Thursday, June 01, 2006

Devil's Prize

The background to my current work-in-progress, Devil's Prize, is smuggling in Cornwall in the late 1790s. The Cornish believed the government in London knew little and cared less about the grinding poverty in which they lived. In their opinion it was the natural right of every Cornishman to buy goods as cheaply as possible, and they had no intention of obeying laws against smuggling that were enforced by people given a share of the goods that were seized.

The strange object in the picture beside the pistol is a spout lantern. These were specially made for smugglers by local craftsmen. The long spout showed a pinpoint of light in only one direction. This made it ideal for signalling boats loaded with contraband.

It's been fascinating to discover that words and phrases we use now, often in a different context, were actually coined by smugglers and those determined to catch them.

The coast is clear is a term that originated with smugglers. So too is a flash in the pan which was the signal made by a special pistol to inform the captain of a smuggling boat that it was safe to land his cargo.

In the late 18th century smugglers used to wear leather seaboots that were thigh-high and wide at the top, ideal for hiding and bringing ashore contraband tobacco. Hence the term bootlegger.

Rummage originated with revenue men to describe their searches for hidden contraband.

Brandy was transported in tubs called half-ankers weighing roughly 50 lbs each. These were carried from beach to hiding place (or waiting pack-horses) by men strong enough to manage two at a time suspended from a short pole. But with such a burden they were vulnerable to attack. Protecting them was the job of batmen armed with staves and cudgels. Some occasionally carried a pistol, though being caught with a firearm while smuggling meant an automatic death sentence.

More next time.

Jane Jackson.
Dangerous Waters Pub. Robert Hale 2006. Available from


Eva said...

Thank you for the interesting post. There is something devilishly romantic about smuggling and the Cornish coast.

Would you happen to know a good internet website featuring information about firearms? I'm particularly interested in the early Victorian period.

Historical Romance Author said...

Hi Eva,

Sorry I can't help you. But you could try Googling "Antique firearms" Make sure you include "Antique" or you might find you are suddenly of great interest to the Home Office or various terrorist organisations!

Eva said...

Thanks for the tip. I shall be very specific when googling!

Stephen said...

Smuggling is a wonderful topic for historical fiction - particularly, as you point out, for the way it reflects social and moral attitudes of the day. Devil's Prize sounds like a fun read.

However, I'm afraid that some of those derivations are a little suspect. Flash in the pan comes from an occasional tendency with flintlock muskets for the charge of powder in the firing pan to detonate without setting off the main charge in the barrel. The result was a certain amount of noise, smoke and light, but no bullet going anywhere. It has no specific link to smuggling.

Before its use as a verb, rummage was a noun meaning the arrangement of a cargo - particularly casks - in the hold of a ship. The verb used to mean putting the cargo in good order before it changed into meaning to search the hold. That meaning was applied to the action of naval vessels seizing prizes for over 100 years before it became a term of art fot the revenue men.

The term bootlegger does indeed refer to people carrying contraband in their boots, but the word is not recorded before 1889, and then only in the US with rerence to liquor in places like Iowa and Oklahoma, where sea-boots are a rare sight.