk in the sea on the least appearance of danger…the operation of disembarking from the boat of it’s cargo being but the work of a few minutes. The consiquence is that the boats are invariably found empty’. (extract from Gigs & Cutters of the Isles of Scilly by A J Jenkins, GigRower Magazine and John Fowles)